Move Back to Nigeria is a series on BellaNaija which aims to encourage young and not-so-young professionals in the diaspora who are trying to make the decision of whether to move back to Nigeria. In collaboration with the brilliant team at MoveBackToNigeria.com, we hope to bring you a weekly interview with individuals who have successfully made the leap, considering the leap, as well as those who have tried it and realized it is not for them.
MoveBacktoNigeria.com’s mission is to showcase stories of Nigerians abroad who have moved back home and are taking giant strides, often against all odds and to serve as inspiration to others. This, however does not preclude us from sharing stories of the people who have moved back and are facing various challenges.
This week we feature Lola Olusola. We actually spoke to her in April 2013 and at the time she was excited about moving back to Nigeria to launch her online fashion label, so we decided to follow up to see how things have been since she moved back. This interview is particularly interesting for people who are thinking about moving back to start up businesses in Nigeria. Hear in her own words the challenges of registering and running a business in Nigeria, her thoughts on the E-commerce revolution in Nigeria, what she thinks about the ‘Nigerian Online Shopper’, her views on the state of development in the country, and many other tips and advice you certainly do not want to miss!
We spoke to you in April 2013, why was your first interview anonymous?
No particular reason. I thought the earlier MBTN interviews were conducted anonymously, so my name never featured. Even though I wasn’t particularly pushing for anonymity, I think it panned out great, because it meant I didn’t give away too much about the brand as it was yet to launch.
When we caught up with you last time, you were excited about moving back to Nigeria to launch your fashion label, so how have things been since?
For the record, my name is Lola Olusola, and I moved back to Nigeria in May 2013 to set up an online store called Ella Matthew that retails women’s clothing online. When I moved back, I was really excited (and still am). Things have kicked off on a great note. The website has launched and is accepting and delivering orders. I do think my goals and priorities have been adjusted to reflect the realities of what it takes to set up and run a business on the ground in Nigeria.
Interesting! So when did you launch the brand officially?
Ella Matthew launched November 25th last year and a lot went into setting it up. Like I mentioned earlier, I moved back in May 2013, and if you remember, my plan was to launch the business in July; but given the way things work in Nigeria, it took a bit longer. Supposedly, simple things such as business name registration, setting up logistics and organising photo-shoots ended up taking a lot more time than I’d anticipated. I was adamant that the foundation had to be right and it was worth the extra time investment and looking back, I’m glad I took this route. Those extra four months really gave me the time I needed to really understand how things work in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos. And it gave my staff time to really get used to our systems and have a more in-depth knowledge of the business and products.
What did the launch process involve?
It involved a lot of things – things that people wouldn’t necessarily even think about. From customer surveys and focus groups at the very start to drawing creative concepts; budgeting and financial management; photography, branding and packaging, logistics, product and supply chain processes and other things such as website design. There are also issues of development, project management and training. Thankfully, from my previous working history, I had a good working knowledge of how things would work.
I had a small challenge with quality control and this is probably what delayed process the most. I returned quite a few things to be redone. People don’t necessarily understand why I wanted things to be as close to perfect as possible but for me, all these little things were going to matter in the overall customer experience and management of operations.
A lot of people want to move back to Nigeria to set up businesses. Can you talk a little bit about the process? How did you go about recruiting staff? Setting up office space, and all that?
I mean, every business is different but no matter what your venture, determination is key. I was determined that there was nothing stopping this from working. Things are not so straightforward here and you just really have to make up your mind that you will get things done despite the challenges. The other really important thing is your support network i.e. the people that you know and can trust. Having people around who believe in what you are doing and provide support and advice is very invaluable. This has probably been my best asset so far in Nigeria.
For example when I was organising the photo-shoot for the launch, a friend helped, rather last minute, to be the makeup artist for my models (my cousin actually helped organise the models). I found the studio that we used through a friend. I found the photographer through a friend. I’ve employed 2 people and both were recommendations through friends. Even our office arrangement is also from a hook up.
