The African SMEs Story, hosted by Linda Ochugbua, aims to propagate hope, telling stories of businesses across Africa and sharing from their knowledge and experience on how they are surviving through the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an initiative of Support4AfricanSMEs, in partnership with Business Day, Clark Energy, Sun Group and more.
Episode 9 of the docuseries features Abiola Desalu, a passionate entrepreneur who, after working for 13 years at PwC, left the corporate world to found Modara Natural Skincare, a global natural skincare brand rooted in the tradition of Africa. It has been named one of top three finalists in the Africa Creative Awards 2016 in the “Best Emerging Skincare Brand” category, and selected by SheTrades in the UN Commonwealth to exhibit at international exhibitions.
Abiola notes that she had always wanted to be an entrepreneur and have a space to express her creativity and leadership style. Her foray into skincare was borne out of the needs of her own sensitive skin and realising that she could share her solutions with others.
Her entrepreneurship journey has been equally challenging and fulfilling. Modara Natural Skincare began with funds from the founder, as well as her family and friends, and by importing most of its raw materials, because of their mandate to produce high quality products. It has now found some organic certified farms in Nigeria and work with them to supply some of their materials.
Speaking on the challenges faced in running her business, Abiola emphasized the culture of “managing” mediocre products and service delivery in Nigeria, the difficulties of working with artisans and suppliers who had this mindset, and were not willing to work with the brand’s vision, and the challenges of regulatory bodies in Nigeria. She acknowledges though that there has been a push for improved quality from the Nigerian market in recent times, and that bodies like NAFDAC have created reasonable requirements for SMEs to get certification. NAFDAC has also launched an online platform with 80% discount available for businesses to register during this COVID-19 period.
In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, the business has reduced the number of days staff are required to come in, and adjusted for production to be done within a week, while staff housed within the facility to reduce exposure. Their strong online presence, already in place before the pandemic, helped prevent product delivery from being severely impacted.
She notes that an SME brand’s mission and vision, and their execution, rests on the business owners’ shoulders, requiring them to learn extensively. She advises aspiring entrepreneurs not to be afraid of, or overthink the challenges involved, but to simply start, focusing on providing valuable products and knowing that they will grow organically and progress. They should also not be afraid to fail, as even failed businesses are an experience, because “someone out there needs the solution you’re willing to give”.
Entrepreneurs should also not allow money to be a limiting factor, because if they have integrity capital, many people will be willing to give them money to launch or grow their business. Businesses must also find ways to use technology to drive their business. A brand, once online, is global, and must accordingly have a global mindset, as potential customers may be anywhere in the world.
On acquiring the right talent, entrepreneurs should know the skills, attitude and character they need in their staff, but Abiola believes that attitude is paramount, because skills can be taught. The impact an entrepreneur seeks to make starts with their impact on their employees, because they help drive the business’s agenda. Staff must be provided with a learning environment and training schedule, and be able to see a career path even while working in an SME. Business owners should also create an environment that encourages integrity by being open with staff, having consequences for actions that are not necessarily forms of punishment, putting the right controls in place, and being willing to let go of staff that cannot comply. The job market in Nigeria has changed over the years, and the SMEs are needed to help to fill the gap and absorb graduates.
Entrepreneurs who are running their businesses as side-businesses while in full-time employment must be careful to not use their employer’s time and resources to build own business. Transitioning an SME to a full-time job will depend on whether it is planned as an alternate stream of income or a long-term business. Entrepreneurs will invariably reach a point where they have to decide, and should endeavour, if leaving full employment, to part on good terms, and not because their productivity has suffered or because their SME is making more money, but out of a need to focus their energies on the business, as well as life circumstances.
Abiola notes that being able to build a global brand from Nigeria has been very fulfilling. Africa has long been the raw materials continent, and must begin to manufacture and create value, to help to make Nigerian and African brands more believable.