In a captivating narrative, Zainab Adeyemi, the creative mind behind TheOZAWoman, reveals the intriguing story of her venture into the fashion business despite holding qualifications as a chartered accountant.
In an exclusive interview with Chika Otuchikere of the Punch Newspaper, Adeyemi sheds light on her entrepreneurial journey, the decision to transition from finance to fashion, and the challenges she navigated to establish her brand.
Read the full interview…
As an entrepreneur in the northern part of Nigeria, how will you assess the fashion business in the region?
I will say that I underestimated my movement to the North because I can tell you that northern women make clothes. Northern women don’t joke with their looks, their culture, their heritage, and their traditional attire. I’m still surprised that I could do better as a fashion designer in the North, unlike when I was in the West. Surprisingly, I didn’t expect that would happen but I found that to be the case because I realised that northern women make a lot of clothes with many fabrics, particularly ahead of Islamic celebrations. There is a lot of patronage. I can categorically tell you that the fashion business thrives better in the North and there’s a large scale to milk from. We all know that the population in the North generally is far more than the population in the West. That has also helped me to scale up my business tremendously. In Lagos, we used to provide services for barely 200 clients, but based on my data, since I moved to the North, I’ve been able to triple that number over three to four years.
What exactly took you into the fashion world?
I grew up with a very strict mother. During the holidays, she would always ask to know how we planned to spend our time. She didn’t encourage us to be idle doing anything not positive or rewarding. That was my mum for you. She ensured that she engaged all her children. On one such occasion, I told her that I wanted to learn the use of computers, but to my surprise, she declined smartly. I was shocked and asked why and her response was even more shocking. She said learning to use a computer was not a skill and added that I could learn to use a computer when I got a laptop. So, I opted for fashion because I was very fashionable as a young girl. Then, she encouraged me, and I started learning the skill as an apprentice. I interned in one of the biggest fashion houses in Lagos, under Mrs Obiageli Ezike who graciously took me under her tutelage, guided and taught me the nitty-gritty of not just learning how to sew but also how to set up a standard fashion business and from there, I was able to pick it up. I must admit that my journey into the fashion industry began in 2010 as a hobby. I had just completed my secondary school education, and I had so much time. I wanted to learn a craft but I launched my brand officially in 2017.
How would you describe the early years of your brand?
My brand, TheOZAWoman, was derived from my initials. My surname used to be Okunuga before I got married. OZA came from Okunuga, Zainab and Adepeju. Now, my name is Zainab Adeyemi and I am from the Ikenne Remo Local Government Area of Ogun State. Well, people call me the Hausa-Ijebu girl because I am actually from Ijebu. The big deal is that I started a luxury women’s brand, making bridal outfits, special occasion outfits, asoebi, and corporate wear. I specialise in female outfits. I moved the business officially to Minna, Niger State, in 2019 for strategic purposes. I wanted to do something unusual that was beyond visibility and mere competition. Minna, for me, was the place for my strategic launch into the core North, and because I was in a new environment, I had to start all over again by building a new clientele base in the region.
One year later, COVID-19 struck, and everybody had to stay indoors, which affected the means of livelihood for millions of people, mine included. So, I started thinking about what to do, post COVID-19, because even after COVID-19, people were just trying to get back on their feet. There were no events, and no serious activities because there were still restrictions, and as a fashion designer when there are no events, you don’t have much patronage because your patronage, most times, comes from special occasions and events.
That was when I decided to start TheOZAWoman Fashion Academy, which is a training institute where aspiring women designers who are interested in the women’s wear line are trained. We train them for three months before they graduate. We have beginners to intermediate, intermediate to advanced. So, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that taught me to think outside the box to know what else to do to get an income, pending when normalcy would. That was how the academy thing started from just a simple idea. I got some machines, put my space together, and started teaching. I started with five students and have over 45 students now, and several others have graduated in the space of about three years. I can say it has been a journey of determination, courage, and thinking of what more to do as an entrepreneur to get an extra source of income.
What is your academic background and did you later study something related to fashion at the tertiary level?
Many people have taken me up on this, and my response has always been the same interesting narrative. I finished secondary education at the Federal Government College, Odogbolu, in Ogun State, and immediately got admission into Babcock University in Ilishan Remo. I am a chartered accountant. I studied Accounting. I graduated with a second-class upper degree. After that, during my service year in Port Harcourt, River State, I decided to study further by registering with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria. I started with ICAN in my university days and passed some examinations, continued with the ICAN exams during my service year, and qualified as a chartered accountant.
But the truth is that I have always insisted that for you to be a successful entrepreneur, you must be able to integrate yourself into any society you find yourself. That will determine whether you’re just a small trader or an entrepreneur. Time will change. Seasons will change, and locations will change. How best you make the most and the balance under these circumstances matters.
How did the culture in the North change affect your business?