With things like marketing, again friends and family have been very crucial; from simple word of mouth to helping to get discounts on some of the campaigns we’ve done. I think it’s really important to have a strong support network. Most of the friends I speak about here are actually people I knew from England, so it’s important to keep both networks strong i.e. both home and abroad. It’s really easy for money to go in Nigeria; I’d definitely advice business people when spending in Nigeria to be very conscious of that. Get whatever you can for as free or cheap as you can.
Ok so you guys have gone live, but how is the Nigerian market responding to what you have to offer? After all this is a different market to what you’d been used to in England.
I should boast a little and say that so far we have not had any returns, so customers are happy with the products they are buying from us. We are getting really great feedback also which is good for us. When I was coming into this, it was really important to offer an experience to customers that is similar to what I have always gotten when purchasing overseas. A lot of people have said that Nigerians are happy to settle for less and that I shouldn’t have to worry about quality or presentation but I completely disagree with this notion.
The customer experience is absolutely important, and the typical Nigerian woman realises that she has choices, so if you are not providing the best product or quality of service particularly with online labels, then she will happily go elsewhere to do her online shopping. When a customer comes on to our website, we give them an aesthetically pleasing website, and also do our best to ensure the site never goes down.
In terms of experience we keep customers fully updated by text and email from the moment they order online, to the moment they receive their goods. We follow up to make sure that they are happy. And the customers are seeing these little efforts, the little details and giving feedback to that note. Customers have also been great to email us suggestions and ideas to take on board for our future collections.
This brings me to another point about the Nigerian online shopper. Most people prefer to pay only after they’ve seen, touched and inspected their goods. So if you want to come to Nigeria to set up an online store, make sure you give people the option to pay on delivery. 75% of our orders are paid for on delivery i.e. either by cash or via a PoS terminal.
75% of your sales are paid for on delivery?
Nigerians don’t yet have 100% trust in buying online. This is for them insurance in case the goods get lost on the way or they can’t get a refund despite what a supplier promises. I also choose to pay on delivery when I buy online in Nigeria. It’s a relatively new industry and people are slowly warming up to the idea. Processes are not yet as robust as in developed markets, but I’m positive that there is progress.
Of the 75% of our sales that gets paid for on delivery, 50% is done by cash and the other 50% by card (via PoS), so Nigerians are not afraid to whip out their credit or debit cards to pay for stuff. The country is changing and people are becoming more technology savvy; people have smart-phones, iPads, tablets etc. so they are really welcoming new ways of doing things. Nigeria is one of the faster growing economies in Africa and I see growth every day. Things are working better; traffic lights function, roads are better, we just need to teach people the rules about who should have the right of way at a round-about, but other than that the country is looking really good.
You have a more positive account of Nigeria than many people we’ve spoken to. But what are the challenges? What keeps you up at night?
There are a lot of challenges to running a business in general but for Nigeria specifically; I would say infrastructure and quality control. As you know we are an internet company and need to keep our website and networks running all the time. The internet service that we pay for may decide to go down for one reason or the other with no explanation from the supplier. They do not take any responsibility for any problems they cause to you or your business. You may laugh but we have two internet connections at the office, in case one decides not to work. It’s important to always have a back-up plan. This is why we host our site on a foreign server, because it’s absolutely crucial that we never get any down time.
You can imagine if a customer calls you to place a telephone order, and you can’t answer their questions because the information you require is online and your office internet is down? That’s not a place anyone should be in this day and age. And that’s why we back up all our information on local computer drives. You always have to find a way around the challenges. Another challenge is logistics just giving the volume of traffic on Nigerian roads, but there are many companies that are good at this, so we make sure we partner with the right people to ensure our deliveries are always on time. One more challenge is the fact that we are a new company. It takes time to build credibility and trust within the market place, and this is something you must always keep at the back of your mind in Nigeria.
