‘Why My Passion for Furniture Brought Me Home’

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Demi Owoseje, a certified architect and founder of Majeurs Chesterfield Ltd, a furniture manufacturing firm, is a young entrepreneur who makes a living in a male-dominated field. In this interview with Sunday Ehigiator, she spoke about her passion for creating outstanding furniture and her encounters with the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles and former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, among others

Can we meet you?
My name is Demi Owoseje, I am the founder of Majeurs Chesterfield, a furniture manufacturing company, both in London and in Nigeria. We offer the following services: kitchens, wardrobes, beds, soft furnishing and interior design. My parents are originally from Ogun State.

How did it all start?
Well, it started in 2011. I graduated in 2010, in Architecture from London Metropolitan University, East London. I studied Architecture for many years. After graduation, I started looking for work but didn’t find anything for a while, so I started playing around and having fun with furniture, I have always loved antique furniture, buying furniture, restoring furniture and selling it, that’s basically how I started. Having done that for a couple of years, I quickly realised that it was getting me a lot of attention. I was getting a lot of work and recognition from a lot of high end-clientele and top designers.

When I was invited to meet our former Prime Minister, David Cameron, I was over the moon. Shortly after that, His Royal Highness Prince Charles visited my workshop and gave me valuable advice I knew I had to continue and work even harder… so I continued. The business was growing, then one day a family member; a very close family member suggested that I take the business to Nigeria where the people and country could benefit from my talent for manufacturing and restoration, so here I am…it has been an interesting year thus far.

So how did the people in the UK receive you?
Quite well, I believe I was blessed and fortunate because when you are doing something that is not typical of your gender, it either goes two ways; people could gravitate towards you because you are very different, or they simply ignore you with the thought that this very strange and immediately turn their attention elsewhere. But the latter wasn’t my story; I was very good at what I was doing and it was getting me the type of clientele that was happy to tell other high-end clientele about me. I was being noticed and a lot of media houses were interested in what I was doing. And before I realised it, I had started a profitable business.

You studied Architecture, have you had any training to improve on what you are doing or you just started it off just like that?
Basically, what happened at the beginning is that I started off as a hobby and was self-taught. As time went on and I was becoming more and more invested in what I was doing I began looking for expert training. The further I went into my industry the more I realise there was more to learn. This is a continues journey. I sought help from those who had been doing this longer than me, I did a lot of research. I took part in professional training classes. In 2013, I went for Professional Leather restoration class, which basically educated me in the world of leather, I am in fact a certified leather specialist.
Between 2013 till now, I have ensured that I am continuously learning new ways of doing things. Now having moved to Nigeria, I plan to use the knowledge I gained from the UK to further enhance my work here.

You mentioned meeting with Prince Charles, what actually took you to him?
At that stage, I was on a lot of TV shows and a lot of media houses talking about young people and businesses, young entrepreneurs and interesting issues. Along the way, Clarence House contacted me, which is where Prince Charles resides. He had noticed what we were doing and was interested to know more. His Royal Highness is a great supporter of young people and young entrepreneurs trying to break out and do new things.

I got a visit from Clarence House with information that Prince Charles will like to meet me and likes to know more about what we are doing because he finds it interesting, he happens to be big fan of antique furniture and a big supporter of young people so it was a lifetime opportunity for me to showcase all my hard work. The road to my office was shut down for the visit and security was intense. My parents were also invited and needless to say my neighbours were in awe of His Royal Highness. During the event, we talked about brand authenticity, loyalty to local materials and the importance of Made-in-Britain.

Apart from Prince Charles, which other high profile person did you meet in the UK?
I was invited to No.10 Downing Street where I met former Prime Minister, David Cameron. This was a privilege that allowed the Prime Minister to ask me questions about my passion and give me great business advice. In England we are very passionate about Made-in-Britain products, we take a lot of pride in it. Creating anything Made-in-Britain showcasing your talent and ability is very much embraced and valued by the people…I hope one day this will be the case in Nigeria.

As an entrepreneur who wants to do anything great, do it with pride and understand you are full of so much greatness. You may not know everything now, but you could always learn and can always improve with time; knowing that you’ve built the stuff with your own hands in a country you are proud of. I also brought that to Nigeria as well, there is something very powerful about using local materials to build great things and inputting value into them.

