“To scale through the start-up phase is very difficult. It requires a lot of tenacity and, like I always say, it requires experience.”
So says Nigerian Olatorera Oniru. Last year, she left a corporate career spanning years of experience at the Fortune 500 companies Bank of America (Merrill Lynch) and General Electric, as well as Ericsson, the Central Bank of Nigeria and MTN. Why? To head into the less-predictable world of online shopping in Nigeria.
“And I haven’t been happier.”
Oniru’s venture is Dressmeoutlet.com, a fashion, beauty and homeware e-commerce platform that is promoting goods made in Africa. Since Oniru used her personal savings to launch the site in January, the company has grown to 20 full-time employees. About 80% of sales are currently from Nigeria, with an increasing number of customers coming from the US and other African markets.
Oniru has also launched her own local manufacturing outfit to ensure that a greater percentage of her platform’s products are truly African – right down to the materials used.
“Pretty much 98% of ‘made in Africa’ fashion does not really come from Africa – like the material, fabrics and beading,” she explains.
“For example, I have spoken to a mattress company which has a manufacturing unit in Nigeria – but 95% of their supplies are still imported. These supplies could actually be sourced locally, but they can’t find producers that can supply the quantities that they need on a monthly basis – that is a massive gap in Africa.
“We want to be able to understand the entire fashion supply chain – from cotton farming to a finished garment. This is what our manufacturing unit is focused on right now.”
Oniru sees potential in scaling production as the demand for locally-sourced materials grows. Nigeria’s weak naira, which lost over a third of its value when it was unpegged from the dollar in June, has made importation more expensive.
“The currency challenges have helped us to promote more of the ‘made in Africa’ fashion industry. It helps us to look inward rather than importing.”
Learning from the best
Oniru completed her tertiary education in the US and graduated cum laude in business administration and management from North Carolina A&T State University. She also holds an MBA from Emory University in Atlanta.
However, she says that the best lesson in entrepreneurship has come from working under established multinationals.
“Those experiences are invaluable. You are learning from companies who are 200-plus years old… They have developed through start-up stage, growth stage… and they have been able to stand as Fortune 500 companies.”
Oniru’s company is still in its vulnerable first year and is up against tough odds – with some statistics suggesting that 80% of start-ups fail within the first 18 months. There are also a growing number of fashion and beauty e-commerce start-ups in Nigeria, with many struggling to move beyond the small-scale boutique stage. In an effort to beat the odds, Oniru says she is constantly learning new skills so that she can master all aspects of the business.
“Yes, there are lots of entrants, but it requires knowledge, expertise and tenacity to really grow,” Oniru says. “For instance, we have a studio team who shoot products day in, day out – and I had to actually go and study photography. I wasn’t going to just leave that to the studio team, even though we have a very skilled group of people… Knowledge really and truly is power.”
She adds that competition in the e-commerce space drives a culture of online shopping, which is good for the sector overall.
“The industry is still in its infancy. The more entrants, the better. When I see competitors in the field I am actually excited because Africa needs competition. It drives growth and success… and it is good for helping us all be our very best.”