Why we pro­duce, pro­mote lo­cally-made bags - MD LeLook

Daily Trust - - CITY NEWS -

Chinwe Ezenwa is the Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of LeLook, a com­pany pro­mot­ing Nige­ria and its many po­ten­tials and resources. The com­pany cel­e­brated its 30th an­niver­sary re­cently. cor­re­spon­dent asked the MD how she came about the African print-made bags and how it is im­pact­ing on the pop­u­lace and the coun­try at large.

As the owner of LeLook, can you give us an insight into how it all started? Well, I wouldn’t say I am the owner of the busi­ness but a tool God used to drive it. The busi­ness was founded be­cause of the need to re­ha­bil­i­tate a brother of mine who is dis­abled. That was how we came about it. I have a brother who is deaf and dumb and when I came back from Canada, he was unemployed and there was no op­por­tu­nity to get him en­gaged. I en­rolled him in a hair­dress­ing school and I said to my­self that if he can­not talk and hear, at least he can see, and that was what brought about LeLook. I am be­ing moved now (tears flow­ing down hers cheeks) be­cause when we opened here 30 years ago, my brother would not know how to book ap­point­ments with peo­ple. So, I had to em­ploy some hair­dressers who were work­ing with him to do some of th­ese things. But LeLook has meta­mor­phosed into what we are see­ing to­day. Now, that my brother has moved on. He is now in the United States of Amer­ica do­ing great things with hair. And I had to take over when I re­tired from the Fed­eral Civil Ser­vice.

LeLook be­came a place for me to fall back on. And that is why we are cel­e­brat­ing to­day. Our cel­e­bra­tion is that of years of ser­vice, per­se­ver­ance and de­ter­mi­na­tion and hard work. My brother could have been here but for some lo­gis­ti­cal rea­sons. It’s a bit dif­fi­cult to get him to travel all alone.

So, what brought about the di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion be­cause you are into hair­dress­ing but it seems LeLook is more known to­day for bag-mak­ing?

Yes, when we started, it was a hair­dress­ing out­fit at my house at 1004 Es­tate, Vic­to­ria Is­land. But the neigh­bours were com­plain­ing that we were dis­turb­ing them, that was when we moved to this premises. So, about 20 years ago, in the year 1995, we ven­tured into bag-mak­ing. This is also as a re­sult of my younger sis­ter who ac­tu­ally has a chal­lenge. Suf­fice it to say that in my fam­ily, we are seven, and two of us have chal­lenges. That was how we came into the busi­ness of mak­ing bags. I promised to make that one great also.

Most of your works are put on ex­hi­bi­tion with the de­sign of African print, what in­formed this?

Well, I know many peo­ple don’t al­ways like to wear it but I do say to them, if you can­not wear it, carry it. Car­ry­ing it has be­come a fash­ion of sort and I am de­ter­mined to pop­u­lar­ize it be­yond where we are to­day.

In ret­ro­spect, how will you de­scribe the ac­cept­abil­ity of this ini­tia­tive among the pop­u­lace you were try­ing to woo and make sales to at the early stage?

Well, many never liked it. They pre­ferred to carry around their “Made in Italy”, “Made in Ger­many” among other for­eign-ini­ti­ated bags at that time. But we were quite res­o­lute, we kept en­light­en­ing, kept push­ing and kept let­ting them re­al­ize the need to pa­tron­ize our own. And to­day, we have es­tab­lish­ments, cor­po­rate bod­ies and schools that have been pa­tron­iz­ing us and that we have been sup­ply­ing some of our prod­ucts. To­day, we have bags spe­cially de­signed for stu­dents of Kings Col­lege and Queens Col­lege, Lagos and other schools. Some par­ents now ask us to sup­ply those bags both within and out­side Nige­ria. Their idea is to make their chil­dren be­come ac­cli­ma­tize with their cul­tures be­cause those bags you are see­ing show­case our cul­ture.

What will you say is the great­est achieve­ment of LeLook so far?

LeLook’s great­est achieve­ment is not just all about its pop­u­lar­ity which has tran­scended Nige­ria. It is also about em­pow­er­ing the youth as well as women. It is about cre­at­ing jobs for peo­ple who or­di­nar­ily will not have had any­thing do­ing. Th­ese are peo­ple we have now en­gaged. Again, it is about pro­mot­ing Nige­ria and its many po­ten­tials and resources. It gives me joy to­day that as much as th­ese bags are all over the world, any­where you find them, you will found printed on them: “LeLook… made in Nige­ria”.

The idea be­hind LeLook boils down to en­trepreneur­ship. How will you de­scribe the en­tre­pre­neur­ial in­ter­ests and skills of young Nige­ri­ans to­day?

Well, in fair­ness, I can tell you cat­e­gor­i­cally that based on my in­ter­ac­tions with Nige­rian youths, their en­tre­pre­neur­ial zeal and skills are quite great. And I may say the en­vi­ron­ment has also been made a bit con­ducive for them. There is an em­pha­sis on the word, “a bit”. Lack of em­ploy­ment had ac­tu­ally made many Nige­rian youth and women to re­dis­cover them­selves. The fact that there are no jobs had ac­tu­ally forced many to start think­ing on their own. For the youths who are yet to re­dis­cover them­selves, I think they re­ally need to have a re­think es­pe­cially as it af­fects go­ing about and look­ing for jobs. But for us at LeLook, we are march­ing on. We are em­ploy­ing the unemployed, giv­ing them a new lease of life.

While grow­ing in the busi­ness, have you had sup­port from gov­ern­ment?