How did these meetings impact on what you do?
It has changed my business in tremendous ways. You say to people that you have had the pleasure of meeting such important people through your business or you have people like that endorsing your brand is priceless. My products are beautiful and to have these names associated with it simply makes it easier for people to patronise you.
I am always going to be grateful for that exposure because it’s not something you can buy.

What does it look like doing business in England as a Nigerian?
I have always lived in England, it’s the home I have always known, so it’s a bit difficult for me to see it from the perspective of a Nigerian. But as a black woman doing business in England, I can tell you a thing or two about that. It can be tough. There can be times when things are challenging when you feel like you have hit the glass ceiling. Nigeria is very promising because of the numerous opportunities, there isn’t so much red-tape. Nigeria also has its own limitations but they are different. Nigeria has this enormous room for growth and I am certainly ready to play my part.

When you saw enormous room for growth, how do you mean?
Yes, there is an enormous room for growth in this emerging market. It is virtually an open market. There is so much space for inspiring entrepreneurs to create and invest. The competition isn’t that aggressive yet. The benchmark has not yet been set. Whenever you see an environment where there is demand but the standards haven’t yet been set, it basically means an open market. You can come, you can grow, you can establish, you can resolve a problem. So many people are looking for your products or services. Nigeria has been so fixated on bringing everything in, now it’s time to build, and there is a lot of space for building here.

Do you imply that the materials you use are imported?
A lot of our materials are imported. But what I do think is very vital to understanding when manufacturing in Nigeria is where we can source solid materials within Nigeria and utilise them to their best potential. Rather than just focusing on importing everything. Many Nigerians still believe that “because it’s foreign it must be better”, no, that is not necessarily the case. At Majeurs Chesterfield we know that having a stable availability of materials is key for production.

Nigeria doesn’t necessarily have that just yet, but at the same time, Nigeria has great wood, so we use it. There are not enough fabric manufacturers here but we patronise those selling along with those we import. There are no reliable leather manufacturers here, but we patronise those who are trading. So you can see that where we can take from Nigeria, we ensure we take. Where we must import, I am grateful for the great relationships I have built over the years with my suppliers in the UK and around the world.

Do you have anything that promotes the Nigerian culture?
It’s funny. We did a project recently, where we used a family (Aso Oke, a tradition material amongst the Yoruba’s) heirloom to make an armchair for one of our clients. We are also currently exploring a project where we use local indigenous Nigerian fabrics to create our signature designs. My experience in architecture focused on sustainability within a design, so that’s where my passion for design was born. Architecture taught me the importance of using local materials to build great design. There is great beauty in emphasising or showcasing local materials.

Can you walk us through your steps which facilitated you into Nigeria?
I have never lived in Nigeria. I have visited in the past. The first time I came to Nigeria, I was 14 years old. I came for a family function and was here for a few weeks. I was here again at 18 years of age, then at 21 when I was in the middle of my university days. When you visit Nigeria as a youngster, it is difficult to explore or see the country for what it is. You are very much guarded.
When I decided I wanted to come and explore the business terrain I certainly came to explore. I came first and foremost to do my feasibility studies, I had to get to know Nigeria for what it was, I had to expose myself a little bit more. Within that month stay, I visited so many furniture stores, from the top end to the local guys on the roadside.

I wanted to know who was doing what, I wanted to know the current game changers in Nigeria, the people who were doing great things and how I could do the same if not more. Having done my feasibility studies, I said: “okay, this is not too bad, but I’m going to need more time”. After the month, I went back to London, I gathered myself together and prepared for a three months stay in Lagos. So I returned to Nigeria, I got my accommodation sorted out, and within the three months, I got to test run what I would be doing. So I went to the market, I bought materials, I went to the wood market, I went to local carpenters, sourced around for different carpenters, I asked if they can make a particular product and how they would make the product.

In the beginning, it was difficult because of the language barrier. Though my pigeon and Yoruba are much better now, when I first arrived, I couldn’t communicate without an interpreter. Going to the markets, there is a lot of politics that are involved in business, so I had to learn very quickly. After several trials and errors, I finally found carpenters that I felt were willing to listen to my input. I found a local makeshift workshop and we started to create.
I am a hands-on creator, many of the men found that a little bit challenging because it was like ‘who is this young girl coming to tell us how to do our jobs, surely she doesn’t know what she is talking about’. Some were agitated, others were amused.
Nigerians can be quite difficult sometimes, so perseverance is key, especially for somebody like me. In the year we have been here I would certainly say that I have gained the respect of my predominantly male workers. So, yes, so far so good!

