Iniobong Obinna Onunkwo is the CEO of Little Weavers, which makes garments exclusively for children and teenagers. The concept is driven by the passion to celebrate African culture and heritage through young people. In this interview Iniobong reveals how she came up with the concept and offers tips on how to navigate the often turbulent sea of entrepreneurship. She also talks about why she left the finance sector for designing, what drives her, and many more.
How did Little Weavers start?
The name of our company is Little Weavers Fashion; it not just a company, it is a brand. First of all, we have God to thank for all we have achieved. We were actually inspired by the turn of events at a particular society wedding. The clothes I made for children, which they wore to the wedding, wowed many of the mothers that were at the event, and it was a revelation because they took pictures. At that point, we realized that there was a market to be served. Based on that, an opportunity presented itself again and we decided to do about 32 pieces for a funfair at my children’s school; out of that 32 we sold 22 units. Some mothers had to bring their kids for measurement and that actually kicked off our brand.
Little Weavers actually is a brand that provides clothing for kids and teens, I usually say kids and teens because teenagers tell us they are not children. We try as much as possible to create this atmosphere where when mum’s wears afrocentric clothing, the children can also wear the same afrocentric clothing. We were also inspired by the fact that we wanted to create culture awareness. My team and I had observed that our kids are gradually losing track of their culture. For instance, a lot of parents or guardians don’t communicate in our dialect So, we came up with an idea to look for ways we can infuse our culture, basically our heritage and have a blend with the western world so that our children can still stand out confident; so that they can be proud of their heritage, they can say look at what I am wearing, I am wearing something afrocentric. I can talk about my country and I can tell you about Africa. I can as well educate you about a lot of other things about Africa. So, the brand is basically encompassing, it is also about our cultural identity. We want to give the children a sense of confidence, wearing something afrocentric, something unique, classy and spectacular.
How long have you been doing this?
We are just two years now.
What is the acceptance like?
We are currently working with our branding and marketing part of the company and the acceptance of our products has been great. Sometimes, when people come around our outlet, they are surprised at what they see and they keep asking where we have been all this time; that they don’t know so much about us. That tells me they have been looking for our kind of services but they didn’t know where to get it. They have been looking for a tailor who can provide the kind of service we have because we do school uniforms, bespoke tailoring and all of that. It has been a very good turn out for us ever since we started. But we need to plunge into the market more so that people can get to know more about us.
How lucrative is your business?
You know we have our target market and our target audience. So I am going to start with our target market – the kids and teens. Now I will tell you this: on several occasions, any time a teen or a child steps into our store they are excited. In the first place, the colours are vibrant and they love the look. They didn’t believe you could actually weave an African print to have this kind of designs. You know the clothes are very comfortable. That’s for our target market that walks into the shop. It’s really amazing, if our target market can actually accept it. So, why won’t the target audience accept it too? The target audience are actually the parents and guardians or the adults who actually pay for them .So, it’s been very lucrative business because the demands for the products are quite high.
Did you study fashion designing as a course?
I have been a very creative person right from birth. I didn’t study fashion designing but I remember as a child I used to have this drawing book that I did sketches in. Back then, I would cut a fashion piece even when my mum gave me certain clothing items, I would tell her how I like it. Then I would fold it in, pin it and give myself this dressy look, so it has always been in me. I studied Economics and I also did a bit of a course at Lagos Business School.
What were you doing before you got into designing?
I was in the financial industry. I was an investment banker and portfolio manager.
What are the challenges you have faced?
