Ayo Alonge, [email protected]
Access to funds may go a long way in mitigating the key challenges facing SMEs in Nigeria, with government’s support for entrepreneurs viewed as crucial. This is the view of Taofick Okoya who is the Chief Executive Officer of Fico Solutions Limited, a doll manufacturing startup, with distribution channels across Africa.
Okoya also identified infrastructural development as a panacea for the growth of Small and Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs) in the country.
The business started from my interactions with my little daughter. I discovered she had a bit of identity crisis at the age of three. She was asking me what colour she was. I then realised it was more than that. In my interactions with her, I discovered I also caused it by always buying her the white dolls after most whites. Then I realised it would be good to have a product like that. That was when the idea was conceived. I discovered that there were no dolls created after the Nigerian child and the Nigerian culture. It was an amazing one. At some point, I was into corporate gifts and management of events. I also outsourced and produced gift items for companies. In 2016, I started a business I called the Queens of Africa. The business came as a product of my research and development. I was the first to create Nigerian dolls. I soon realised that in Africa, there were barely dolls made after the image of Africans.
It is not cheap at all. First, you need to know that my main competitors are Mattel – the makers of Barbie. This is a company that has a wide network and they are a multi-billion dollar company. At the moment, we take one step at a time. It was the international media coverage of my company that prompted Mattel to start making diversity dolls of different colours and sizes. What will take me a year or two to do, they can achieve within a couple of months.
Before my product became globally known, you would hardly find dolls in ankara. We also plan to produce dolls after the image of other African countries. It is also capital intensive. Right now, we are reinvesting the proceeds of the project. I know the strength of my competitors and we are not there yet, but it is an ongoing product.
Parents, already, are used to white dolls. So, coming up with black dolls became very challenging. Yes, I know that food and shelter are our priority here but we need to realise that the psychological impact of African toys cannot be undermined. So, we started by educating people.
There are quite a number of them. For entrepreneurs in Africa, the challenges are similar. People believing in you is one and the next is access to funds. When you apply to get a loan of N5million, they may tell you to go get a property worth N500mIllion. If I have that, why would I apply for a soft loan? I have been able to spread branches to places like Ibadan, Enugu, Port Harcourt.
Yes, I did apply for a loan but it was not worth it at the end of the day. Being able to access loans is almost impossible and even the interest rate is killing. I am disturbed that in Nigeria, people look at you rather than looking at your business. After all the documentation had been done for a loan acquisition, I was turned down because the final signatory couldn’t believe why someone in my position would apply for such a small amount of loan. How was that relevant, in the first instance? You should look at the risk factor and not whom I am.
To be frank, you should not be looking at why my family couldn’t raise the money for me. You should instead appreciate the effort I have put to work, and not about my father’s money. My father’s money is not even part of my business. Some even would say I am being greedy and that I should leave some business deals to other people. I operate on the level of my company and I let my work speak for me.
When we first started, I started educating people on the importance of having dolls. Back then, it was toy guns that were in vogue for kids but we started deviating when we realised the psychology impact and then started embracing dolls. We introduced Queen of Africa to the market and as time progressed, it is like the international market picked up fast as we sold in America and other parts of the world. We are also looking into other African countries. We were of the opinion that if white dolls sell a lot, why can’t black dolls sell too? We have books like that. I have about 20 books and I have only published seven. The likes of Efunsetan, Queen Amina, are people we think about before thinking on creating dolls after them.
Long term business goals
We started assembling dolls in Nigeria and it became rather expensive and defeating the purpose of what I wanted to achieve by making it affordable. Now, what I want to do is to work in partnership with other organisations to see how we can have production back here in Nigeria. That would create employment where people like stay-at-home mums can get to sew as many clothes for the dolls.
Space isn’t the problem. I have the space and I can start from the scratch, instead of just asembling here. But then, am I ready to start dealing with the problems of power, exchange rate, and the rest? I honestly don’t think so. Even if I can achieve that, fund is also key. How many people have big businesses running on their personal money? That’s very rare to find. If I run the kind of accounts I run here abroad, I will have access to funds and they will even be begging you to get loans at low interest rates.
Do your research and avoid the bandwagon effect that affects us in Nigeria. You don’t go into a business because everyone is going into it. Always understand that it is not going to be easy. You also have to listen to your inner self because that will keep you going.
One of the first things I see as a problem is that our educational system is almost in shambles. As an entrepreneur, you still need to employ people to work with you. The world is moving at a very high tech manner. So, how are we going to be able to cope? The challenges we face in SMEs are vast. Abroad, we have institutes for skills acquisition. I won’t even encourage people to start their businesses here because the facilities and infrastructure to make business succeed are not there. For instance, if you know how to make clothes, how about how to market them?