At least through ef­forts from the Bank of Industry (BOI), Nige­ria Ex­port Pro­mo­tion Coun­cil, among oth­ers, we have pulled through. But they are still de­mand­ing for things we can­not meet. De­mands like? Tall or­ders. Col­lat­er­als we can’t meet yet. But if you ask me, what is col­lat­eral? Col­lat­eral is your idea. It is also your skill. Those are the things I be­lieve they are not fac­tor­ing in yet.

But are there no as­so­ci­a­tions that can serve as pres­sure groups on the gov­ern­ment that you be­long to?

I am a mem­ber of the Fash­ion De­sign­ers As­so­ci­a­tion of Nige­ria (FADAN). In­deed, we got a N1 bil­lion loan from gov­ern­ment and that is what some of us who are mem­bers are try­ing to ac­cess now. But even at that, there are con­di­tion­al­i­ties at­tached. LeLook can meet them but what about the oth­ers? Aside FADAN, we also have mem­ber­ship with rel­e­vant as­so­ci­a­tions such as, African Women En­trepreneur­ship Pro­gramme (AWEP) USA, Women in Ship­ping and Trad­ing ( WISTA) Women in Lo­gis­tics and Trans­port ( WILAT), Global Ar­ti­sans Net­work, among oth­ers.

What of get­ting gov­ern­ment to make banks give loans to pri­vate es­tab­lish­ments like yours?

The banks have been given the op­por­tu­nity to de­velop Small and Medium Scale En­ter­prises (SMEs) but they have not. They have what they called SMIEs pol­icy that re­quires them to re­serve 10 per­cent of their earn­ing for the pri­vate sec­tor to ac­cess, but how many peo­ple have ac­cessed that? There is noth­ing like that! I dare say, it is not there! Peo­ple should in­ves­ti­gate. It is now that gov­ern­ment is pulling all its ac­counts from banks that many of them will go idle. So, they will have no choice but to start look­ing for very se­ri­ous pri­vate sec­tor peo­ple to part­ner with. If not, they will lose a lot of clients.

Specif­i­cally, how will you de­scribe chal­lenges of your job so far?

It has been rough and tum­ble. Chal­lenges are there. And one great­est chal­lenge we have been fac­ing is that of ir­reg­u­lar power sup­ply. En­ergy is a big prob­lem. Ev­ery now and then we run on 24/7 elec­tri­cal gen­er­a­tor. Even as we speak, we are run­ning on gen­er­a­tor. Fifty five years of Nige­ria’s na­tion­hood, ev­ery­body still run on gen­er­a­tors.

Let’s talk about your work­ers, what is your staff strength?

We have well over 40 peo­ple work­ing with us. Some of them are grad­u­ates and some not but are ac­quir­ing the skills along with the grad­u­ates among them. And we even have ar­ti­sans as far as Ghana who are work­ing with us here.

How much of the ma­te­ri­als be­ing used for pro­duc­tion is sourced out­side Nige­ria?

None. All are made in Nige­ria prod­ucts. Rather, we are the ones ex­port­ing. And the mar­ket out there is quite ex­cel­lent. In fact, they ap­pre­ci­ate th­ese things bet­ter than Nige­ri­ans do. The Ger­mans love th­ese, the Parisians love th­ese, the Amer­i­cans, all love th­ese. Any­time they are do­ing any­thing in Amer­i­can em­bassy, we are al­ways in­vited. Miss So­nia In­sti­tute, they have to come all the way from Amer­ica to visit us and they even handed me a medal.

How has the LeLook ef­forts touched on women and the less priv­i­leged?

Out­side my brother, I have also gone out to and picked an­other dis­abled young man from the deaf in­sti­tute. He has been with me for the past 30 years. He came from a fam­ily of 10 and he was more or less aban­doned at the time I met him. But he has been with us since. He is still with me. And for the women, I will say as a leader in this industry, many of them have had cause to look up to me as a role model and I can say I have been play­ing that role.

You spoke pas­sion­ately about hav­ing Nige­ria-made prod­ucts be­ing sold to the out­side world. To what ex­tent will you say your work is be­ing cel­e­brated out­side the shore of Nige­ria?

The de­sire to en­gen­der pride in our African her­itage and to re­vive rare, ar­ti­sanal fab­rics in­spired us. We be­gan with lo­cal ar­ti­sans in Lagos, Nige­ria and Ac­cra, Ghana to cre­ate ap­parel and ac­ces­sories that were mod­ern and trendy, yet un­de­ni­ably African. Through th­ese ef­forts, lo­cal re­tail­ers once again be­gan tak­ing pride in car­ry­ing lo­cally made prod­ucts, which caught the at­ten­tion of in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences. The de­mand grew. And so did our dream.

We en­vi­sioned a brand that cel­e­brated and hon­oured African tra­di­tion but through a lens that is dis­tinc­tive, mod­ern and of qual­ity. It had to be bold; it had to be ex­tra-or­di­nary. Our phi­los­o­phy is sim­ple - Do well, do good. We are seek­ing to place a dar­ing and pas­sion­ate stamp on the mar­ket place. We have at­tended sev­eral trade fairs and ex­hi­bi­tions around the world and have made state­ments in fash­ion. We were at trade mis­sion/ex­hi­bi­tions in Wash­ing­ton, At­lanta, Detroit and Pitts­burgh in 2013, trade fair/ex­hi­bi­tion in Dubai, UAE in 2013, Nige­ria-Canada In­vest­ment Con­fer­ence /Ex­hi­bi­tion Toronto in 2013, Lagos In­ter­na­tional Trade Fair in 2014, Ghana In­ter­na­tional Trade Fair Ac­cra in 2014, Magic Fair at Las Ve­gas, among oth­ers.

You were once quoted as say­ing de­spite the num­ber of years you have put into your work, you are not likely to stop any­time soon. What will you say is your life am­bi­tion?

I want to be Louis Vis­ton of Africa.

Chinwe Ezenwa

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