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‘Having positive attitude to life makes a big difference’

By Ngozi Egenuka
09 January 2021   |   4:20 am
From a young age, I have always been excited about arts and culture. Today, it’s a privilege to be an artist in Nigeria. I worked in a financial institution for a few years before I relocated to Nigeria.

Tola Akerele is an award-winning interior designer with passion for African arts and culture. She is the founder of iDESIGN Art, which allows both up and coming, established artists sell and showcase their work to the public. Akerele is also the co-founder of Bogobiri House and Founder of Orishirishi Kitchen, an Afrocentric cultural melting pot for art lovers of art, music, food and culture.

A graduate of Economics and Politics, from Bristol University, she is a qualified accountant (CIMA) and spent a few years working in Investment Banking before returning to Nigeria in 2003. She was trained as an interior designer at Parsons School of Design, New York in 2006 and KLC School of Design, London in 2009. She sits on the Board of Interior Designers Association of Nigeria (IDAN).

In this interview with NGOZI EGENUKA, she spoke about her world of interior designing, arts and her African inspired cookbook.

With diverse knowledge and expertise, take us through your journey?
From a young age, I have always been excited about arts and culture. Today, it’s a privilege to be an artist in Nigeria. I worked in a financial institution for a few years before I relocated to Nigeria. This gave me an opportunity to focus my passion and energy in the arts sector, with Bogobiri as the first step.

What endeared you to contemporary residential and commercial spaces as your core focus in interior designing?
Interior design is about creating spaces that enhance functionalities of our home and workspaces. For instance, the home is such an integral part of life and we at iDESIGN enjoy creating homes that are not only functional, but actually reflect the personality of the people that lives there. This is why personal branding is a core factor in every home; same with commercial spaces. We also ensure that the commercial branding is central to the designs we propose.

What is your experience in running three businesses concurrently in Nigeria?
Running a business in Nigeria is certainly challenging, but it also comes with a lot of opportunities. I am fortunate that the businesses I manage are related and this makes it much easier to multitask. I think there are obvious challenges of running a business in this environment, especially in the hospitality space, where your operational cost can be quite high.

It’s particularly challenging for us because we are very much about cultural inclusion for everyone, regardless of social standing. Hence, we often have a hard time balancing the rising cost of operations with maintaining affordability for our customers so that the ‘Bogobiri Experience’ stays accessible to all. One thing that has made it easier across the various businesses is having good people to work with. We invest in training, which has greatly improved our staff retention ratio. We have been particularly fortunate to get very committed staff across all three businesses.

How have you managed to stay afloat amid COVID-19 pandemic?
It was a challenging time; we have had to do a lot of pivoting, particularly with Bogobiri. Due to the fact that a large percentage of our clients come from outside Nigeria, the pandemic brought a dramatic decline in our lodging inflow. We thus had to create more services and activities to attract more of our local customer base. For one, we now offer staycation packages with a focus on art, music, rest and relaxation. The packages offer art classes, live music sessions and massages from our in-house Spa. This shift has been successful in keeping the business afloat. We have also redesigned the hotel to bring it in line with COVID-19 guidelines.

For Orishirishi Kitchen, we were fortunate to have already garnered a strong customer base that regularly patronised the takeaway food business before COVID-19 began. This kept things stable, as we have been able to continually provide a variety of food options to our customers for delivery.

The interior design industry bounced back relatively quickly after the lockdown. So, while iDESIGN was affected due to postponed projects, we are gradually picking up momentum and our goals are being realised.

With 10 years in business, how would you rate the creative industry?
I have seen huge strides in the Nigerian creative industry, but we can still do more. There is no cohesive agenda for the country with regard to this sector. We see people or groups in each industry working hard to promote their respective platforms. Nigeria is blessed with creative people; there should be formal recognition.

Investments and grants should be readily available to allow increased honing of creative talents. There has been sporadic recognition here and there, that Nigeria could be a global powerhouse within the creative industries, but it has not been consistent. We can see a significant rise in global appreciation of Nigerian fashion, music and art. The music space, for instance, has been phenomenal. How amazing would be it be for Nigeria, if there were deliberate structures and a conducive environment for success in the creative industry.

You have attained notable heights due to your expertise in design; tell us more about your exploits?
We have been in the industry for a few years. We have had some amazing clients and honestly, we have really been able to grow on referrals. The clients we started with a few years ago working on their apartments are now owners of companies and businesses; they always remember us in any projects they are involved with.

One of the things I love about our work is that we have adapted it to different parts of the country. We have also worked in the East and North of Nigeria. Travelling to other parts of Nigeria has exposed me to many fascinating cultures outside of Lagos. These experiences have been thrilling.

What do you enjoy most about designing?
I enjoy the whole process; from meeting the client to creating, obtaining a brief for the concept, implementing it and then handing over the completed space to the client. It is deeply satisfying seeing projects through to the end, with the result that excites the clients and spaces transformed. I would like to add that I have a great team of designers and project managers, who are always on top of the game and continually, help to create stunning concepts.

You recently published a cookbook, Orishirishi, tell us about it?
The Orishirishi cookbook shares selected recipes from the Orishirishi Kitchen at Bogobiri House. It was borne out of a passion to share traditional Nigerian food from all regions for local and international visitors to Bogobiri House. I really wanted to document these wonderful dishes in a book in the context of Nigerian culture.

It is a comprehensive guide to Nigerian cuisine, infusing the quirks and tips required to prepare some of the finest delicacies out of Africa. Not only does it take you on a journey of discovery, it opens you up to the Nigerian culture vastly expressed through food. I think it is especially relevant to people in the Diaspora who are either looking to connect with their roots or are simply fascinated by Nigerian meals. I wrote and designed it with the aim of celebrating our rich diversity, featuring a stunning array of imagery that will inspire you to try out that recipe you have always wanted.

What keeps you going?
Owning a business means employing and empowering people, especially young people. Being able to wake up every morning excited about going to work is really satisfying. My ability to interact with people culturally across the hospitality industry combined with interior design projects has helped shape my path. Also, I have been fortunate to work with great teams across the various businesses. It’s also about helping them reach their goals as well.

How can more women live their dreams?
Having a positive attitude to life makes a big difference. You need to believe in yourself; women are not that great at blowing their own trumpets. Learn to blow your own trumpet! We also need to be able to decipher through all the noise of living in Lagos. You need to surround yourself with people who are as focused as you are, willing to share information and ideas to help each other grow. Also, having a faith keeps you awakened to what is important and the way you see and value yourself and others. Be thankful and grateful always.

How do you combine work with managing your home?
I am fortunate to have a good support system at home and at work. I have good help at home and a great assistant in the office. This definitely eases the burden of what needs to be done on a daily basis. Having a super supportive husband is also a great help. I also try and allocate my time properly, so, when I am at work, I really make the best use of the time I have. When I am at home, I put work away and focus on family time.

What is your life philosophy?
I generally look at life from the perspective of the glass, being half full rather than half empty. So, usually, from a place of optimism and a can-do attitude, much to the annoyance to those around me, I do really believe with God, all things are possible. So, this very much underpins my life philosophy.