‘We can begin to unravel the enormous potential of our billion-dollar leather industry’
A recent 2019 report has revealed that Nigeria’s leather industry is projected to generate up to $1 billion by 2025. As the nation seeks to diversify its source of economic growth beyond oil exports, Femi Olayebi, an award-winning handbag designer, trainer, mentor and creative brain behind the eponymous FemiHandbags brand through the Lagos Leather Fair, has created a platform to contribute to driving the enormous potential of the leather industry. Olayebi started with making a baby bag for her first baby in 1992. She navigated the design and manufacturing territory, experimenting with the resources at her disposal. In 2008, she became a Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women scholar, and was nominated to attend programmes in the United States twice, where she shadowed some of the world’s most famous handbag designers. In 2010, she participated in her first international handbag show at Pure London; and in 2012, her business became a case study for MBA students at the Lagos Business School. In 2017, she established the Lagos Leather Fair- a platform to bring together leather designers and other key stakeholders along the leather value chain, to drive awareness, partnerships, and investment in the industry. In 2018, Femi Handbags showcased its Autumn/Winter Collection at London Fashion Week. In this interview with GuardianWoman, she talks about how she started her brand, challenges in the leather industry and the upcoming Lagos Leather Fair.
Tell us about the brand FemiHandbags, why handbags and how did it come to be?
I believe handbags found me! In 1992, I established my company, My World of Bags, the parent company of FemiHandbags. When I was expecting my first baby, and naturally needed to buy a baby bag. However, when I went looking for one, I found that they were all quite dull and uninteresting, so I decided to buy some fabric and make my own. My friends were quite taken by it, and began to place orders. Before long, I hired my first tailor, and then a few more as the orders increased, and as they say, the rest is history. I started out using different types of fabric as medium for all my creations, but one of the many memorable moments would be sitting with Duro Olowu, a British-born Nigerian designer who dressed the likes of Michelle Obama, sit down with me for a couple of hours in 2010 when I had been selected to take part in Pure London, and did not quite know how to go about it. He encouraged me to transition from fabric and synthetic leather to real leather, and more importantly use my name to brand my bags. This transition is what brought about the name FemiHandbags.
How do you manufacture these bags? Do you have a factory here in Nigeria?
The entire manufacturing process, right from conceptualisation to production of each and every bag occurs in my factory in Ibadan. I started with a sewing machine in my spare room over 25 years ago, and slowly and gradually progressed through the years from there to my garage, then to my boys quarters, then to the chalet at the back of my house and finally to my dream space this year, an open-plan design and manufacturing space which has quickly become our creative oasis.
How do you source for your production materials, do you import or are they all made in Nigeria?
This varies, we source from one or two suppliers from Mushin market in Lagos, but mostly get our leathers from our trusted suppliers in the UK and Italy. However, the local market has proven inadequate as, a lot of the time, we are unable to get the exact colour or texture we require, and in the required quantities for a certain style. Our tanneries get more value for money from shipping their semi-processed hides and skins abroad, than they would, selling in the country for the reason that there are not enough of us to purchase their minimum quantity orders. We are also obliged to import all our hardware and accessories, as we do not find the desired level of quality here. However, I believe this is as a function of underestimating the fast-paced growth and demand of the needs of the industry and the volume of entrepreneurs playing in that space. This is one of the challenges that we are currently hoping to tackle through the Lagos Leather Fair, bringing as many participants across the leather industry’s value chain together to implement solutions that make it easier to access what is ultimately produced in our backyard in a mutually-beneficial manner.
Tell us about the Lagos Leather Fair, what was the drive behind the initiative?
The fair was a personal decision made after operating in the difficult landscape for so many years and not seeing any positive changes or improvements in the industry. So basically, I believe it was an intentional decision to stop complaining and do whatever I could in my little corner to fix what I could. There was no other such platform where players in the leather industry could showcase their products anyway, so it was easy to sell the idea, and it was also an opportunity to bring together industry leaders, decision-makers, investors, and the general public, and use the platform to increase awareness of that ecosystem and advance the leather conversation. I felt that Nigeria as a nation of 200 million people could begin to unravel the enormous potential of this billion-dollar industry and make their mark on the global map.
