A fashion export consultant, public speaker and personal transformation coach, Olori Boye-Ajayi is the Co-founder of the Ark Coaching Company, which aims at making ‘made-in-Africa’ renowned by connecting local designers to the global market. She is also the founder of the ROC Girls Club and the Unplugged Network, which hosts the Secret Garden Retreats for Women. She also hosts the Be More with Olori podcast and the Olori Ajayi YouTube Channel, where she engages her audience about discovering, exploring and growing in faith, business, career and relationships. She’s currently pioneering West Africa’s first Industrial Garment Manufacturing Park, as well as the first Fashion Truck in the sub-region, Fashion On Wheels. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about her upcoming Pan-African Virtual Fix-It conference and how Africa’s fashion can penetrate global retail chains.
You started your business with just $89, which has today grown into a multi-million Naira business today, how did you pull that off?
Let me start by saying $89 then was a little less than N30, 000. The things I did can be done by anyone in business, who educates herself on how to multiply money; owning a business and knowing how to multiply money are two different things. I find that most entrepreneurs I speak to are not taught how to do both. When you come out of school and want to successfully run a business, you must go back and school yourself on the basics of money; its management and how to multiply it. I took myself through structured programmes and reading routines on money mastery and multiplication; what you don’t master, you become a servant to. After that, I started to put into practice the principles I learned, the principle of desire, persistence, imagination, knowing when and what to invest, extraordinary generosity and so many more. I wasn’t surprised when the money started to grow; some things are unseen, but present even in business.
As a global fashion expert operating in four continents, how would you describe the African fashion industry?
In my opinion, I believe Africa’s rising fashion industry is ripe for greater penetration into global retail chains, not just as souvenir fashion or niche market; we’re ready for fast fashion. Our creative industries offer massive potential for continent-wide job and GDP growth and in recent years, no other sector has done this after the agric sector. In some African countries, the private sector has shown avid interest by investing heavily via banks and other trust funds to offer funding to the SMEs operating in that space. This is good news, but we’re still lacking key structural transformation that brings about industrialisation. Presently, Africa currently accounts for just 1.9 percent of global manufacturing; that figure can be improved if we have the infrastructure to compete in manufacturing globally. Though, I’m looking at things differently post-COVID-19 and maybe encourage more intra-trade. Whatever the case, there’s an urgent need for Africa to rapidly industrialise and add value to everything that it produces. For example, instead of exporting raw cotton, we need to position for the top of the global value chain and produce apparel targeted at the growing African and global consumer class.
It’s no secret that this industry has been heavily hit by this pandemic, how can it rebound?
Every industry has been hit heavily by this pandemic, some more than others. I would like to answer this question with a question. For those in the fashion industry or manufacturing space, whether big or small, you will have to ask yourself a series of hard questions: What does the market need at this time, list them (domestic and international markets)? Can I supply what the market needs now? If not, how do I upgrade my current business operations to do so? Can I collaborate with other businesses in my space to deliver large supplies of what countries, communities are running short of and manufacture it so my factory is not idle? How do I tap into my creative juices to deliver a futurist approach in creating my designs now that facemask is a fashion accessory? Many celebrity fashion designers have got attention from international headlines like the Washington post for re-thinking and claiming that protective gear could have some glamour. Where else in the global marketplace can my current product offering thrive? Think digital, think e-commerce; think your own online marketplace/store. Where are those, who are still having reasonably high spending power? Will my product meet their needs?
My two cents, go back to the drawing board and revisit your 2020 plans and beyond with a non-sentimental approach. Come out of a business retreat with yourself and then your team with a plan that prepares your business as though we’re never going back to what life used to be.
The global fashion industry is a multibillion-dollar one, which Nigeria hasn’t yet tapped into. How can we change that?
