O.J. Awa-Ibraheem is the chief executive officer of Perfect Scents Designer Perfumes and Glamour Lounge Salon and Spa in Lagos. In this interview with Ngozi Okpalakunne, she spoke about her passion for creativity, the effect of unbalanced foreign exchange on businesses in Nigeria and the dangers associated with manufacturing fake and substandard products in the country. Excerpts:
How has your journey into the business of beauty been?
I studied Political Science at the university and when l got married, my husband felt that the 9 am to 5 pm job is not going to be easy even though l had my mother taking care of the children.
So, he wanted me to do something flexible enough that will give me the chance to keep my eyes on the children and still do what l wanted to do.
But, l needed experience so, l started bringing products from the UK and was selling those goods at the back of my car because l did not have a shop. So, the best way to get experience is to suffer a little.
Originally, l brought into the country an Italian brand known as Nouba; unfortunately, it came in before the boom of make-up artists, where now, if you want to go to a party, you will call a make-up artists.
At that time, l had a chance of meeting with a supplier in the United States and when l realised that the Italian brand was not moving as I wanted, l introduced perfumes then but, not on the scale l am doing now. I did and established contact in the US for the supply of perfumes, that was where the perfume business started from and that was about 15 years ago. Recently, I unveiled arrays of niche perfumes into Nigerian market.
What are some of the challenges encountered and how have you been able to navigate through?
The challenge was majorly the unbalanced foreign exchange that is currently killing a lot of businesses in the country.
It made bringing of goods into the country difficult. Even if you are going into production of goods, you still have to buy raw materials such as fragrance, you still need to use foreign exchange, so that is the major problem l see, otherwise it is just reputation trying to get the right supplier and trust. The fact is that, the reputation of the country outside is difficult and it is affecting business transactions at the international level.
The foreign countries where you are importing products from will not do any business with you unless it is on a cash and carry basis, unlike before where you will get credit facilities, now they will know you and they will do business with you but, it has to be on cash and carry basis; you will pay them and you will get your goods .
But, l was lucky because l have made contacts before things got out of hand; I had established relationships with suppliers years back, now even if you are sending them a mail, they will think it is spam or something else, so l had established contacts with some suppliers years back and l had maintained the relationships, so l did not have problem in that respect.
Are you thinking of having a brand for yourself in time to come?
I do not think l want to be an industrialist, I think l will rather be the way l am now; l have one or two brands that l am already planning to take the franchise and help them focus, but for now it is still early, we have not decided yet, because it involved a lot of money, l have done franchise before and l know the requirements, sometimes it may hinder the other brands, but we are still talking.
A lot of fake and substandard products are being manufactured in the country. What are your views on that? What is the way out?
For me, there is also creativity, but l wonder the reason people will go into production of substandard products or copy other people’s creativity instead of doing something that could be called their own.
l know it is difficult to copy most times because established brands already have names so, there is no need to go through the stress of trying to establish such brands as your own, but the truth is that such an individual will only succeed in killing his own business at the end of the day.
My advice is that they should produce something that is uniquely theirs.
There are some products l cannot buy, it is difficult for me to buy some brands because there are lots of fake in the market, l am not talking about perfume, l am talking about other products in general.
Interestingly, now in the market there are lots of young men that are making shoes, they are making it really well, and it is becoming their own brand, l do not know about the women but, l am talking about the men, they are producing sandals and for me that is something to be proud of.
Unfortunately, the manufacturing and sale of fake and substandard products has to do with the market; many want such products and that is what is selling; people are forced to do that because they have to eat, l do not support it. A lot of the big brands have fought over it in the past years, but they are not winning the battle. We just try to make buyers understand that what we are selling is authentic ones and then it is left for them to make their decisions either to buy original or substandard products.
Do you have mentors?
My husband is my mentor, he is a chartered accountant and has been in business for many decades, so l have learnt a lot from him. He has also been a source of encouragement to me.
Besides, l read a lot and have garnered useful information that has helped me in running my business.
So, l will advise those in business or those who desire to venture into business to read business-related books, it is not as if they should take in all that they have read from such books. They should only extract useful information and apply it to their businesses, but the books that are not useful, they should drop them and move forward.
What advice do you have for women who want to venture into business?
I discovered that when you are young and you are starting out a business and at the same time you have children to take care of, it is better you lower your expectations. It is difficult to be a mother taking care of children and to also run a business successfully. So, l do tell women that while they have a dream of owning a business, they should not expect much until their children get to certain age that will enable them focus fully on their businesses.
They can engage in something profitable that will also give them chance to look after their children until they have grown up.
Such women can then venture into business of their choice and l am sure they will do better.
As an entrepreneur what is your advice to the new administration?
If we will get to a stage where we will have our own brand names, that will be nice, because we are not producing now and there is consumption for these products.
When l started business, a dollar to naira was 150, l know each administration has its own challenges, but if this administration can get it right, it will boost businesses in Nigeria, entrepreneurs will make profit. Consumers also will spend less in purchasing goods and everybody will be comfortable in the country.