While many entrepreneurs find little use for the skills they learn in University, often building totally unrelated businesses, there are others who parlay those skills into exceptional businesses. Tosin Lawson, a graduate of the University of Nottingham with a BEng (Hons) in Product Design and Manufacture, talks to Connect Nigeria about her unique business, African Things.
CN: Tell us a little about your professional background
TL: I’m a graduate of the University of Nottingham with a BEng (Hons) in Product Design and Manufacture. Once I returned to Nigeria I did my NYSC where I was responsible for teaching extra-curricular classes called creative hands; I taught students how to make African-inspired products. I was also responsible for the design and production of the end of year Year Book which involved taking photographs and designing the layout for final printing.
I am currently working for The Chair Centre Limited as the design executive and have designed products that have been sold nationwide. In this role I ensure that the client can visually see how their facilities would look with The Chair Centre furniture in place. I go to the client’s site to take measurements then brainstorm with fellow designers to develop the best layouts to meet the client’s needs. Using software like CorelDraw and Autocad, I draw up the layout and furniture design for the client to approve. My decision to work for The Chair Centre was to develop good business practices for my own business which I will forever be thankful to them for teaching me. By April I plan to leave The Chair Centre and work on African Things full time and hopefully get an MBA in marketing.
CN: What inspired you to set up African Things?
TL: The reason I started African Things was to promote African designs and culture in everyday lifestyle. After schooling abroad and seeing how foreigners saw Africans -as poor and backward- I was very inspired when I returned home and saw that Nigerian fashion design especially in the area of accessories was beginning to boom. Still, I felt I could push the business further to international standards and include lifestyle items such as household furniture and home accessories.
CN: Which groups of people did you have in mind when setting up this business?
TL: Among young Africans in diaspora, there is an increasing need to reconnect with our African roots but in a more contemporary manner. According to the Immigration Policy Center in the US, and BBC in the UK, there are over 1.6 million African foreign-born population in the US and 1.3 million in the UK while Nigeria’s population is 170 million. The market is quite large but we are specifically targeting youths between the ages of 16-35. We estimate that African Things’ target market is about 1.5 to 2 million people worldwide and growing.
CN: How did you raise capital to start?
TL: I started African Things while I was doing my NYSC. I used my monthly salary to buy Ankara jewelry wholesale from people who made them, then resold for slightly higher prices. I bought 10 earrings and bangles then 20 then more and more. Before I knew it I was known as ‘Ms. African Things’ selling to friends, family and co-workers. I got to the point where I wanted to expand the business and produce quality bags in bulk. My family especially my mother gave me the money I needed to expand the business further. Soon I was buying 40 backpacks on a monthly basis and selling on a number of online platforms, like Jumia and Konga.
CN: What are the challenges of doing business online?
TL: The major challenges have been marketing and logistics. First, getting people to find your product online and secondly getting the product to the client at the right time. Because there are so many products online you need to spend so much money just so customers know you are out there in the mix. Thanks to Konga and Jumia I don’t need to worry too much about getting products to the customer but sometimes there have been delays.
CN: What are the advantages of doing business online?
TL: There is a huge market out there and by selling online I have been able to sell to different people in various parts of the country. I have sold to people in Abuja, Warri and Kano without having to leave my home in Lagos. We have just set up Amazon and eBay accounts which means we can now sell on a global level with the same ease.
CN: What makes your products unique?
TL: Unlike similar African accessory companies, African Things manufactures in large quantities for mass production and retail in standardized units. We do not make custom made items rather we produce specific designs in large quantities. We also aim to target Africans in diaspora and be the leading exporter of African Lifestyle products.
We distinguish ourselves with multiple, easy to use and durable functional products. Our designs incorporate African fabrics and imagery in a modern and innovative style.
CN: Where can people shop for your products? Apart from shopping online, do you have a physical store, or distributors?
TL: We are constantly looking for new distributors both online and retail. You can find our products at Mega Plaza, Nike Gallery, and OSC retail stores. We plan to start selling at Game and Spar in the coming months. We also sell wholesale to small start-up businesses in aims of creating jobs and wealth for the everyday Nigerian.
We currently sell in over 10 retail stores including Jumia and Konga. We also supply to tourist shops in hotels like Eko Hotel and Four Points. We plan to sell wholesale to large retail companies in the US and UK such as Marks and Spencer. Right now we sell on Amazon and eBay. You can find the full list of our distributors on our website http://www.africanthings.org/african-things-distributors/
CN: How are technologies owned and deployed by banks useful to you?
TL: Thank God for online banking; I have been able to send payments and get access to my money without leaving my desk. No more need to go to the bank and stand for hours just to deposit cash. With internet banking I have been able to track my transactions better.
CN: What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
TL: Continue to develop yourself. The moment you stop developing yourself is the moment you fail. I have also realized that good people skills are vital in any business or goal you want to achieve. You especially need to know when to listen, a skill I am still learning. You need to listen to your customer and know what they truly want and not just what you want. Although you design what you like in your own business, you still need to make sure your clients like it too. It is a service or product that they need to find value in for them to pay for it.
Phone: (+234) 816 672 5362