Regional and continental policies need to support the creative industries in order for them to grow into viable economic sectors; I cannot bypass this to get to another point. We need more government and maybe more private sector interventions. Currently, a reliable, high-quality supply chain is currently non-existent in Africa, where a lot of inputs are still being sourced from abroad, despite our natural resources. Strategic support from the government, private sector and investment in local manufacturers may allow African producers to enter regional, continent-wide and global supply chains. I won’t leave everything to the government on this question though. I believe Nigeria has received increased attention globally within the last 2-3years with yearly events such as Lagos Fashion Week, GTB Fashion Week, with our designers making headlines. But there’s an urgent need for us to present the fashion industry as cohesive, not as disengaged and fragmented. It’s 2020 and there’s no African Fashion Council. By now, we should have a council with a headquarters in our African fashion capital where we can pump money into a state-of-the-art automated manufacturing plant. The existence of regional councils like West Africa Fashion Council can only mitigate so much of our continent-wide issues.
The British Fashion Council has closed the gap in what the government has been able to take on; we must learn that as well. In our case, we have to show our government that the fashion industry is one of its fastest-growing sectors and it plays a major role in economic transformation. All stakeholders must be held accountable and responsible; the industry players, the economy it operates and contributes to and those milking it at its infancy phase by exporting its products in exchange for peanuts.
How do you intend to connect and create opportunities for our local designers in Africa with the global market?
We started helping local artisans as far back as 2016. Then, I would load my bags with samples of different items by nothing less than 8-10 local artisans in fashion items ranging from womenswear, menswear and childrenswear. With my inexperience, I would book a ticket, hotel and visit stores abroad showing their buying team or staff, the ultra-chic, unique designs and quality hand-made products made by women and young people from Lagos. I know a lot more on the proper way to export, but some bought into them and placed large orders, while others said, “sorry, this isn’t for us”.
As orders started to come in, I assembled them all under Katie Wang as manufacturers where we formalised everything and now we work so well together; we’re like family because we all know how it started. I took a chance on them; they took a chance on me. Now, things are much different; we operate with different retail business owners and now, the government in manufacturing. We intend to get more manufacturers export ready-made outfits through the Borderless Trade Masterclass Series.
How can we get more people, especially elites to key into Buy Nigeria, especially at this time?
That’s simple – just buy. I find it disheartening when we have to campaign to make our own people support indigenous designs/brands. We will have a shortage of imports with border lockdown and restricted movement of goods. So, we will have to look inwards if not now, then most certainly in the not-so-distant future.
As an experienced player in this industry, what are the challenges of the industry and what do you think can be done?
As I explained earlier, all stakeholders must identify their part in growing the industry and commit to structural reformations. Stakeholders shouldn’t be chased to do their job because it means they don’t understand. Unless they fix the challenges assigned to them, other problem areas will have little or no improvement. Secondly, we must take ownership of the quality and standard we produce for the domestic and international markets. In many cases, the reason local brands don’t receive as much as patronage is because of ‘what I ordered vs. what I got.’ This trend may seem funny at first, but it poses a larger and far more negative narrative and impact for Nigeria. Some Nigerian brands and designers have worked so hard to put Nigeria on the map; they shouldn’t get dragged into such. The media can help by amplifying and drowning out as much as possible the noise from such trends that discredit ‘made in Nigeria’ fashion.
You pioneered the first Industrial Garment Manufacturing Park as well as the first Fashion Truck in West Africa, could you tell us more about these platforms?
The creative industries offer massive potential for continent-wide job and GDP growth. However, we cannot achieve this potential without competitive infrastructures such as industrial parks, export processing zones, functional seaports, railway lines and airports. The industrial park is one thing we want to pioneer to fully compete on a global scale. Ideally, the industrial park will be situated in one of the six special economic zones (SEZ’s) mapped out by the government and divided into cotton-textile zone, garment manufacturing and leather processing, and of course, a dedicated export processing zone. But for this to work, there are infrastructure linkages needed such as the ports and logistics functions that are currently almost non-existent. To be honest, I’ve had a rethink on going too far with these challenges on linkages and considering encouraging internal consumption and intra-trade; 1.2billion market size is massive.
As an entrepreneur in Nigeria, what are some issues you have faced and how did you overcome them?
Being an entrepreneur anywhere is challenging, but it’s the entrepreneur that determines his/her response to these challenges; they are everywhere. For me, it’s the frustration of the many issues within the fashion industry I mentioned earlier, plus the lack of an enabling business environment.
How much have you done in the area of women empowerment through fashion?
