By Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye
Nkwo Onwuka is a British-Nigerian lady who left her comfort zone in the UK and came home to find expression and fulfilment in her unique fashion skill, turning textile waste to wealth. Her work has been recognised and featured in many fashion shows within and outside Nigeria. She uses second hand jeans, mostly sourced from local markets and family members and creatively turns them into bold fashion statements. Only recently, CNN featured her on its Market Africa programme. Accordimng to CNN, “For Nigerian designer, Nkwo Onwuka, inspiration for her clothes comes not just from her country but from the entire continent. She can pick anything and turn it into something fashionable. She is a leading fashion designer in Africa with unique skills.”
In partnership with two non-governmental organisations (NGOs), FLEP Nigeria and EDWIIN, she took her skills to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) enclave in Abuja and is training women in this unique fashion art form free of charge, with the aim of empowering them financially. The result has been amazing.
In a chat with Saturday Sun, she talked about what inspires her, her philosophy of life and her talent.
Tell us about this waste to wealth thing
My label is called Nkwo and the focus is on textile waste reduction, but also how we can use textile waste as a resource to preserve our traditional crafts skills. Because I find that a lot of our cross skills are dying. When I talk to the practitioners, a lot of them say they can’t find good raw materials. It’s really difficult because Nigerians are not producing cotton as we should, and all those kinds of things. So I just figured it would be a great way to kill two birds with one stone. So that’s why I focus on textile waste.
It’s a rare kind of business. How old is it? How were you able to penetrate the market and how successful has it been?
To be honest, it’s very successful. People have accepted it a lot. I’m a bit surprised at the response because I wasn’t sure but what I’ve learned along the way is that you have to do what your heart feels good doing and what feeds your soul. And so I just did, I took a gamble and it paid off. I started on the sustainable journey in 2012, then moved back to Nigeria in 2015. And since I came back, I’ve had so much recognition, mostly from outside Nigeria. In 2018, I represented Nigeria, in Buckingham Palace, at an exhibition which was all about sustainable fashion. It was the Commonwealth. It was wonderful. I mean, the whole time I lived in the UK I never got to Buckingham Palace. I met Kate Middleton at that exhibition.
So the response has been great. And there are actually a lot more emerging designers who have realised that there’s something in this and they have started doing it as well. So I’m pleased that it’s something that’s growing. It’s about adding value. People are realising that it’s not only things that come from outside that are of quality. You can find value in the things around you. Because people always ask me this question: what do Nigerians or Africans think about wearing second hand clothes? It’s more than second hand clothes, because I’ve added value to it. And so it is that added value that is appealing. It is doing very, very well, a lot better than I thought.
How do you source these materials? Are you in some partnership with tailors to collect the waste from?
Okay, I use a lot of recycled jeans. You know they have second hand markets like Karimu market that are held on Tuesdays. So I go there and I get jeans, my husband’s old jeans, anybody’s old jeans, you know if you have them bring them over. There’s this other project I’m doing; we call it weaving waste into wealth. So it’s basically trying to teach people who probably wouldn’t have thought about using wastes how to use it as a resource. So we are working with women in an IDP camp in the FCT called New Kuchingoro, teaching them how to make mats, wall-hangings, rugs, and things like that using fabric waste. And so these scraps, we sourced them from the markets. We go to Garki Market because it’s full of tailors. And one of my ladies here has a relationship with the cleaners. So as they are cleaning, they pack a big sack for us and we pay them to get it. So this is how we’re sourcing our scraps and it’s actually interesting because in the camp, there are tailors who used to give the women scraps but now they’ve seen value, so they don’t give it to them anymore. They sell it. So it’s also like, building an economy around waste, which is, I think, important. So once we get back from the second clothes market, we wash them, take them apart and we just transform them.
How many of the women in IDPs camp are you working with?
