• Thursday, July 25, 2024
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Monalisa’s excellence-driven shoemaking


Her personal search for the right pair of shoes led Monalisa Azeh into becoming an entrepreneur of repute, the brains behind the Mona Matthews brand, writes Mabel Dimma

Banking and Law experiences

think I was born an entrepreneur, I studied Law and during my youth service, I worked with the bank for three months and did not like it at all. I asked to be posted out of the place and my boss at that time felt I didn’t know what I was doing. I went back to work with the law firm where I had done my law office attachment.   I worked there for two years and then started my own practice. I don’t think I ever thought of working for myself, it was just a given because I never liked routine, which was I the issue I had working with the bank. I didn’t enjoy doing a specific thing daily or weekly; for me it sounded like a fast way to die. 

Solving a personal problem I started thinking what else to do next and in between all of that, I got born again and had a stint working in church full time. It was at that point I realised it was difficult to get my shoe size and when I did see, I did not like the designs and they were not comfortable. It actually began as trying to meet my own needs, working to solve a problem I had.

I have always been someone that is stylish and able to create things. In my university days I drew my designs, bought fabrics and took to the tailor to have it made. So designing and having things made has never been a mystery to me, I grew up with my mom taking her fabrics to the tailor, telling them the designs she wanted. When I started making those shoes for myself, people saw them and made requests.

Research about making shoes The business started with me noticing that men were wearing real leather made-in-Nigeria shoes; because my feet are wide, wearing non-leather shoes was uncomfortable and it was difficult to get my size even when I travelled abroad. I started asking questions and found there were shoemakers, making shoes for men, so knew there was leather and shoemakers to construct shoes that could be worn; the shoes were resilient somehow.

I was introduced to an elderly shoemaker, who told me categorically that he made only male shoes. I told him I wanted shoes made but he couldn’t be bothered. After much pressure, I got him to make a pair for me. They were not pretty because of his male orientation.   Someone later introduced me to shoemaker whose orientation was female shoes. I was able to draw my design and he interpreted them well, which drew attention to them. It was amazing; you go from you can’t find what you want to people admiring your shoes and then the requests started coming in; apparently, there was a need there that I did not realise.   I still remember my first set of customers; I remember a friend’s sister was getting married, shoes had been sent from abroad for the mom but they were the wrong size and colour. I asked to be given the shoes; by this time I had found that there was a huge market in Mushin where they sold leather; there was a whole world out there of shoemaking.   The shoes were a beaded pair of light blue slippers, I copied the design, had it made and hand beaded them by myself, she wore them and everyone was happy. Orders started coming in, but due to disappointments with shoemakers, I dropped it.   I started contemplating what else to do because I was ready to quit the work in church. I had several options but my pastor asked me to pray about it, and shoemaking was what dropped in my heart. I had an idea to do it and make it work because of my brief stint at it. I went to see a friend who was in the financial world, told him my plans and he gave me instances of international brands that started that way and asked that I get some business education, suggesting Fate Foundation.   Fortunately for me, as I was starting the business, I went to the foundation and the way the module is structured, it is built around writing a business plan and that worked perfectly for me. That is how Mona Matthews started. 

Sourcing for materials There is a market where you can get anything from the leather to the soles, gum, nails, glue and much more. The two things that stand Mona Matthews out are, first of all our craftsmen; we have very skilled craftsmen right from inception and the minimum any of them has worked with us is four years. We have grown together and they have continually honed their skills.

Secondly, we demand high quality from our vendors consistently because the customers demand it from us. I am always conscious because as someone who trained as a lawyer, there must be a level of excellence in what I do. 

Choosing a skilled workforce The very first thing was, I didn’t want my shoes to look like they were locally made; not that I don’t want people to know the shoes are made-in-Nigeria, because I do, I am proud of that; but I didn’t want them to look tacky or funny.

I have high court judges, senior advocates, business executives, highly placed bank officials, retired permanent secretaries, name it; so from the beginning when picking my crew and till tomorrow, I pick people who are skilled. Shoemaking is an art and a science; no matter how you love the idea of it, there is something that is innate that must be in you.   You must be an artistic person because shoe trends change; you must be able to adapt. Assess yourself and be self motivated. I don’t work with people who give excuses; I tell my shoemakers that shoes don’t need explanation. When picking a team, even the way the person dresses can tell you a lot, especially the way they put their clothes together.   I learnt shoemaking from my shoemakers, from the very basics of the component part to how you go from a flat pair to high heels, what makes the difference between a pair of boots and a pair of lace-ups for men, what are the structural difference between a man’s pair of slippers and a woman’s.   If as the owner of the business I am willing to learn from them, they should be willing to learn from me. When I speak with my shoemakers, they know I know what I am talking about. There is no wise man that is proud; so I look for teachability as well as skills and being gifted.

Bank loans and processes

I have been blessed; I have not needed to take a loan from the bank. Few times when I needed extra cash, which hasn’t been very often, I raise it from my family or the business itself provides what I need. Basically, because of the bespoke line we do, our customers pay upfront and that is how we have been operating so far.

Challenges of being an entrepreneur To start with, the industry wasn’t geared towards making the kind of shoes and bags I wanted, particularly for women; they made mostly slippers and sandals, nothing exotic like what I had in mind. So we had to improvise a lot and rethink a lot of things.

We had to make our own heels especially wedge, by carving wood because the kind we wanted was not in the market. We wanted some soles and they were not available so we had to make soles from wood. Today, there are beautiful colours of leather in the market; when we started 13 years ago the choice was very limited, hand-made shoes were geared towards men, nobody was wearing turquoise blue or coral.   The men wore basic black, brown with the occasional blue or wine, but women wanted beautiful colours. We started using fabric like damask, satin, raw silk and then a little bit of Ankara when it was in vogue and that made our shoemakers adept at using practically anything to make shoes. 

Stepping stones to success When you meet people who succeed in life, it’s not because they do not face challenges; they have used those challenges as stepping stones to where they are going. I don’t know any human being who has not faced a challenge, overcome it and has not received a promotion as a result of it. Challenges push you; you do not see a challenge and give up; you go ahead and in the process learn a lot and become better at what you do.   

Excellence-driven I’m always driven by excellence; shoes are always funny, the heel or buckle would come off as you walk, we can’t afford for that to happen. If you do not continue to improve what you do, you will get left behind and if you produce excellence continuously, people will come to you.

Advice to intending entrepreneurs It is a very delicate thing because you have to know yourself. Entrepreneurs are people that can have five naira in their pocket today and a bill of N500,000 on their table, but they know that next week they will have N5m; they just have that mindset. To be an entrepreneur you must be someone who is ready to take risks and delay gratification.   Know that every day is not Christmas, but Christmas will surely come. If you are driven by the thought of making money, it is best to get a job because it is sure you will be paid on 31st day; but as an entrepreneur after 30 days, you may have nothing. 

To be an entrepreneur, you must like building and developing things – products and people; be someone who can sit, generate an idea out of nothing, get a plan in place, get it to fruition, execute it and be ready to move to something else; be someone with a pioneering spirit. Even if you are doing a business that is common, find an uncommon way of doing it so that you can stand out of the pack. It is all about seeing a need and meeting it locally, nationally or internationally. 

Mabel Dimma