Tell us about the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Programme, how did you come to participate in that?
In 2008, I received the Goldman Sachs “10,000 Women” Scholarship and, for the first time ever, acquired some much needed entrepreneurial skills and gained a whole lot of knowledge on how to properly run my business. This took place at what is now the Enterprise Development Centre run by Mr. Peter Bamkole. It was the first time that I would actually learn very basic business concepts and understand that success could not be achieved through creativity alone. The programme helped to broaden my mind, improve my decision-making abilities, and served as fantastic preparation for all that was to follow. The following year, the Head of Corporate Engagement of Goldman Sachs nominated me to participate in the joint Fortune 500, Vital Voices and Most Powerful Women in America Mentoring Programme in New York. There, I had the opportunity of job-shadowing Lauren Merkin, an American handbag designer, working briefly in an American bag-making factory, and visiting the official headquarters of Marc Jacobs. And from there, it was new doors opening at every turn.
As a brand that has gone international, what are the parameters for quality control?
We have always benchmarked our brand against our favourite international brands, and are therefore very particular about high standards and about exceeding customer expectations. A lot of people find it hard to believe that the bags are made here, and in Ibadan for that matter! We are constantly improving on our processes, and work hard at ensuring that the quality of products that leave our workspace are top-notch. We perfect our samples and ensure we have the sizing, accessories and components right for proper structure and balance, before making the actual final products. We also inspect the production process from start to finish and do constant quality checks throughout the manufacturing process. So from the concept to the product, to the packaging, to the branding, we do not compromise on quality.
Tell us about your target market, who are your customers?
Our customers are women, but the brand’s major customers are predominantly high net- worth individuals, and mid- to high-earning women who have the purchasing power and ordinarily can afford to buy handbags from well-known international bag designers. For many of these women, the brand compares favourably with international brands, and has become a welcome alternative.
What are the challenges on the job and the industry?
Despite of the fact that we have our own functional tanneries, the local market has proven inadequate as a source of raw materials, as a lot of the time, we are unable to get the exact colour or texture we require, and in the required quantities for a certain style. We also have issues around craftsmanship. One of the biggest challenges to our work is the ability to find enough skilled manpower to produce to the level of quality that we aim to deliver. I’ve been extremely lucky with my staff, I’ve been able to hold together a core team with some who have been with me for over twenty years, yet the problem lingers. This requires a balancing act, understanding what they need, helping them to grow, and creating a conducive and comfortable working environment.
How do you think government can help to improve the Nigerian tanneries?
The government needs to focus on formulating a leather-industry strategy to be driven by stakeholders, improving the regulatory framework to reduce raw materials production costs and initiating the necessary value addition processes – this will enable leather designers to have access to processed leathers. They also need to support the creation of skills acquisition centres and eventually manufacturing hubs.
As a female entrepreneur, do you encounter peculiar challenges that you feel wouldn’t have been, if you were a man?
I feel lucky that I have not felt discriminated against throughout my business journey because of my gender. I have interacted with so many people and built some really strong relationships within the industry and I do not recall having any issues just because I’m a woman. I must add this however- because I have a “male” name, people often assume that I am a man until they meet me, at which point they never fail to hide their shock and surprise.
What’s your advice for female entrepreneurs who are still struggling to find their ground?
Believe in yourself and don’t allow the naysayers and discouragers to stop you from living your dream. Be passionate, for it is that passion that keeps you going when the going gets tough. You cannot anticipate all the challenges ahead so you must learn to be patient, to persevere and to be tenacious. Connect with people who are interested in your success and never be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope and like they say, colour outside the lines and learn to do things differently. But more than anything else, you must never stop learning. And trust me, hard work pays off in the end.
If you were not into handbags, what else would you be doing?
My life as a handbag designer certainly wasn’t planned and I just stumbled on it by accident. My dream was to become a translator after my French degree. So, perhaps if I wasn’t a handbag designer, I would be following that dream and working in translation.
What’s your life mantra?
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.
How do you detox from all the work and relax?
I am not sure that I detox enough as I am operating in a business that demands a lot of my attention and energy, but I am constantly being reminded by those close to me to take a break.