‘Turning waste to wealth is the new gold!’ Up close with Vera Akpan

Vera Akpan in her workspace. Photo credit: Uwem Udoh

Vera Akpan in her workspace. Photo credit: Uwem Udoh

PRESS OFFICE: Djembe Communications

At the end of April, Djembe Communications announced the winner of their social media photo contest #InspireAfrica, exclusively dedicated to women entrepreneurs across the continent.

The aim was to celebrate inspiring womenpreneurs who are creating their own opportunities and changing the face of Africa through their work. Lagos-born Vera Akpan, founder of Oremi Craft, is one of them.

From diplomacy and international affairs to crafts

One would assume that a graduate in marketing and management, with a degree in international studies & diplomacy, and a master’s in public & international affairs is out there advancing on the corporate ladder, but Vera is following her passion, which is more fulfilling: making things with her own hands. From colourful jewelry to creative bags, belts, shoes and other accessories, Vera’s crafts are made from recycled materials and widely worn by women in Nigeria and abroad.

It all started as a hobby while she was still studying: “In my first year of study, learning history, I fell in love with the African continent, realising that we are cultural people, we have much potential and should show it to the world.”

Vera explained that her path was not an easy one. “I didn’t have much and I was praying to God to show me a way forward. I somehow heard his answer… that it lies in my hands.” Armed with her mother’s sewing machine, she invested her school fees into creations for an exhibition, but it didn’t go well. Although she was left broken-hearted she followed her vision with tenacity, and this she says helped her to discover her niche. At the time, women’s accessories in Nigeria were all imported. Vera filled that gap in the market with high qualitative, modern products made with local materials, bearing indigenous patterns and designs. As Vera stated, in Nigeria people are driven by fast money and she would like to shift this mindset into a quality-driven culture, which can rise to international standards.

Awarded social entrepreneur

Oremi in translation means my friend, and Vera’s business is all about community, sustainability and human interactions.

In the past years Vera has been volunteering with local NGOs, teaching crafts to more than 1500 children. “It was very full-filling to see 10- or 12-year-olds selling their own creations and putting their small earnings towards furthering their education” the crafter says.

Her business employs mostly underprivileged young people who are willing to learn, to discover trends and evolve through business. “I teach the youngsters to think outside the box and to see opportunity around them. We can use the things we discard to make money. And we can use our hands,” adds Vera. She scouts for the raw materials for her products wherever she can – from markets, discarded fabrics and materials such as coconut shells, or through social networks to collect used jeans.

The power of association through networking is how she believes that things can move ahead – with people and through people. Her outlook to business is what got her an invitation to represent Nigeria in Morocco at a women’s fair. Her constant willingness to learn and be involved in workshops and seminars, researching, working and innovating, brought her many recognitions – a scholarship to the Pan Atlantic University by the British Council to attend the Creative Enterprise Programme (CEP); winner of the IBM Enterprise Challenge, winner of the Creative Focus Africa Business Challenge and she was awarded as Most Industrious Female, Henry Carr, UNILAG Postgraduate Hall.

What she also values and finds a prerequisite for any start-up is the power of mentorship. “Mentorship is very important because experience cannot be negotiated,” she says. One should find someone to look up to and take his or her advice.

To all the other African women who are aspiring to become entrepreneurs Vera says: “start from where you are. You don’t need five million to start a business but the tenacity to drive your idea. Believe in yourself. Believe in your vision, even if things are not working. For others to believe in you, you must be the first to believe.”