Nigerian shoemaker on finding her passion

Elizabeth Ojelua is the up-and-coming Nigerian entrepreneur behind shoemaking startup SureLift Tranx. The company – officially launched at the end of 2010 and employing eight people – is still in its early stages but has been developing a name for itself in Nigeria’s fashion industry for its boutique, handmade shoe and handbag designs.

Elizabeth Ojelua, founder of Surelyxxxx

Elizabeth Ojelua, founder of SureLift Tranx

Ojelua has been using social media to create much of the awareness around her designs (which can be found both online and in various boutique stores in Nigeria). She has also started the Surelift Academy, which offers affordable training and courses in leatherwork and shoemaking to empower others.

In the hours around midnight, Ojelua found time to answer How we made it in Africa’s questions about her inspiration behind Surelift Tranx, and what it takes to be a first-time entrepreneur in Nigeria.

What inspired you to start Surelift Tranx?

I first conceived the idea in 2008 but officially started in November 2010. The name Surelift Tranx is a combination of my childhood nickname Surely, ‘lift’ inspired by God and ‘tranx’ from transformation.

What actually inspired me is my creativity and the fact that I have always loved to work with my hands. I learnt bead making and some other skills after I graduated from school and before I found a job. I started to make the beads but couldn’t sell them because a lot of people, even my friends and family, were already making beads too. I couldn’t sell my beads, but it got me thinking and I finally arrived at the concept of putting the beads on easy-to-wear slippers.

A lot of people loved the concept but complained about the finish because I initially used roadside shoemakers to help me fix my beautiful knitted beads onto the slippers. But their finishing was poor. So I was encouraged to learn the skill…. And just like that I found my passion in shoemaking. Today I still make shoes with my hands and train people and groups to do the same.

How did you go about financing your startup?

I actually started with as little as NGN. 8,000 (US$49) cash that I gathered from the sale of cosmetics immediately after my time at the National Youth Service Corp because I hate idleness.

Who are your customers?

Middle and upper class men and women; people with a taste for quality and unique products in a variety of designs.

Describe the potential in Nigeria’s clothing and fashion market.

Nigerians love fashion and wearing beautiful clothes. Nigerians are always striving to be outstanding and are really good at keeping updated on trends… So with constant and creative work on colour combinations and designs, the fashion industry will never run dry.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in business and how do you plan to overcome them?

Power supply is a big issue but we are overcoming that by using a generator.

Another challenge is the constant non-availability of some materials, sometimes when demand is high on a particular product design… I have to tell the clients we may have to alter the materials.

The best part of being an entrepreneur?

I am a happy entrepreneur because I love my line of business as a shoemaker. I also have control of my time (even though I work around the clock some days).

In your opinion, what qualities must an entrepreneur have to be successful in Nigeria?

Entrepreneurs in Nigeria need to be focused… and passionate about what they do.

What entrepreneurial qualities come naturally to you?

The ability to keep on learning, creative thinking and planning, and, of course, being very friendly.

Do you think more can be done in Nigeria to encourage young entrepreneurs and foster a supportive environment for startups?

Yeah, sure. A lot should be put in place to assist young entrepreneurs, especially to tackle the high rate of unemployment. Grants and loans should be more readily available to them and, of course, the power supply should be more regular. Also, more forums should be organised for them on entrepreneurial matters to help them improve their business and achieve faster growth.

Do you have any advice for first time entrepreneurs?

Put God first, follow your passion only, and be consistent in giving your best. The sky is your starting place and together we will improve our world.