In this interview, founder of Garneti Exhibit, Etienying Akpanusong, a budding entrepreneur in the Nigerian fashion and style industry, says with government support, the Nigerian fashion industry can compete at the global stage:
What was your driving force? How did you enter the fashion and style industry?
The key driving force for me was the fact that I wanted to make some extra money for myself as a student. I actually started while I was in school. My pocket money then was not enough, so I needed to make some extra cash for myself.
That was why I started. And as for my interest in fashion industry, when I started at the time I asked myself, what do you want to do? I knew I didn’t want to do buying and selling. I knew I was creative and talented enough to produce something.
So I started with making jewelries from beads. It was easy doing jewelries from beads because it was a hobby. Growing up as a child, I used to love making beads and doing all those kinds of stuff. That was how I started and evolved into fashion and style. I just started with what was available, resource and knowledge wise.
In a clime where close to 80 per cent startups fail between the first and third year of their establishment, what has kept you going in business?
It’s just persistency and consistency. Of course, I had high expectations when I started. I expected magic. Reality showed me that it is not like that. But by the time you follow the success story of successful entrepreneurs, you will realise that they also had their ups and downs. So, for me, it’s just that perseverance that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
As an entrepreneur you don’t necessarily need to be the artisan or the craftsman, but if you do not have the skills, it would be easy for artisans to mess you up.
You talked about your big dreams and what reality taught you as an entrepreneur. What was it reality taught you?
At first, I felt that as a young entrepreneur, someone with good ideas, you are not thinking just about yourself, you’re thinking about how to empower other youth through your skills, that I was going to have the government come to my aid and try to sponsor and support because I had done a lot on skills development. As a ‘youth corper’,
I trained over 500 youths in secondary schools and it earned me the FCT award of recognition. I thought these were the kinds of things that government would key into and see the need for skills development. It could be done better.
We could be better equipped. I had this expectation from government or individuals who saw this initiative and would be willing to help. But the reality is that you’re on your own. Everybody will say what you are doing is great and just move on. (laughs)
In what practical ways could the government help improve the survival and growth of start-ups?
The core challenge with SMEs is funding. You have the skills, zeal but the funding is not just available.
And the government thinks they have done enough by making available BOI loan, the Central Bank grants/loan available to micro finance banks. But the challenge is that it is not accessible. They give requirements that you cannot meet up as a starter.
Sometimes you do all the documentation and you just cannot find someone to help you stand as a guarantor for you to be able to access these facilities, beecause nobody is ready to stake their jobs or properties for you. So, it makes it difficult for you to access the loans made available for SMEs.
How do you market your products, and which tactics have been most effective and efficient?
The most effective has been referral; word of mouth from customers.
Start-ups are faced with different challenges. What are the ones peculiar to your industry and how did you surmount them?
I won’t say I have overcome it yet. I think my major challenge has been the production staff that I work with. There is this lack of consistency on their part. In the fashion industry, tailors are a big problem.
It’s difficult to handle them. It’s still a concern for me, trying to manage that aspect, the production aspect. The production team on their own can be a challenge and sometimes they are the most problematic.
At times funding and getting resource is not the problem but getting your production the way it ought to be is the problem because there no regulation in the industry for artisans to adhere to. So, they think they can just come in and treat your business the way they like.
You have situations where your employee just dumps your business and goes out to another fashion house to work. You’ll think the problem is with you but then you find out from other fashion houses that they are facing the same challenge.
Of course, I had high expectations when I started. I expected magic. Reality showed me that it is not like that.
Don’t you think it’s a problem with the incentives and remuneration you offer tailors?
Ask them what their problem because we want to understand it. Incentives? Yes, but your prices have to be competitive. And even when you have that in check, it’s always like it’s impossible for you to please them. One of them told me that money not their problem, but the fact that they don’t know what they want. So, it is difficult to manage them.
Looking back, what would you have done differently if you were to be starting now?
I don’t think there is anything I would love to do differently. Do you know why I say so? For me, it was more like a hobby and I just decided to commercialise my hobby. I just grew in it. There were no set plans when I started that this was exactly how it was going to be.
What were your biggest mistakes as a rookie in the fashion and style industry?
I think my approach to life makes it difficult for me to approach this question. This is because I’ve always looked at my experiences as a learning process. I don’t really focus on the fact that I have made mistakes. I don’t see them as mistakes. I see them as one of those things I need in the process of growing.
In the fashion industry, tailors are a big problem. It’s difficult to handle them. It’s still a concern for me, trying to manage that aspect, the production aspect.
What advice would you give to college graduates and undergraduates who want to become entrepreneurs?
I’m a strong advocate of skill acquisition. I have always believed that even as a student you should find one area, something you have passion for and acquire the necessary skills. Sometimes you can teach yourself the skills, you can research on them, go online and learn or go to people who have these stills to help you develop yours.
So, what I will tell anybody, either still in school or out there in the labour market, is that they should acquire skills, and these skills should be based on your interest, should be based on things you have passion for.
First of all, what you need to do business is the skills. Because you have to be skilled in one field or the other. Even as an entrepreneur you don’t necessarily need to be the artisan or the craftsman, but if you do not have the skills, it would be easy for artisans to mess you up. There is no perfect time to start. You would still make mistakes and learn in the process.
As an entrepreneur, between mentoring and capital, which would you say is more important to success of a startup?
It’s capital. Because like I said, you would learn. You can become your own mentor and learn in the process. But without the capital, it’s difficult. They are both important, I really do not know which one is more important but from my personal experience I would say it is the capital.
Because I just had to put my skills to use. I didn’t wait to be mentored to start. But with the necessary capital and skills you already have, you can start. No matter the mentoring you have, you will still learn in the process.
Where do you see Nigerian brands in the fashion and style global market in the next 10 years?
The Nigerian fashion industry is really thriving. We are doing well. If not for the challenges we have to deal with. Electricity is a major problem. It is affecting our productivity. These factors need to be taken care of and if they are, Nigerian brands will be able to compete with the biggest brands that you know because Nigerians have accepted the fact that our dresses look best on us.
Gone are the days when you want to wear one of the international brands to go for red carpet events and look regal in it. In today’s Nigeria and fashion industry, we are wearing our brands and looking really good and attracting international attention. Nigeria is the fashion icon in Africa.