Interesting… But what about the competition? You are playing in a similar space to the likes of Jumia and Konga who are the market leaders and most probably have much deeper pockets than you do, surely the thought of them must keep you up at night?
The likes of Jumia and Konga are obviously spearheading the E-commerce revolution in Nigeria, and they have both done great jobs. We need these bigger players around because they are helping to educate the Nigerian market and change the mind-set when it comes to shopping online, so it might sound bizarre but if these guys win, we also win. They are almost doing the job of enlightening customers on our behalf. They certainly do not keep me up at night. These bigger brands are often described as the ‘Amazon’ of Nigeria; you can find a wide range of products on their platforms.
We on the other hand are niche; we focus solely on fashion, so we are not necessarily playing in the same space as them. You can think of us as an Asos or a Topshop, but certainly not Amazon. Our focus is to continue to be good at what we do – women’s fashion for now, and as long as we continue to do this, then we can continue to keep our customers happy.
Ok let’s go back to Ella Matthew… When we spoke the last time, it was just you going back to start up. But what does the team look like today?
Right now, it’s me and two other members of staff on the internal team. We obviously partner with external suppliers with certain aspects of running the business i.e. creative, marketing, logistics and financial organisations. My role is to run the business and set the strategic direction, among other things of course. I have a Product Manager who is responsible for things like uploading the products, arranging photo-shoots, making sure product pricing and descriptions are correct, stock management, essentially a series of creative and technical responsibilities. I have to say it’s really important to give staff room to grow.
My product manager has grown so much in the months since she started. I also have a customer services representative whose role also varies and is growing on a daily basis. The 3 of us keep things running. It is a lot of work but we are doing our best and we have some exciting plans in place.
I also have a board of managers, advisors and mentors who provide regular consulting, advice and support on an on-going basis. They are great to help keep the business in check!
Thanks for that. On a more personal note, how have you found things since moving back i.e. from a day to day living in the country perspective?
I like life in Nigeria in general. I didn’t think I would be as happy about my move back as I am. You get used to the issues like traffic etc. When you move back you have to be patient and set your expectations accordingly and you will be fine. People have ways of getting around most of the issues. If there’s no power (light) you put on a generator or an inverter. Not everyone has access to these, but I really believe that if you make the best of your circumstances, then the challenges are not such a big issue. I think that NEPA (PHCN) should actually encourage us all to pick up a book and read every once in a while. It develops the mind. With things like traffic, it’s a matter of timing. If you are going to be travelling from the mainland to the island in the morning rush hour or vice versa during the evening rush, just make sure you give yourself sufficient time. Outside of these peak traffic times, things are actually a lot better. Manage your expectations, leave room for inconveniences, and don’t be too hard on yourself.
Ok so looks like things are working out and you are not going to run away from Nigeria any time soon?
No, I’m definitely not running away any time soon unless there was a reason beyond my control. Ella Matthew is here to stay; we’re not going anywhere. But I also get a great feeling seeing Nigerians who are experts in their industries from all over the world moving back to be part of the development of our Nation. There are lots of opportunities to make this country better but also for people to grow. I can definitely say that in the 9 months since being here, I’ve grown as a person but also become a lot more patriotic and excited about the potential of Nigeria and Nigerians.
Wow! Finally, what advice will you give others who are thinking about moving back to start a business?
Even though I know Nigeria is not for everyone, I really encourage the move back. Be prepared, have a very strong idea what you’re coming to do here. It’s hard to stick to plans but if you don’t have a plan at all, then you don’t have a benchmark. I already mentioned this but it’d help a lot if you have a very strong support network. The advice and help friends and family give you on a daily basis goes a long way to helping you stand on your feet, especially when you are a brand new business. Also try not to compare Nigeria with whatever country you are coming from, so learn the culture, understand what your customer wants, and focus on that. Also there will be challenges, prepare your mind for that. When you accept these challenges and try to make the best out of your situation then your move back could be more pleasant than you imagine. This has certainly been the case for me.
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