My business was put to the test; northern women are very modest and even in the offices, they wear their traditional fabric, their Ankara. They take their culture and heritage seriously. I had to understudy them. I started networking immediately after I got here (to the North). There were a couple of exhibitions and trade fairs that came up before COVID-19, and I registered for those trade fairs. I realised they wear a lot of long gowns. I made some of them, went to the trade fairs, shared my contacts, studied how the women were dressed, collected some of their contacts, followed them on social media, did my findings, and perfectly realised what northern women like.
Having understudied them and understanding what they liked, immediately after exchanging contacts with them, I started creating outfits in that line because that’s the location I’m operating in. I started making Ankara skirts and blouses for their bridal wear. I started fine-tuning them modestly to suit their taste and ensuring that they had their scarf covered, some of them with extra veils to match the colour of their outfit. Before I knew it, many of them started recommending and patronising me, and I was able to penetrate the market.
Did you consider working as a chartered accountant?
I did. There were several options. In fact, after I concluded my service year, I applied to a couple of companies, and I got a job with Access Bank. I was supposed to resume at its training school, but I think our chosen paths in life vary. I will say that I have a serious passion for fashion. As an undergraduate, even while in school, I made clothes for my colleagues, my classmates, and my lecturers. I was a class representative for four years of a five-year course, and that was even because we were encouraged in the fifth year to take professional examinations. As the class representative, I gained the trust of my classmates and started sewing for them. That’s how passionate I am about sewing. Before graduating, I made clothes for them for our dinner night, cultural day, and other events. After serving, the fear of the unknown was there.
That was why I applied for a job. Moreover, I also wanted to test my intelligence quotient to know whether I could get employment. You know, some people just go into business because they couldn’t get a job, but I got a job but still chose to play big in the fashion industry. Good enough, my parents encouraged me and gave me the funds to start up initially. Although, initially, it was a hassle convincing my parents because they wondered why I did not want to work in the bank. I chose not to work in a back because I believed I could do well in fashion. I believe I could scale it up, and with God on my side, I can say that they are tremendously proud of me now.
Are convinced that your decision to venture into the fashion business has paid off better than accounting would?
I believe that I am better off as a fashion designer. You know, like they say success is not determined just by how much you make. I have time for my family. I control my time. I control how much I want to make. As I tell my students, in a good month, you can get a contract at any time. You can just be mentioned on a social media post, and that will give you thousands of followers instantly, and before you know it, your business can skyrocket. That’s one thing with business. You never can say what it will be like when you wake up the next morning.
Also, the fact that you have time, you can decide when you want to intensify pressure into marketing to get more clients. You can decide when you have so much on your hands and go slowly for a while to finish those orders. You can also decide when to expand, and when to scale up so there’s so much you can do on your own. However, for paid employment, the salary is fixed, you look to your bosses for promotion, the competition is high, and you never say whether you have the job today or tomorrow. So, those were my fears at the time, and that was why I decided to be self-employed. I looked at my skill, and I saw that it was very good so much so that even after graduating from Babcock (University), I was invited multiple times to come and talk to the undergraduates and upcoming ones. Why? That was because they saw how successful a brand can be. In my way, I have also encouraged some of the undergraduates to embrace entrepreneurship.
What were the other challenges you faced as an entrepreneur?
First of all, I’ll say fear was one of the major issues. I was wondering if people would be able to come and register for the training. Another thing was understanding how to penetrate the market. I didn’t want to train for a long period because I wanted to break the conventional training method where people trained as apprentices for years; three months is enough. I had challenges trying to convince people that I could train them in three months. People had their doubts about my ability to train their daughters and sisters, and whether they could learn anything meaningful in three months. But with courage, determination, and focus on the part of the students, they did learn.
Another challenge was funding for more sewing machines because I wanted it to be student-centered with a machine attached to each student, but with support from friends and family members, I was able to acquire more machines.
Did you have workers assisting you?
Getting workers to assist is also another major challenge entrepreneurs face because these days, hardly anybody wants to work for another person. Everybody wants to be their boss. So, I didn’t have teachers on the ground to assist me at a point when the academy started getting more students, but I had tilted my syllabus to suit three months of internship. To achieve that, they needed one-on-one focus, and I couldn’t focus on 10 students at a time because it was a hands-on practical class. That was one of the areas I had challenges.
When it comes to social infrastructure, electricity supply is a major challenge for every business. I remember during that period, a generator could not serve us, so we had to rely on electricity from the government. Oftentimes, we get supplied only for a few hours a day. So, power has always been a major issue. Perhaps another major one to mention was that of being unable to reach out to some government agencies responsible for helping small-scale businesses with funding and other technical advice.
What does the future hold for you?
My plan for the future is to continue to grow my fashion brand and scale it to the best height. I’m looking at having multiple branches across the country and even internationally. Beyond that, I’m also looking at impacting more people because fashion design is a skill that gives people the freedom to do what they want to do. I want to continue to train more people and empower the youth in Nigeria because, with the way the economy is going, one stream of income is not enough. Getting multiple streams of income can also go a long way toward ensuring financial stability and means of livelihood for some people.