Nigerian designer tapping into Africa’s leather potential

A bag produced by Femi Olayebi's company

A bag produced by Femi Olayebi’s company

By Gbemisola Esho, bird story agency

While pregnant, Nigerian entrepreneur Femi Olayebi made a baby bag for herself. That led to her founding her own brands – My World of Bags and FemiHandbags – which have clients across Africa, Europe, the US, and Canada. Now she wants buyers to source goods in Africa.

When Femi Olayebi was pregnant with her first child, she searched the length and breadth of her home town of Ibadan, but couldn’t find a baby bag that she liked.

“I was searching for a combination of style and functionality, but nothing caught my eye. Everything I came across either looked cheap or was too bulky for my liking,” said Olayebi.

So she decided to make her own bag. As a language major with a master’s in translation, little did Olayebi know, but this move would eventually lead to her becoming the founder of a contemporary, high-end African fashion label.

Olayebi decided to learn how to sew and managed to make a nice-looking and functional baby bag.

“The bag was a hit with my friends, their friends, and my family. Soon after, requests started pouring in with people placing orders to get the same bag for themselves or as a gift for new or expecting parents,” said Olayebi.

The overwhelming requests prompted her to start ‘My World of Bags’, a business that swiftly gained popularity among new parents. Her bags were known for their stylish design, high quality, and vibrant colours.

As the business grew, Olayebi decided to expand into other areas. She started designing and selling women’s bags and added more products like accessories and merchandise.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think that this singular action will become my future and it will grow into a business in Nigeria and beyond,” she said.

Being 100% self-taught and without industry experience, Olayebi soon found herself in a whole new challenging world.

With the internet still in its infancy and Google yet to make an appearance, she had to rely on books to navigate the business world. She even had to hire dressmakers, who she then trained to become bag designers.

“A turning point for me was being selected in 2008 as a Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women scholar. This allowed me to attend an entrepreneurial programme and also attend a business course,” Olayebi said.

“After that, I was twice nominated to attend mentoring programmes in the United States, where I job-shadowed some renown American handbag designers,” she added.

Apart from numerous clients in Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, Gambia, Ghana, Namibia and other African countries, the brand also has customers in Europe, the US and Canada.

Having spent over two decades in the industry and attending numerous exhibitions, Olayebi recognised the challenges and opportunities and resolved to transform the landscape by launching the Lagos Leather Fair, in 2017.

The fair has become a major showcase for local designers to display their finest leather products. It also features master classes, workshops, conversations, and runway shows, all in one event.

The 2023 edition featured workshops as diverse as the process of shoemaking and how to grow a business through social media.

Emerging brands are offered free space to showcase leather products which are then evaluated for prizes and mentoring opportunities. The fair also helped boost existing businesses.

“I took part in the masterclass on branding, and how it could help us access the international market, this made me look inward to re-examine my strategy in my route to the international market,” said Abimbola Azeh, founder of the Mona Matthews shoe brand.

“It made me put together a new collection. I sat down to think of the major things I wanted to work on this year and what were; the old styles I wanted to retain and the new ones I wanted to do. The fair gave me something to look forward to,” Azeh said.

Olayebi also holds skill training programs where more young designers are groomed. “There is no point of an industry that does not have the workforce to maintain and grow it, for this industry to be sustainable it has to have the skill to maintain and innovation to drive it,” she explained.

Olayebi partnered with the Nigerian Export Promotion Council in 2019 to execute a capacity-building initiative and also persuaded the Mastercard Foundation to partner in the ‘Kafawa’ training programme.

She is now aiming to ensure that Africa – long a source of some of the world’s finest exported leather – becomes recognised as a major destination for quality leather craftsmanship. “I am determined to make sure the whole leather value chain works and the African designers are given their own space in the international leather and leather goods industry,” Olayebi said.

The International Trade Centre has pointed out that the export of hides, skins, and other leather products could be a potentially lucrative opportunity for Nigeria. Moreover, the West Africa Trade & Investment Hub (WATIH), an initiative funded by USAID to stimulate economic growth in the region, has underlined the potential for exporting high-end fashion products from West Africa.

“The world has changed so much, you don’t need mass production in order to survive. Companies like Amazon and Alibaba have facilitated this shift; it means a fashion designer in West Africa – for example, a one-person business in Senegal making 10 units a month – can easily sell products one at a time on Amazon. It’s an incredible opportunity; exporting doesn’t only entail filling a large container, it is possible to export goods one package at a time by selling custom items online and shipping products through DHL,” explained a representative from WATIH in an earlier interview with How we made it in Africa.

/bird story agency