Humbled by the painful and traumatic effects of the Nigerian Civil War, Mrs. Chinwe Ezenwa, a business woman, philanthropist and chief executive of Le Look Nigeria, a renowned indigenous luxury outfit, recalled the horrible days of the civil war and its impact on her life. She also spoke to Mary Ekah on how she was inspired to establish Le Look and how she has used her experience to ensure that no one faces the horrors of war again
Despite your achievements, you have retained that sense of humility. How do you do it?
Life has thought me to be humble. I have come to realise that without humility you can achieve nothing – you would just be empty as a barrel. You have to stoop to conquer. You have to stay humble to be successful. If you don’t, like they say, ‘pride goes before a fall’. That I learned a long time ago. You can’t be too proud of anything because you can lose it too. I suffered as a kid during the Civil War. A lot of my age mates died from gunshots, the military killed a lot of young people but I came out of all that alive and free of all the violence during the Civil War, why won’t I be humble? Even at my work place my workers are amazed at my humility because there are times I just decide to sweep and mop the floor myself. But I usually tell them that I can do whatever thing they do because it is the same blood that runs in our veins, what only differentiate us is the opportunity that I have but that they do not have, other than that, all of us are the same. May be I have been opportune to get something that you are not able to get and that has place me above you. Again, I have remained humble because someone created me, I didn’t create myself. So humility is part and parcel of me. I don’t care what people say, but I must learn to keep my life simple so that life itself does not complicate me either because most of the people that I have seen around me have fallen by the way side because they have refused to keep their lives simple. I go to the market myself and when I do, I dress for it, so that I’m able to meander with the people in the market. I do the common things that the common people do that we, the privileged people take for granted thinking that those other people are destined for it.
What were you doing before Le Look?
I have always worked. And I have this brother of mine who is deaf and dump and also a sister who is physically challenged. So in my family I have two siblings who have issues. I didn’t want them to be pitied, so I had to turn those issues of theirs to something they too would be proud of. So as I was working for government I also set up this business for my brother to manage and after work, I would come over and look into what they were doing. After a certain period, I sent him abroad to go get a special education because here in Nigeria, the deaf and dump schools we had then did not really provide anything after the elementary school. So most of those who passed through these schools could not really further their education. I had to struggle to get my brother to attend Gallaudet University in Washington DC. So when he left for school, I also got that sister of mine to learn how to use her hands. I also got some other managers to manage the business with her until when I resigned from my government job I decided to come in fully. I worked with federal Ministry of Transport and retired as a director in Maritime Services. I was also once the Acting Managing Director of National Inland Waterways Authority. I have always tried to do the best in any circumstance I find myself.
You started Le Look for your physically challenged siblings and later joined them fully. What’s the driving force?
The driving force mostly was and is still the fear of poverty. The fear of not having food on the table, the fear of the condition that the civil war left us was still hunting me. I knew the condition under which we lived. I didn’t want a repeat of that for anybody. So I must say poverty is something to fear because it leads to so many evils. And again, I wanted to put food on so many tables. I want to be able to say that I tried my best while I lived; that I encouraged people through this work to put food on their tables and train their children and that is what I’m still doing.
Talking about the Civil War, can you state what the effects were like?
When I see the people at IDP camps these days, my heart skips because it brings back the memories of how we lived for three years during the Biafran War. We couldn’t have food; my younger brother suffered Kwashiorkor as a result of malnutrition. Millions of people died of hunger. You could only get a little to eat when you go to the World Council of Churches’ camp and that meant a long trek for very long hours. Then as a teenager, I witnessed how soldiers forced themselves on young girls. Although I was young, but I didn’t know what it meant to be a youth because mine was a life of struggle even up till now but I don’t regret it, especially now because there is merit in suffering. Suffering strengthens you spiritually, if you take it that it is the will of God. So the war was rough and that is why when I hear people calling for war today, I just say may be they don’t understand what it means to go to war. Exactly what is happening to people at the IDP camps in the North-east is what happened to the Biafrans. In fact, it was worst because it was our own soldiers shooting our people. The effect was horrible and till now, I don’t like to think about being broke. It must not happen! And this fear of being in lack has driven me to work so hard and until the last day, I will continue to do so. People say you are 66, slow down. And I ask them: Slow down so that what will happen?
You don’t look 66 years old?
