Born during the civil war in South-West Nigeria, one has fond memories of growing up in Ile-Ife, Abeokuta and then Lagos. Our late father was a specialist doctor with the then Western region. After serving in the West he went on to the CMUL Idi-Araba. My father was the first generation who got overseas education in his lineage but our late mother was third generation.
That notwithstanding, from a very early age we were given the best opportunity in education that Nigeria had to offer, and at the same time with overseas travel as the opportunity came.
Our father was an obstetrician and Gynecologist who had frequent trips to various parts of the world to attend conferences; so sometimes we had the opportunity to accompany him.
In hindsight, it was quite clear I was entrepreneurial . I am not exactly sure which line this came from as both parents indirectly had family signs of entrepreneurship.
One thing that was clear in our upbringing is that we were Nigerians and our parents didn’t make any apologies about who we were but made sure the best was brought out of each of us.
Finishing medical school in the late eighties, most of my colleagues had decided to look for greener pastures outside Nigeria as we had already started to see the infrastructure decay. If I had stayed in medicine my interest would have been in research but unfortunately Nigeria had started its hasty decline .
Soon after medical school, I started my first enterprise which was making clothes. This started with another classmate and friend who now is a consultant psychiatrist in the UK. We made clothes using imported cotton to make casual wear which we sold through Quintessence — one of the most preferred shops in Lagos which showcased a lot of high quality locally made products. They also had high quality imported items for sale. This was a shop I couldn’t dream of shopping in at that time.
Years later the management at Quintessence told us they thought we lied about the clothes being made locally that we imported them and put in our labels.
Soon after, we felt this might not lead us into the export market as we had big dreams being young budding manufacturers so we then switched to using our local fabrics. Our late mother used Adiire, Ankara etc to make bed covers, curtains at home so we were very well exposed to this from an early age. The customer acceptance to this was beyond imagination.
The operation grew very quickly and at the height of it we had about 30 tailors and did export to Ghana, Kenya, United Kingdom and the United States especially during the summer months.
One of the highpoints was when the wife of the then High Commissioner of South Africa, Phumle Nene, organized a trade trip to Cape Town, the fashion capital of South Africa to see if we could sell our clothes in the chain stores. Unfortunately, we did not have the capacity to meet their expectations and moreso, we did not have who to reach out to, to scale up our production.
Soon after, I felt it would be advisable to move away from the rag trade as the big challenge was that there were no large off takers in Nigeria (departmental stores) who could guarantee taking 70 percent of our production. The lesson I learnt was that at some point, scale is imperative to growth. Years after, it is interesting to see Nigerians desiring of South African brands!!! Had we been supported we might have had that one up on them.
Anyway, I am happy for farmers in Nigeria now that Shoprite/Spar are able to help them take a good percentage of their produce which means they are focused on the core business which is farming.
At this stage, I had moved on to home décor production using local fabrics and Arts and Crafts from Nigeria and the continent. I traveled extensively for 15years around the continent bringing the best of Africa to our stores. It was interesting meeting people and making lasting friendships. Most were always surprised that a Nigerian had an interest in this trade usually reserved for the
I have always been a manufacturer as I always felt that we needed to continue to build local capacity. Many times, it could mean training staff abroad or bringing trainers here. Our first staff was trained in Ghana about 25 years ago, and till date we have trained over 30 staff in South Africa in different skill sets.
We have also employed labour from around the world to transfer skill. The need for skill to be owned by our business has been germane even sometimes when there is a risk of your staff leaving your establishment.
Nonetheless I feel that if I had listened to my fears I wouldn’t be where we are today.
The challenges of doing business in Nigeria are not particularly different to what obtain in other developing nations but I guess what makes us peculiar is lack of foresight to make us as a people become self-reliant.
It is always easier to import but at the end of the day, what is the net value to Nigeria. I have had the privilege of visiting factories across Asia, Africa and I have been fascinated that a lot of the infrastructure I have seen are not particularly fanciful or complex but the skill and commitment to perfection is what makes those companies export world class products.
There is also a commitment to themselves that they do not want to be dependent on imports.
In more recent years I have been fascinated by all the big industry players/Government not realizing that importation will lead to perpetual
enslavement as trade is a war only fought without arms !
I have no significant regrets but more disappointments that after almost 60 years of independence we still grapple with a lot of issues we should have left behind. It is not possible to build a nation if we do not desire to pay for it.
Nation building is not wishful thinking. It has never been and will never be. It is a challenging road but the destination is worth the journey. The so called elite Nigerians have to rediscover self-confidence and not over confidence, they have to discard arrogance and ignorance for knowledge of long term nation building. The entity called Nigeria must mean first among equals in our desires, thoughts and actions.
Corruption which has gone beyond endemic must be routed. We are yet to see the worst of it if we continue along this road to perdition.
We need to invest in Education. This is very critical as it infuses us with the confidence to take the world on. It must be qualitative and not quantitative.
I would like to thank God for allowing me to take on a road less traveled.
My wife Ayesha and family for their support in this difficult journey.
My teachers too many to mention but permit me to name a few: Mrs. Fafowora
Staff School UNILAG, Rev Okunola ISI,UI, Prof (Mrs) J. Ajuluckukwu, Prof. C. Bode CMUL Idi-Araba. Indeed you have reaffirmed in me that investment must be made before the harvest is received.
Late Mrs Olga Miller, whose support in the early days ensured that we didn’t fail.
Mr. Naz Khan, Naz fabrics Johannesburg, South Africa. You consistently have held me under your wings to open doors to factories. I only need to ask! To the hundreds of Nigerians who I have been privilege to work with over the years, it has been challenging but it has been rewarding to me.
If I could do it again, my investment would only be in you.
I pray that when my son turns 50, Nigeria would be a country in which its value would be in its people and not in its natural resources.
Akinkugbe is CEO of Tangereen/Colours in Africa