Femi Olayebi: As an Entrepreneur, Learning Never Stops 

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Femi Olayebi

Mrs. Femi Olayebi, Founder of Femi O Handbags and Conveyor of Lagos Leather Fair, has created a platform to contribute to driving the enormous potential of the leather industry. In this interview with MARY NNAH, she talks about her journey so far in the industry and her plans for this year’s edition of the annual fair scheduled to hold on September 7 and 8, which she says will bring together both the up-and-coming and established leather designers, tanneries, and other stakeholders along the value chain to engage in and drive awareness, conversation, partnerships, and potential investment

Prior to FemiHandbags, what were you doing?

I have a Bachelors degree in French from the University of Ibadan and then followed my dream of becoming a translator and headed to the Institut de Traducteurs et d’Interpretes in Strasbourg, France, under the sponsorship of the French government to catch that dream. On my return to Nigeria, I worked as a freelance translator for several international organisations, including ECOWAS. Designing and manufacturing handbags was pure serendipity – one fine day the creative streak in me pushed me to make a baby bag for my first daughter. So, today I’m a handbag designer and I spend a lot of my time dreaming up new twists to my work.

Let’s talk about FemiHandbags and how it came to be.

I founded and run a handbag design and manufacturing outfit called My World of Bags — the parent company for FemiHandbags, a line of luxury leather handbags and accessories. And I have been running my company for 27 years.

It all started in 1992; I was just about to have a baby, and naturally needed a baby bag. But 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 one of my own. My friends were quite taken by it, and began to place orders. 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 many memorable moments would be sitting with Duro Olowu, a British-born Nigerian designer who dressed the likes of Michelle Obama, for a couple of hours in 2010 and was encouraged to transition from fabric to 100 per cent leather, and more importantly use my name to brand my leather bags.

From the very beginning, the entire manufacturing process, right from conceptualisation to production of each and every bag has been carried out in my factory in Ibadan. I started with a sewing machine in my spare room some 27  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 become our creative oasis.

How did you source for your start-up capital to establish FemiHandbags?

As mentioned earlier, there was no question of planning a business. Business happened to me and for many years, I treated the business as if it was a hobby. When I finally decided to take it seriously, I sold my first bag for N350 (a baby bag my best friend’s mum bought to encourage me). That was my first ever sale, and in a sense that’s how the business started. Since then it has grown organically from the ground  up and I have been blessed to see it flourish. And I do believe that there’s still quite a way to go.

Who are the target audience for FemiHandbags?

Our FH women — the brand’s major customers — are predominantly HNIs, 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 these international brands, and has become a welcome alternative and a favourite.

What sets you part from other handbag designers?

The FemiHandbags brand has always aimed to capture a spirit of individuality which does not attempt to adhere to seasonal trends. Our pieces feature vibrant colour palettes, and artisanal, handcrafted touches such as whipstitched sides, hand-stitched, rolled handles, and hand sewn straps which have become synonymous with the FemiHandbags aesthetic. Added to that is the ubiquitous infusion of the beautiful hand-loomed fabric, aso-oke, woven by artisans in South Western Nigeria, which is also an unmistakable signature of the brand. All these and the fact that we bring together an exciting mix of traditional craft and new technology into vintage-styled silhouettes. The level of attention to detail we infuse into each and every product positions Femi Handbags a cut above the rest and remains our unique selling points. For us, the handbag is a statement piece, a conversation starter, and as such we do not compromise on the quality of the craftsmanship.

How do you source your materials? Are they locally sourced or outside the country?

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. And this in spite of the fact that we have our own functional tanneries. However, our tanneries get more value for money from shipping their semi-processed hides and skins abroad, than they would selling in-country for the simple reason that there are not enough of us to purchase their required minimum quantities. We are also obliged to import all our hardware and accessories as we do not find the desired level of quality here.

I believe however, that all 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.

What have been the challenges of running your kind of business in Nigeria? 

One of the biggest challenges to our work as handbag designers 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 20 years, yet the problems linger. This has required a balancing act — understanding what they need, helping them to grow, and creating a conducive and comfortable working environment. That notwithstanding, we all still have issues around craftsmanship.

Another critical challenge is the non-availability of raw materials for the products we design. From the leather itself to the essential hardware like eyelets, buckles, rings, magnetic clasps, or even something as small as a zipper head or a screw. It’s not that these are completely unavailable, but certainly not in the quantities and the high quality we require. This is why I often have to source from outside the shores of Nigeria for my leathers, metal hardware and accessories.

Copyright is a third challenge that has become increasingly worrisome. Some up-and-coming designers look to established brands for inspiration, and sometimes, this ends up being an entire replication of the brand. There is evidently a limited understanding of copyright law, which in some cases, means limited protection of one’s designs and work. In this year’s Lagos Leather Fair, through our masterclasses — which we are calling Conversations — and workshops, we hope to educate and empower, not just leather designers, but people across the creative industries, with the knowledge required to address these three challenges.

Tell us what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur

Tenacity, perseverance, a clear vision, and of course, passion. Diane Von Furstenberg once said, and I quote: ‘I don’t like to talk about my dreams; I like to make them happen. I prefer to talk about them when they’re done’. These words beautifully express my attitude to entrepreneurship and success. I’ve learnt that, as an entrepreneur, learning never stops, and you have to be focused, you have to constantly work at acquiring the skills that will plummet you forward and you have to surround yourself with strong, positive people.