There are lots of challenges in a business. As an entrepreneur I would tell you fund is part of it. But the very first challenge I had with my business is human capital. Those people that studied human management, human resources and all of that will tell you that human capital is a very challenging one. You know, getting people who are passionate about their jobs can be hard to come by in our time. In those days people used to be enthusiastic and passionate about what they do but these days I think technology has eroded us. Fine, if you have technology in your business, fine, if you evolve around technology, it is very good. It can be effective. However, the downside to it is that a lot of people are now involved in technology that they are not so passionate about their work. Or they just do the work because they need the money. There is no commitment towards it. A lot of people coming in now, don’t give their very best, just do the work and then move on. So basically, my main challenge is human capital. A lot of people say funding but funding can come to number four or five for me, because if I can start up something with someone who is very passionate, I will not have much problems. I mean I started this business with just N50,000. The lady is very passionate and she is the one in charge of the production team now. She brought her own machine and I didn’t have a machine back then. I had to get one from my mother because she used to be a tailor. We sat down here in a small space and started here. Now we have two shops – one at Ikota and another one at Ikoyi. This place is our showroom and our factory is upstairs. She was dedicated to her work, in a day she can churn out six to 10 pieces of clothes. All I had to do was market them, you know, since I was coming from the financial industry, it was a forte for me and it wasn’t even a challenge. As the demand for the product increased, we had to increase our products and that was when the challenges came in. Like every business, more people coming in, more problems, and more money to be made. Then the people coming in are not even enthusiastic about the job, so what do you do? You have to create some sort of balance.
What makes your brand different from others?
My brand is very unique. First things first, my customers actually answer that question, they come in one of our outlets and they are lost in our store. They see the vibrant colours of the clothing and they say they are fantastic, they are very lovely in design and they are unique. You know there is something nice and cool about it. But if they didn’t like it, it would have been a problem but children love them and they keep selecting so many clothes. It is a brand that speaks heritage, honestly if I have to pull my example from other companies or brands that have been in the business like Omega, Mark and Spencer you will see they are very heritage people, they are very slow but they’ve been there over the years.
Do you do mass production?
Yes we do, we do mass production of uniforms for supplies within the country. For the clothes, we are still working on that presently but we do uniforms as well and we are going to start a new line hopefully with our runway coming up in November. We have a runway coming up in November and we will are using this platform to introduce a new line. This cloth line was inspired by Obinna, that’s the name of my husband because we’ve made some clothes for him and I tell you when he wore them and travelled out of the country, several white men walked up to him and asked him where he got the outfit. They were expecting it to be from top designers, and he said Little Weavers and they were like, oh what, what’s that?
Is the new line be only for men, are you not doing anything for women in the future?
We will think about that and you know the female aspect is very competitive. When it comes to women, we have to tread carefully. If I am going for women or mothers clothing line, then it will be family oriented and something interesting. Assuming, I am an aunt and I have a niece, then we walk into Little Weavers, and I pick a skirt, a pencil skirt for instance and I find something similar to that for my niece, I will love to buy the two. You know, something for me and sometime for my niece, then we go walking together, maybe we are going for a movie or something. So, I will work around that aspect, so you will find very few pieces of female outfits at our stores.
What are your success tips?
This is what I use in life not just for the business and it is G.O.D. G for God, O for original, and D for determination. Of course, everybody knows God, O stands for originality; originality is just about being yourself what you do believe in. What are the things you like most? What do you what to do? For instance my name is Bimpe, what does Bimpe like? So be original in everything you do. Then D, in everything you want to do, put in your best, don’t ever give up, be determined and definitely you will get to there.
You are a mother, wife and a businesswoman, how have you been able to juggle all that?
It hasn’t been easy combining business with my family but I try to work around things and get it balanced. My daughters, for instance, are my models, so they understand that look when mum needs to work; this has to happen. Some sacrifices are made; my spouse understands that its okay she’s held up in traffic. He understands that at a certain time I can’t be around and so I should do this for myself. When I mean family, I am not just talking about my immediate family, I have other groups, activities and things like that, sometimes I am able to attend these functions and sometimes I am not but everyone understands it is my business.
What inspires your design?
A lot, I can see what you are wearing now and I am already inspired. A lot of time, I think abstractly too, I can sleep and wake up and I see things in the middle of the night, I sit up and begin to sketch. I can be in my car and then I see something that inspires me. Once, I saw a guy who had a small bag across him and I liked the T-shirt he wore with the bag. I got back and sketched it and told them ‘Oya do something come-on, I need you to create something like that.’ They had this fabric thing hanging across and on the side was the pocket. It was really nice and for the few pieces that we made, it sold out. So a lot of things inspire me.
Where do you see your business in the nearest future?
We are going to be the Mark and Spencer of Africa.