For every growth, there comes a challenge to deal with. The same is true of Nigerian footwear entrepreneurs.
By Toun Odetola
We had gone over it again and again.
“Make the patterns mirror each other”, I said. He bobbed his head vigorously.
“Let them look like a perfect pair,” I said. He nodded again.
I showed him how to cut the patterns. He said he understood. He made a perfect sample. I was glad.
Now, here I was two days after. Staring at 2 dozen pairs of horribly mismatched Ankara slippers; because I didn’t show up to monitor his work for one day.
This scenario has been narrated in one form or the other by a number of Nigerian footwear entrepreneurs and designers I have on my platform. Lack of adequately skilled artisans is a major issue that makes being a footwear designer in Nigeria difficult. While artisans might be good enough at the construction of a basic pair of shoes, the intricate detailing that separates a good pair from an amazing pair completely eludes them. And when you find that one, amazing artisan that totally gets what you want, he disappears without notice when you least expect it. No loyalty.
The footwear industry in Nigeria is very promising. The new generation of consumers has evolved from treating Made-In-Nigeria products as an indication of poor taste, to actually embracing the audacity of a local designer to defy the hardships set against them. This has emboldened many closet creatives to follow their passion, diving head first into the sea of problems that is being an entrepreneur in Nigeria.
However, they remain plagued by the singular, most depressing issue of power deficit. Poor power supply slows down productivity considerably and is mentally draining. Using alternatives throws production costs off the charts. I have had experiences of shoemakers waking up in the middle of the night when ‘light comes’ to continue production. I have also learned that the quality of anything produced by a sleepy laborer is terrible.
Then there is the problem of unavailable raw materials. Damilola Unuigbe, Creative Director at Issa & Kendi (they make the cutest jeweled mules), once said that ”The quality of materials from local suppliers is never consistent. Materials and tools can be good one month, and be absolutely terrible the next”. This makes planning your production schedule extremely frustrating. An accessory that is the main material in your design range could disappear from the market for months, resurfacing when you have convinced yourself that the design wasn’t that great anyway.
Going further down the (very) long list of problems shared by my community of designers, lack of equipment is repeated a lot. Very creative concepts get trashed because it is impossible to use the available equipment to execute it properly. Some designers of high-heeled or non-regular shoes resort to outsourcing their production to companies in Turkey, Lisbon, Italy or China. This waters down the ‘Proudly Nigerian’ mantra that got them started in the first place. One would attempt to purchase these machines, but again, there are no skilled operators. And there’s the next huge problem: Funding.
We need to buy machines, materials, package, advertise, deliver… but there’s barely enough funds to pay workers. Bank loans are difficult and expensive to source. Fortunately, the government has actively begun providing cheaper funding options for SMEs. Non-profit organizations and philanthropists are also supporting young businesses. It will be worth exploring platforms like LSETF, BOI, NACC (just search on Google with the acronyms, the full names will pop-out) for updates on low-cost loans, business grants, and other opportunities.
Finally, after putting in all that hard work, a creative person would like to rest. But then, who is going to sell all those shoes he has piled up. Production and distribution require 2 different personality traits that many individuals find difficult to mix. Due to limited funding and the unwillingness to be stuck with a huge inventory of shoes that might be difficult to sell, many Nigerian footwear manufacturers will prefer to produce only when they receive requests. They don’t maximize the production process to create as many pairs of shoes as their team can roll-out. This makes it difficult to take advantage of economies of scale and ultimately limits the business’s growth potential. Thankfully, platforms like MadeInNaija fair and Lagos Leather Fair provide periodic promotion opportunities. However, there is a need for more consistent channels of distribution that have templates like American and European footwear retail giants e.g. DSW and Footlocker to assist with pushing sales of the product.
While the challenges are daunting, they are also opportunities for investors and innovators to develop solutions out of the norm and open up the market further. The government’s role cannot be slighted but private bodies may be able to proffer quicker solutions.
To every owner of a Proudly Made In Nigeria pair of shoes: thank you for the appreciation of the hard work that goes into your lovingly handcrafted (pun intended, there are no machines) footwear. We hope they take your feet to beautiful places.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read more articles.