Well, we are working with ten. When I started, to be honest, the idea was that maybe we could get two or three that might be interested, and we could bring them and employ them. But all ten of them are interested and they’re so enthusiastic. We give them things we think might take them like two weeks to finish and in two days they call and say, “Ma, we have finished”. I’m like what? You have finished? They love it. So I just thought to myself, ‘Oh, God, what do I do? I can’t employ ten of them here in my office’. So I now found a big space near the camp so they can walk to work. And we’re going to set up a weaving centre and take on the whole ten. So as long as we can get business, they have jobs.
Why did you choose to focus on IDP camps and how do we know you won’t leave them high and dry after the training?
I didn’t choose. My focus is, I just wanted a way to make peoples’ lives better, you know. And so I had some women in Kogi State that I used to work with. They weave, but because of security challenges, I couldn’t go there anymore. So I just thought, we have this thing we need to teach; we have to find a way. And it just so happens that two of my cousins have NGOs, FLEP Nigeria and EDWIIN and they were both working in the camps. And I asked them, “Do you think this is a good idea to come and do with the women at the IDP camp?” And they were like, “just come”. So we went. And that’s how it happened.
The women complain that NGOs come, train them on different handiwork but there’s no market for their finished items. Is that true?
That’s exactly the thing. People keep coming and say oh, we’re working at the IDP camp. They use it to get funding and teach the women nonsense and then leave. So when we got these ones, I think most of the women in the camp were like ‘please, they have come again!’ Because when we came, there was a huge crowd of women, but we could only register ten out of like, maybe up to 30. We go there Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays to train them.
Have you sold anything yet from the women?
No, but we are planning to. We haven’t sold anything yet, but they are so good at it. The IDP thing has only been about two months. Yeah. So it’s quite young. Recently, we were talking about spinning cotton and how the skill is dying. There’s hardly anybody that knows how to do it. So we found this village in Ushafa. And there’s an old man there who grows cotton. He sells it to women who spin it into yarn and sell it back to him. He uses it for hand embroidery and they weave fabric from it. So for me this new weaving centre is going to be about farming cotton, how you grow it, harvest it, spin it, dye and weave it.
Do you sow some regular things?
We have our own ready to wear, which is just regular clothes. And that’s how we make our bread and butter money. We supply stores and sell during exhibitions and do deliveries.
How many exhibitions have you had or participated in?
After the pandemic, most of the fashion weeks, or the runways were shut down. So we do sort of digital presentations. But I used to do Lagos Fashion Week. I’ve done Arise Fashion Week. I’ve been abroad and done exhibitions as well.
Let’s talk about your craft. How you use waste, nylon bags, threads to create outstanding pieces.
I’m always trying to find ways to do things differently. That’s why we’ve got these old plastic bags and turned them into woven items. And we hope to turn them into other bags so that it’s no longer single-use plastic. You can’t throw it away but you can keep it for a long time. There are threads that get cut off from when we’re sewing and I found a way to turn them into lace. So we don’t waste anything here.
How are government policies affecting businesses like yours?
You know what I decided? I decided to just have blinkers on. I don’t pay any attention to any of it. Because if you do, you will get discouraged. You listen to the news and all you hear is there is killing here and there, so, I refuse to let it affect me in any way. I just do what I can do. And thankfully, I have just been very blessed that people accept it. I always tell people the government is very complex. And if you keep waiting for the government, you may wait forever, because people keep saying the government doesn’t do this, it doesn’t do that. I think if you do something on your own, maybe then the government will see that someone is doing something and then come for support.
I’m curious to know what made you return to Nigeria when people are planning to run away?
I lived in the UK for a long time. I was born there. And then I came back and I went back. I was there for about 18 years before I came back. Every time I came back for any show anywhere in Africa, it pained me to go back. It’s like, my roots were calling me to come back. I keep trying to discourage young people from going abroad. Nigeria is a place where anything you throw grows and it applies to some kinds of businesses. I feel like this is some kind of freedom. I’m not a second class citizen here. This is my home. I have a lot to offer. So why would I go somewhere and be in a box when I can come home and just be free? And I just feel if we all run away, how does the country get better?
If you were to advise the government what will you have them to do?