Your office is hidden, was it your Idea?
In the beginning, it seemed important for us to have a showroom location where people could visit to see our products. But as we progressed we discovered our own way of doing business. As a company, social media has been wonderful for our marketing and we get regular visits from customers every day. As a manufacturer, our focus at the moment is finding the right location to better develop our product line and meet customer demands much quicker.

So how do you reach out to your would-be customers?
Social media. It is so powerful nowadays and we embrace it. With social media, you don’t need a shop front. That’s not saying we won’t have a showroom in the future but selling via social media works for us.

What platforms do you currently operate on?
Currently, we are on Instagram @majeurschesterfield, Facebook @majeurschesterfield our email is info@majeurschesterfield.com, and our website which could also be visited is www.mejeurschesterfield.com

How does technology impact on what you are doing?
In every way, things a business like mine would have had to do 20 years ago, we can now do in a matter of minutes using technology. 70 per cent of our business comes from social media or some form of technology that we engage in.
Media and technology is the present and the future I can imagine if I want to bring in a website expert tomorrow, imagine how that would impact my business. There are lots of new innovations that technology can bring to how business is done these days and we have only just begun to explore them in this part of the world.

What is your perception about entrepreneurs in Nigeria, are they really doing well?
Well, with what they have I believe an average Nigerian is an entrepreneur and I see that every day, we are surrounded by entrepreneurs, the difference is they don’t have the support to really bring out their full potential. An average Nigerian is a hustler, hustling to make something out of nothing, surviving and creating. That’s the Nigerian spirit, we are natural entrepreneurs and being a feminist I can say women are the biggest entrepreneurs in Nigeria, we are entrepreneurial in everything we do, naturally, that’s just who we are.
However, when it comes to being a successful entrepreneur it’s not enough to just to have the spirit, something has to fuel it, something needs to push it forward. The government has to help, the family has to help and more than anything else, we need to recognise what we are capable of doing.
I am well-travelled and I have met Nigerians all around the world, we are doing great things everywhere around the world because there is something in the systems that fuel our talents.

What is your take on government support for entrepreneurship in Nigeria?
I think this is one of the biggest problems confronting entrepreneurs in Nigeria. No bank wants to support creativity; it’s very discouraging when you are extremely good at what you do but nowhere to get finance to pursue it. That is what I have found to be a big challenge in our time here. In the UK we have multiple bodies you could approach for funding facilities. In fact, the competition is high for competitive rates. A lot of bodies want to support your talent/skills so long you have all the requirements, which are necessary to prove it’s genuine. As an entrepreneur who is fortunate to have lived in the UK and benefited from the various funding bodies, I see the reason why many Nigerians in the diaspora don’t want to come home.

I know England has its own set of problems but what we are faced with here in Nigeria is beyond anything I have ever experienced. The youths here are very talented but they have a big task in front of them. The government either cannot or will not help us to excel, so we need to take our focus away from the rescue and begin the long journey of rescuing ourselves…

What makes your business unique?
It’s not so much the business as much as it is about the individuals. Without me, my business is not the same. I believe that a business should exemplify the principles of its founder in order for it to be unique to itself. As the business grows, the values of the individual should still be present in some way or the other. My furniture is not new; I am not the first to manufacture such designs. What makes Majeurs special and unique is simply doing things our way and owning that.

You mentioned earlier that you are a feminist. Do you belong to any group?
No. I believe strongly that women should have the same political, social, and economic rights as men. We do and can do far more than we are given recognition for. Feminism isn’t about just being pretty in our feminism but also adding significant value even in a male-dominated industry. We must own our excellence and must not be shortchanged for it.

As a Young entrepreneur, what is your advice to those that are currently not doing anything?
They must first find their passion, I can’t imagine having passion and doing nothing, it doesn’t matter what it is, just dig deep and find what makes you come alive… first!
If you find your passion, you will find your purpose. Simply doing nothing with your life means you lack passion. I have seen people polishing shoes, but doing it with passion. That passion will make you the best shoe polisher in town and in turn possibly the richest amongst your peers.