I’ve also learnt through my many experiences that success does not happen overnight, that good things take time, that you must be ready to take risks and that whatever it is you’re doing, and however difficult or impossible it may seem, you must trust your gut and just keep moving. I constantly push the boundaries of my creativity to remain true to my brand vision, while I constantly challenge myself, raise the bar and daily prove that nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it. And finally I say, be prepared, so that when opportunities come your way, you are able and ready to grab them with both hands. We can pray all we want, but like someone famously said; dreams won’t work unless we do!

What exactly informed your decision to come up with the Lagos Leather Fair?

Nigeria’s leather industry holds amazing potential to succeed once the challenges of the sector are tackled and if support initiatives are put in place to facilitate its growth. I felt pretty frustrated at the challenges with no seeming end in sight and as one of the pioneers in the industry I felt this very strong urge to stop complaining, but get up and do something impactful. I also believed strongly that because I had built a strong, trustworthy brand, I had a voice and could therefore be part of the solution.

Another factor that pushed me to act was reading the findings of a World Bank report that concluded that leather and allied leather products could easily constitute the second largest earner of foreign exchange after oil and gas. That was it! I decided that instead of sitting around waiting for the government to fix our problems, one of the ways in which we could bring the challenges to their notice would be to create a platform which would bring together under one roof, the major players along the leather value chain. And so in 2017, I proceeded to take the boldest step I had ever taken.  The Fair has a few major objectives which were: to promote the made-in-Nigeria initiative by showcasing Nigerian talent, highlight the importance of value-addition within the industry; create a business networking platform for stakeholders in the leather sector; facilitate collaborations and business linkages; provide incentives for all concerned; and ensure that the national drive for promoting the agro sector is all inclusive. I am proud to say that some of these objectives are already being met.

How often do you hold fair and who are your target audience?

The Fair is an annual event which aims to enhance the awareness of the Nigerian public of the enormous potential and the impressive diversity of work being done in the leather sector. The target audience is varied: For participation in the fair, leather designers across the country, and a few across the continent, have been engaged to showcase and sell their products to the general public. Up-and-coming designers and creative entrepreneurs will also have the opportunity to learn from masterclass-style sessions, and hone their skills through hands-on workshops. The general public also sees this as a fantastic shopping experience and will benefit from an atmosphere that is as engaging as it is memorable and unforgettable.

When is the next fair holding, where and who are those expected to attend?  What are the high points of the forthcoming fair?

The next edition of the Lagos Leather Fair, themed “Advancing the Conversation” is scheduled to hold on Saturday, September 7 and Sunday, September 8, at Harbour Point in Victoria Island. A pre-event, invitation-only, VIP auction will also hold on September 6, to provide our sponsors, key delegates, retail chain owners, buyers, investors and other high-level stakeholders with an opportunity to engage a few selected exhibitors that will be showcasing limited edition pieces to a very special audience.

This year we also have a number of international leather brands taking part, and have invited seasoned industry experts from Kenya and South Africa to come and share their business insights. We have extended the reach of exhibitors to leather furniture makers, tanneries, and hardware and accessories suppliers. Also in the course of the two days, we will host some very interesting Conversations with a focus on copyright, branding, retail, sourcing and manufacturing, practical hands-on Workshops, our usual thrilling catwalk presentations. We will also curate a technical area where our visitors can see first-hand how leather products are made.

What does it take to be a part of the fair?

The key requirement is that all participants be Nigerian- and/or African-based designers who create products from genuine leather. These individuals range from long-established designers such as City Cobbler, Siod Leather, St.Davids, TPS Luxury and Oba Couture, to the Emerging Designers from the 2018 edition like Lamide Samuel, Ara’s Handmade, Hue by Tamara and Oyani Signature, and then the up-and-coming ones like Apaart Africa, Detail Africa, Marte Egele, Jakar Lagos and K. Aspen; and a number of international brands coming in from across the continent.

What economic impact would the Leather Fair have on the nation?

The Lagos Leather Fair presents a brilliant platform through which to establish a dialogue — the only one that exists in the country, and one of the largest in this part of the continent. As we anticipate this year’s edition — scheduled for September 7 and 8 at Harbour Point in Victoria Island, Lagos — I am looking forward to another opportunity to bring together industry leaders, decision-makers, investors, and the general public, to increase awareness and advance the conversation, so that Nigeria as a nation can begin to unravel the enormous potential of this billion-dollar industry and make our own mark in the global space.

This third edition, themed, “Advancing The Conversation”, will highlight the need for both local and foreign investments in the area of value-addition processes at every level of the leather value chain, and emphasise the need for an enabling environment that will support dignified employment and help to gradually build a skilled workforce (talented and skilled artisans). The ultimate vision is to establish a skills enhancement centre and a large enough manufacturing platform which would enable us to train hundreds of skilled workmen and women, and arm them with skills that will ease their entry into the workforce. This is what will ensure a pool of highly skilled workers, the production of high quality finished leather goods, enhanced productivity, so that our domestic leather goods can have a competitive edge, and ultimately boost exports and impact revenue.

What is your word of advice to will be participants and Nigerians generally?

For participants, I’d say: bring your A-game. The Nigerian public is more discerning than ever before, and their tastes are constantly evolving, so while it’s important that designers stay true to their brands and visions, you must also constantly innovate. And to our LLF attendees, we’re thoroughly excited to have you; come one, come all, and prepare to be amazed!