Our goal is to build something organic to create jobs, opportunities for Nigerians- AFA Sports CEO
Ugo Udezue is the CEO of AFA Sports, a leading athleisure and sports merchandise manufacturing company in Nigeria. In this exclusive interview with BDWeekender’s Sports editor, Anthony Nlebem, Udezue says that due to the lack of air-conditioning systems in the basketball gyms and the players finding it difficult to catch the slippery balls while playing, he decided to come up with basketball kits that could absorb sweat. This, he says, was an inspiration for AFA Sports. Excerpts:
What’s the motivation behind AFA Sports?
With my experience in the sports industry in the United States for a long time, when I moved back to Nigeria, I was disappointed to see that a lot of the major sports brands, none of them has a “flagship store” operating in Africa. I also noticed that despite the numbers we have in Africa, no product was made with Africans in mind. So, we decided to embark on this journey, not just from a standpoint of products, but to tell a good story about Africa.
Is the projection only in the Nigerian or African market?
AFA Sports is more global in many ways. While it is easy to piggyback on the existing international brands like most African companies, we wanted to put in the hard work in building a brand by ourselves. And building a brand is one of the most difficult tasks especially in the apparel and sports industry. So, instead of distributing for a foreign brand, we knew that there was an opportunity for us to build our own from scratch. AFA Sports stands for Africa for Africa. Our goal is to build something organic that will create jobs and opportunities for Nigerians.
When we first started, we started with import from China, but once we learned the processes on how the business is done over there, we brought back the technology to Nigeria. Everything we do, from sourcing of materials, we use local vendors. From our artisans and tailors, we train locally. 99 percent of our products are designed, and created here in Nigeria, in all aspects.
What’s the projection in the next five years?
Right now, we are in Nigeria, but we ship worldwide and across Africa. We ship to more than 20 countries already. In the next five years we want to build a shoe factory here, we just don’t want to invest in products; we want to put some of our funds into developing sports infrastructure across Nigeria and Africa.
Because we’re in a new space, funding has been challenging. Our funding is private but we’ve been very fortunate to keep growing organically, recycling ourselves and putting ourselves in the right position to attract the right kind of investors.
When did this journey start?
AFA Sports was created in 2017 and we opened our first store two years ago. Our growth has been very rapid and we haven’t even touched many of the points because we’re being very cautious and meticulous in our expansion.
Market reaction to AFA Sports
The market has been very good. We’ve had a lot of people embrace us. We’ve had a lot of support from the community, influencers. Our slogan is ‘this is ours.’ We wanted to build a brand that is ubiquitous. It’s not about who owns it. We wanted to build a brand that will be sustainable for a long time.
Do you have your own factory?
We have our own factory and we train and partner with other people. Our goal is to harness as much resources locally as we can.
The challenges are multifaceted because we came into it out of passion. We didn’t have any experience in retail, inventory management, warehousing, design and acquiring the right workforce. So, finding the right people in the right position and changing mindset, we’re not a traditional enterprise. So, it’s been very challenging finding the right manpower, and the motivation, especially as a startup to get into the right place. Apart from that, all the other challenges are normal for any entrepreneur in Nigeria.
What is the future of Nigerian sportswear industry?
The future is bright. The opportunity is massive not just in Nigeria but West Africa as a whole. I think with all the people you have in Africa, even if you talk to one percent of them, you’re in a very good position. We hope that what we’re doing will motivate other people to want do it in the industry, the tailors, vendors, artisans, factories hopefully we can be part of something that creates a lot of jobs in Africa.
What do you expect from the government for investors like you?
Someone like me that came into Nigeria without knowing a lot, I noticed that tapping into available government opportunities requires mostly personal connection. We are happy that the current administration supports local content
I think there has to be some kind of support one way or the other. Sometimes, I’m confused about how things are done. I know the government supports projects depending who knows what.
But for us, we’re very confident about what we’re presenting. I think we try to keep ourselves transparent and we try to put ourselves in a position when opportunities come we’d make sure we have every resource to harness that opportunity. A lot of investors come to us, but we honestly want to put ourselves in a position of better leverage. We’re not desperate in any way at all. As we are now, we’re quite sustainable.
Nigerian Basketball. What are the chances of Nigeria?
I think Nigeria has a good chance in Men and Women’s basketball. With a big infusion of talents from the NBA, the Nigerians in diaspora, and the women too, I’ll be surprised if they don’t win a medal. I think the expectation is high and it is within reach.
Advice to the coaching crew
I honestly don’t have any advice to give them because I know the guys that coach the team and they are very competent and I know they know what they’re doing and I have full confidence in coach in the coach.
Your new appointment and how do you function on both sides
The most important thing for me is the opportunity to serve. Me being in Lagos and I have a home in Anambra State. I go to my home all the time during the weekends and since I’ve been back I’ve been spending quite a lot of time over there. I think the opportunity for me is about giving back.
I’ve been very successful in the United States, internationally and in Nigeria it’s an opportunity for me. I hope one day to retire over there; so, the purpose for me is to give back to my state of origin. It’s something I’ve done for a very long time.
I’m in Lagos, but it’s not that far. The most important thing is that we’re in a place where we’re setting up governance, we’re getting up a committee of people that have a stake in basketball in the state and we’re creating our media presence, brochure, website…building something. We’re formulating a strategy from the grassroots to the professional level and we’re giving ourselves a two-year plan.
The goal is not to be there forever, but it is to set up a structure that anybody else can build on in time.
My agenda is pretty simple: start with the primary schools, secondary schools, teach, coaching clinics, referee clinics, and focus more on the grassroots. It is not going to happen overnight. But if you focus on the grassroots, in two/three years, you’re going to start seeing a lot of results.
We’re actually trying to create an ecosystem over there where anybody that has passion for the game can use it as an opportunity to make a living.
Are you looking to bring the government in?
Sport is self-sustainable. It’s not about bringing in government or bringing private enterprise. If you’re doing something that is attractive to people, money will come. So, I don’t look at sports as a CSR opportunity, I look at as an opportunity you can create for yourself. You don’t have to sit back and wait for the government to give you allocation. We would build something beautiful and the prop will give us money because they feel like it has value.
What next for Continental Basketball League (CBL)?
We’re trying to start back the CBL after the Olympics and localize it for now—CBL Nigeria, and capitalize on the opportunities here and local talents and entertainment. It’s going to come and it’ll be bigger than ever.
Are you looking at going into other fashion wears in the future?
‘Afrileisure’, Afrileisure is what I call it. African themes sports products. We have the opportunity to create the best. We’re working on the best water you’ve ever drank in your life. We’re looking at one of the best energy drinks, consumables. There are a lot of things we’re working on.
What’s the workforce for AFA Sports?
Right now we’re going through a phase of reorganizing ourselves and we have importers, designers, accounting, sales, marketing so we have about 15 people in the main office. But we have about 500 tailors; we have production warehousing, distribution. So, we have a lot of people that are affiliated with us. www.afasports.com