“Money is not the only driver for me. It is definitely first about providing value. The money will come as long as there are people that you are providing value to.”
Nigerian Kambili Ofili-Okonkwo (28) is the entrepreneur behind the Kamokini swimwear brand, which has the African woman in mind.
The idea came from her own challenges with finding a swimsuit that she could feel both beautiful and comfortable in. Ofili-Okonkwo grew up in Nigeria, but moved to the UK to complete her high school and university education. It was here she discovered how few bathing suits catered for the bodies of African women.
“A swimsuit is kind of like wearing your underwear in public. So the inspiration for Kamokini came out of a self-conscious need to feel beautiful and comfortable, and look confident while I’m so exposed.”
She first started designing her own costumes in 2011 and it wasn’t long before friends and family asked her to design for them too. But it was only once she moved back to Nigeria in 2014 that Ofili-Okonkwo saw the potential to turn her designs into a business.
“People who saw my swimsuits on [mutual friends] started asking if they could get one too. And the more this happened the more I realised people actually want this,” she recalls.
“I decided to start with a small collection because I didn’t have much funds and was using my own savings to see if this idea could come to fruition.”
She contacted factories in China and Turkey, and brought out her first few designs. She began selling through a handful of stockists in Nigeria, as well as on her own website. Today she also supplies retailers in Ghana and the US.
Ofili-Okonkwo is currently conducting market research into designing swimwear for the many different proportions seen in African women.
“The biggest difference between the West and Africa is our proportions… [African women] might have a bigger butt compared to their chest and you can find really skinny girls who have larger bra cups… You get that a lot in Africa. We are just more voluptuous,” she continues.
“Yet no one has really tapped into the fact that things have to be turned on its head to be made for us. So that’s kind of where I am now. I’m trying to completely change this… and it is taking a little bit of research and development.”
Production: Local vs foreign
Outsourcing clothing manufacturing to countries such as China and Turkey comes with its pros and cons. On the one hand, these markets already have the skills and infrastructure required to produce quality garments.
“And in that regard it’s more cost effective because you do not have to develop the skill set yourself,” Ofili-Okonkwo explains.
“Plus you have less quality issues and less re-runs. The skill set is so good that you have less rejects. You work with more experienced hands.”
However, she notes that the benefits of foreign expertise are often counteracted by the high cost of importing.
“The custom clearance fees you pay are so high when you import into the country that it substantially eats into the benefits of that cost reduction [from outsourcing manufacturing].”
Local manufacturing allows entrepreneurs to have more control over supply and they can execute decisions faster.
“Because it’s closer to home you can change things quicker. So you can decide a particular style might not be selling as well as you thought and can quickly make decisions to re-work it… Whereas it takes a lot of time to start shipping mistakes or defaults back to factories abroad.”
Ofili-Okonkwo says domestic production is ultimately the only way forward for her brand, especially with the recent devaluation of the naira which has considerably increased the cost of imported goods.
‘Don’t be afraid to be the bad guy’
While Ofili-Okonkwo says she has always had an entrepreneurial mind, there have been some parts of running her own business that she has had to learn to adapt to. For starters, she finds it difficult to delegate tasks to others and instinctively wants to micro-manage.
“When it’s your business and your dream, it is very hard to let go and believe that other people can share that dream as much as you do. So I think sometimes I have gotten too hung up on the fact that this is my dream and I haven’t let people execute to their fullest capacity.”
However, she adds that entrepreneurs also need to trust their own instincts and must not be afraid to be the “bad guy” when it comes to demanding results.
“I like to consider myself as a nice, friendly person. I don’t like offending people and I don’t want to be the bad guy. But in business you have to be able to put that aside at times and actually get down to it,” she says.
“I find I’m constantly training myself on how to talk to people and give them constructive feedback when they are not doing what I need them to do. In the end, if you can’t say how you really feel, the only person that suffers is you… And I’m still working through being able to speak my mind irrespective of who I think I am going offend or who is not agreeing with what I think.”
She warns aspiring entrepreneurs to ensure they have the willpower to keep going through the tough times before going into business.
“You need to be able to be disciplined enough to push through those bits. And if you can’t do it, don’t expect someone else to be able to sacrifice that time or effort to do it for you. That is definitely something I would say is important in business,” she emphasises.