That is because I work hard and I don’t think about age. I walk out every morning except Sundays. I go for a very long walk every morning. I do aerobics and I eat good food. I have a plain heart, I don’t harbour malice and I don’t envy people. The world is a free place, whatever you want you can get it if you work really hard.
Can you share the success story of Le Look?
Le Look is a French word that means ‘The Look’. When I looked at that circumstance of my brother – he does not hear nor speak but can only see. I felt that despite his challenge, that with his eyes, he would be able to know what to do by mere looking at things. So I called him ‘Le Look’ and so the business was named after him. And he along with my other sibling has been part of this business from the onset. They held forth while it lasted and they made sure that they used it to engage others until I decided to come in fully. And I must say that Le Look is a social conscious organisation. We are after humanity. We are a voice. We are a company that is after capacity building – raising people from grass to grace. Le Look is a voice that would be shouting for future people to hear. It is the voice of the voiceless. If you cannot wear it, carry it. That’s why we make accessories of all sorts, slippers and sandals, bags of all sorts, hats, beddings, curtains and anything for the home. We are promoting African heritage and culture through our works. Le Look is making waves all over the world; our products are in Australia, Germany, Canada, United States and all other parts of the world. Everywhere in world where you see an African bag made with Ankara, Adire or Aso Oke, I can bet it’s made by Le Look.
How did you manage to come this far?
We came this far because of our commitment. When I retired, I had to examine the staff that my brother left on ground. I decided that I was going to use part of my retirement benefit to take all the workers to China for training, it was a big risk because I wasn’t even sure if they were still going to stay after I had trained them. I had to do it because I wanted the best for Le Look. So I took them to China and told the people I met in China to teach us how they were ruling the world with manufacturing. First of all, I had spent one full month in China during one of my vacations while I was still working, observing what they do in their manufacturing sector. I discovered that those people work 24/7. So immediately those workers I took for training came back, they now realised that the beauty was in the finishing. Before then, they had basic tailoring skills but the technicality of sewing was what they lacked and they were able to sharpened their skills through the training in China and after the training, no longer sew anything below the standard that they were trained on. And right now they are even competing with the Chinese. After the training, we bought a lot of machineries. And then I didn’t get to this level all alone, I had a lot of friends who believed in what we were doing and so supported us financially. I never borrowed from the bank up till now. I tried it once and it was so tough that I decided to back out soon after I applied for the loan. But right now, the Bank of Industry (BOI) is reaching out to manufacturers like us and they want to help us. Although theirs is encouraging because one of the criteria is for me to belong to an association and I would be able to access a Passion Fund of N1billion and right now I belong to the Fashion and Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN) but then accessing the fund is still a problem. So right now we are packaging ourselves so that we can present ourselves properly to BOI for assistance so that we would be able to give opportunity to more Nigerians to learn this trade.
What are the challenges of staying in the business?
One major challenge is government inappropriate and insensitive taxation. There are so many taxes levelled on SMEs. If government is taxing SMEs that much, how then do we survive? How do we provide jobs for the teaming youths? If government is looking at us like it looks at big corporations, then SMEs can’t flourish in Nigeria. There must be an incentive for SMEs. Most importantly, let the authorities go round and find out who is doing what and the challenges they face and then address the challenges on the spot. If there is such a body in Nigeria, SMEs will thrive. Another big challenge is that there are lots of technicalities involved in getting our products done because we don’t just cover bags; we manufacture them from start to finish. We want to always produce what we would be proud of anywhere in the world. And so we need to get the workers properly trained because the slightest mistake affects the whole production. So our biggest challenge is human resources and their behaviours – they are here today and gone tomorrow. If we are able to manage the human resource issue, we would overcome the infrastructure challenge. That is why I invest a lot in training my workers.
What are you doing to ensure that the foundation is sustained?
Recently, I engaged a consultant. I had visited the Enterprise Development Centre at Lagos Business School where I consulted with some very serious minded people who referred me to somebody we are consulting presently for succession planning. And right now, we have identified people who can take over from me. That is actually very critical right now, considering my age and every other thing.
How do you feel about your achievements?
I feel humbled. Most times, when I travel abroad carrying bags made by me, people see and like them and then ask where the bags are made. I tell them they are made in Nigeria and they would ask, if they can pay me and collect the bags. I would humbly give them the bags and collect the money without telling them I made it. I feel it is not necessary to blow my trumpet right there because I know that when they open the bags, they would find my label and the telephone number on it. That’s enough!