I would have them really tackle insecurity because I think it is one of the biggest problems that we have. Because you know, a lot of these crafts and things, they’re all in the villages. How do you get in there when you can’t travel and go from here to Okene anymore? So I think they really need to tackle it and tackle it honestly, and not make it about tribe or religion or anything. And I think if the insecurity is tackled, then the infrastructure and then we will now be able to sort of take it to the next step. So one step is insecurity, the next step is infrastructure and I think another step also is to get into the minds of people. There has to be some kind of a shift in how we think and it probably has to come from when they are little, what you teach them in school. Creativity is very important, because creativity leads to logical thinking – if I think oh, how can I make this fit into this? You know, you’re constantly thinking. I find that a lot of the way children are taught here, they’re not taught to think. They are just taught to follow and we need ideas. We need to take advantage of the young minds because they absorb a lot.
Everything in the country has gone up like 300 per cent, even for second-hand clothes. How is that affecting your business?
You are right but like I said somehow, I haven’t been affected as much as I would have thought. I’m still growing, I’m taking on new staff. We’ve got this new place that’s coming. So I’m probably not in the best position to answer that question, because somehow it hasn’t affected me as much.
Your craft must be very unique to have attracted CNN to do a documentary on you. How does that feel?
It feels good because it means that people outside of your circle recognise what you’re doing. I think it’s a good thing. It makes me feel like I’m not just wasting my time and I think it is good because it inspires other people. They can see that Nigeria is not as bad. You can’t just keep knocking the country. There are good things that come up from here too. So they see good things. And I think it should open all of our eyes to see that there are good things around us.
How did your family react to your decision to relocate to Nigeria?
Well, I lost my parents a long time ago, so It was pretty much just me and my husband really. He doesn’t actually like it as much as I do. Because he just went back a few weeks ago. My friends couldn’t believe that I could come back and live here. And you know, with all the things they keep hearing, they keep saying, won’t you come back? And I’m like, nope! You know, there’s something that just makes me love it here. I just love it. And I don’t know what it is. But I can’t go back.
So has your husband accepted the fact that you have relocated for good?
He likes it on some level. He just needs to get his peace and then come back. Yeah, he’s happy with it. I mean, he’s really proud of all of the stuff I’m doing. It has actually inspired him as well. And he’s beginning to see that there is something positive, you know, not everything in Nigeria is bad.
Have there been times you said what am I doing here?
That was a long time ago. I came back permanently in 2015, but 2016 was when I was trying to, you know, understand the place I was in. Because I was fresh from the UK, I used to see things in a very different way. You know, I understand things one way, people understand it a different way. I’m trying to do this, people are saying it’s like this, you know, it was really, really frustrating. I remember then I let my return ticket expire. Because I felt if I went back then, I might not come back.
Did you study this in school?
I didn’t go to school to learn any of these. I think it’s part of when we were growing up. Another thing was that we were allowed to watch TV only on Saturdays. So what were we supposed to do the whole time? So everybody in my family is very creative. We used to make toys. From anything we just used to make things because my mum used to sew. I learned how to make little dresses for my dolls. So I went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and I studied psychology, being the child of a lecturer. My parents, you know, Nigerian parents always want you to study medicine and so on. So that’s what they thought I was going to do. But when I was in form three, that chemistry thing I really couldn’t get it. And then I started to win prizes for fine arts. And I think it was when I was 15 that I decided I was going to be a fashion designer, much to everybody’s surprise. But here I am. I’ve done a couple of short courses in London College of Fashion, one on pattern cutting and another on fashion illustration or something. But just to let you know, I’m self taught.
How do you relax in the midst of all these?
Do I ever? Well, I walk a lot. You saw in the CNN report that I climb hills. I like going out. Before insecurity got really bad, I used to go with a tour company to Kajuru and all over the place. That’s how I used to relax. But now I’ve taken on a lot more responsibilities. So I don’t relax, really. I’m always working till I sleep. I haven’t travelled in a while. The whole of last year, because of COVID-19, I haven’t gone anywhere and also I’m now just very, very busy. I used to go away like once in a year. I used to go for a whole month, but in-between, I would go somewhere, you know just a small trip. I climb hills in the village around me. I like to explore. but that’s just hard now because of security issues