Empowering women has always been very dear to me; I don’t know whether it’s because I am a woman, I understand some of the particular challenges we face. I have different platforms where I hold business workshops for women (online and offline); it’s a structured setting on the Business of Fashion over six weeks, which I fund myself. I have helped the US Consulate on a few occasions in their women-led initiatives, which is always so much fun and rewarding with success stories following. I invest in women-led businesses that specialise in social impact across Africa and I mentor young girls in public Secondary Schools in Lagos, which I truly love. I also run an online network for fashion business owners predominately women, which has a membership of close to 350 people, where I share opportunities for export, training on business development, leadership training and so on.
How can we use business as a tool for social change and nation-building in Nigeria and Africa I general?
Each business can decide to push one mission of the greater good for Africa forward. Each business contributing its part to the common good is how we arrive at change. No business can lead a change it doesn’t carry others along on.
As co-founder and COO of The Ark Coaching Company, what does your work entail?
The Ark Coaching Company is one of the expressions heavy on my heart for Africa. African men and women need to understand their individual roles and contribution through their work or businesses and we want to walk Africans through that process of identification and execution. We can’t keep having two out of every 10,000 people leading the way and the gap is too wide; we can close the gap through proper coaching and a development mindset. My role is simple; get people into The Ark.
What’s the idea behind One Per Cent Club?
The 1 Per Cent Club is the game changer; it’s a close-knit mastermind that allows people to deal with life and business matters that arise or embedded in foundational conditioning, through a tried-and-tested process. It’s a multi-level programme that helps its members peel their layers of greatness one at a time over a period of time with expert coaches who have results both home and abroad; no overnight success mantra here.
Your virtual conference, The Fix-it Conference is coming up, what can attendees look forward to?
You will finally get to see how what you do fits into the agenda for Africa’s development and rising. Most people already feel this sense of responsibility and tug in their heart towards a lot of the social, economic and political issues in the different regions of Africa; it’s time to rise. The conference will navigate participants on how to restructure their personal economy following this global pandemic and then start to develop the blueprints long-awaited for personal contributions to Africa, that’s why it’s a pan-African virtual conference.
You say you are passionate about helping and developing young girls, how are you achieving this?
Through the International Visitors Leadership Programme (IVLP) Alumni; I was nominated for the IVLP by the US State Department for the ‘Women in Business II’ programme in 2018. After the completion of the programme, the alumni decided that we pay it forward and so, we set up the IVLP Alumni Mentoring programme. The aim of the project is to build up public secondary school students in Lagos as change ambassadors through leadership mentoring.
You are also the brains behind the Unplugged Network, what is it all about?
That’s a special part of my life I don’t get to show all the time, but it’s a faith-based community that helps people re-discover and explore their faith for bigger things, not mundane things people use their faith for. We hold regular meetings for women only; men only in retreat forms. But recently, we had to move everything online but it works out great because we have amazing people listening in from different parts of the world.
How can we get more women to become successful and rise to the top as you have done?
I’ll give it to men as well because it’s an ecosystem. Work on your mind before your business; your business thrives and grows to the degree that you do. Before you spend N50, 000 on a bag, spend N40, 000 out of it on expanding your mind, developing capacity, critical thinking and being a visionary for this continent.
You wear so many hats, how do you combine everything and make them work?
I’m also an author; I just wrote a book for the industry called Borderless Trade. It’s a step-by-step guide for exporting your products. A lot of businesses across the agriculture, fashion and other fast-moving consumer goods value chain can begin to expect larger order with the inward local surge upon us. So, how do I wear so many hats? I see it as one expression, to be honest, living a life of impact, whether to my children or to the women in my network. It’s one assignment, so I don’t see it as many hats. I found a way to do what I’m called to do in different ways for different people and I love it. Time is really of the essence for me; every minute counts.
Where do you receive inspiration, how do you stay motivated when things aren’t going the way you want?
One word with no explanation, God.
What really turned your career around positively?
I invested in my brain and mind when I realised I was restless and moving around in circles. I was stuck, yet I seemed to have a perfect life. But I knew I wanted so much more than the results I was getting at the time. I guess it was my expressions calling out for me; I answered to many when I knew how to get to them and that was with the help of my coach, she’s like a midwife; she helps birth what’s on your inside.