Nigerian Kunmi Otitoju studied and worked in the US and Europe before launching her fashion design startup, Minku, in 2011. The company – based in Lagos and Barcelona – specialises in handmade, Yoruba-themed leather bags for men and women which are mainly sold online and at high-end stores in Nigeria. [hidepost=9][/hidepost]
Recently, Minku started accepting the controversial Bitcoin as an online payment method for its designs. How we made it in Africa asked Otitoju about her decision to accept the digital currency, as well as the potential she sees in the Nigerian fashion industry and ecommerce space.
What is the strategy behind accepting Bitcoin as a payment method for your products?
It’s exciting. I find the concept of a digital cryptocurrency, accepted globally in exchange for a widening range of goods and services, to be cool. Much of the scepticism surrounding Bitcoin is centred on the ‘crypto’ part. But there is more to it than that, particularly for online merchants, like Overstock.com in the US who have also started accepting it. With time, governments will step in and give a cleaner definition of what it is, how it can be traded, and so on, and then it could garner general acceptance as just another boring old method of paying for things online.
Are you seeing traction with it as a payment method with your customers and in Nigeria?
Yes, we are seeing traction in terms of sales, and are happy about this. The traction coming from Nigeria is different. At first we were just thinking of the cool factor and the global reach thing, and didn’t understand the possible broader implication of what we were doing until TechCabal, a Nigerian tech and startups news site, did an article naming Minku the first Nigerian startup to accept Bitcoin. Then I realised that Minku accepting Bitcoin is not just about nudging Nigerians to adopt the currency (that will or will not happen, over time). It is about including Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa in an interesting global conversation at an atypically early stage, when those in the US, the UK, China, are still trying to figure it out as well.
Tell us about the Nigerian ecommerce space. Do the opportunities outweigh the challenges?
Yes, the opportunities outweigh the challenges. Minku is an atypical ecommerce player though, in that we create the items we sell. From what I have seen, ecommerce companies in Nigeria that focus on distribution, while not manufacturing the goods they sell, can more rapidly build up merchandise volume and dedicate capital to logistics that would help them really take advantage of the ecommerce setup. I guess that goes for any country: yoox.com can better exploit ecommerce than, say, Dolce & Gabbana, for the same reason.
Who are your customers?
Minku clients come from 16 countries so far, mostly the US and Nigeria, but also far-reaching places like Finland and India. Press [interest] (in Catalunya, the US, Nigeria and South Africa) has helped us expand our reach, in addition to our friends and networks taking to social media to spread the word about Minku. We also participate in the Barcelona Fashion Week Showroom and hold an annual pop-up event in Lagos, during which we get to present our newest collections to the audience at the origin of it all.
What is the reasoning behind manufacturing your designs in Barcelona and selling them in Nigeria?
I don’t really manufacture the bags at all: I hand make them all myself, and work from wherever I happen to be. It’s more a workshop/atelier model than a factory model: the bags are made using old-school tools like an awl, a needle, a cutter, a hot stamp… I’ve been told that people don’t like to hear “make the items myself”, “work out of a workshop” but companies like Hermès and Louis Vuitton started off in exactly the same way – from the artistic creations of one person, and as small, family-run companies.
Describe the potential you see in the Nigerian fashion industry.
I definitely see the Nigerian fashion industry gaining international appeal. The skill, vision and creativity exhibited by many of our designers are on par with what we see on the catwalks in New York City or Melbourne. I particularly like that designers are looking to our diverse cultures for inspiration. For example, around 2010, Bunmi Koko released her collection with silhouettes and textures inspired by traditional Efik festive clothing; Maki Oh makes ultra-modern motifs using traditional Yoruba adire dyeing processes, and I am using aso oke, a hand-loomed Yoruba fabric traditionally worn as ceremonial dress, to fill new uses that can be appreciated by a global audience. I think all this is good for the local textile industry and our joint heritage as Nigerians/Africans.
What advice do you have for other young entrepreneurs who are considering opening a business in Nigeria?
I would say definitely go for it, and take advantage of government initiatives like YouWIN! [business competition] to help you get started funding wise. Also know your sector, and understand what you want personally. Let your company go through the normal growth stages: premature over-funding has killed off many companies that would have had a chance otherwise. I say this as an advocate of the lean startup methodology, which has helped our company so far.