How border closure empowered home grown businesses —Olayebi

Sinmi Olayebi is the Director of Social Programmes, Femi Hand bags, a subsidiary of My World of Bags (MWOB). In this interview with AKIN ADEWAKUN, she explains why the parent company, MWOB recently came up with its interventionist initiative, Project Safe Up and how COVID-19 has served as an eye opener for her company and some others.


My World of Bags (MWOB) recently announced the flag-off of an initiative tagged, Project Safe Up, what would you say informed the move?

My World of Bags (MWOB) has two product lines, one is corporate and the other is luxury design handbag line, called Femi Hand Bag. At the start of the year, in January/February there were still orders coming in from the corporate line, everything was fine. But the pandemic came with the lockdown and people started cancelling their corporate orders. That meant we had to shut down our factory because of the lockdown. But we tried to watch the environment for a while and after about six weeks, we then said to ourselves ‘we have a machine and we have a factory, there is apparently a need for facemasks. So we started producing face masks in small quantities for hospitals, clinics and people in the community completely free of charge. It’s a way of giving back, helping to be part of the solution, and helping to prevent the spread of coronavirus. That was our own thinking. Meanwhile, we had been in talks with Mastercard Foundation, about another project entirely. They had put a hold on that, because of COVID-19. But, they started a COVID-19 Resilience Programme and we were approached. They asked us if we would like to be part of the programme. We told them what we were doing in terms of mask production, though in small quantities, and they liked the idea. So the idea was to do what we were doing, but at a much larger scale, for a much larger audience, so that we could help as many people as possible to go safe. So that was the idea.


The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, without doubt, has effects on individuals, businesses and even economies globally. How harsh are the effects of the pandemic on MWOB’s business as a major bag manufacturer in the country?

It’s extremely significant. A lot of companies had to withdraw their orders. We were no longer having events and conferences. So the corporate line just came to a complete halt. And the corporate line is where we get more of the inflow. The luxury handbag line did not go completely quiet. People were still ordering. People were still trying to show love during pandemic.  So when Mastercard came on board, we needed the boost, the support to get the initiative off the ground.


The target of the initiative was 2.5 million PPE items, in four months. How far are you to realising this target?

I will say that we are still in the beginning stages, to be honest. Production is on the way, because it’s a million face masks and 1.5 million items of medical PPE. On the face masks front, I will say we’ve made the most progress; about a quarter of the way through. And on the other items, we are under a quarter of the way through. So really we have a lot more work to do. Except for the holiday period when we need to get some rest, we are accelerating production. It’s also been a really learning curve for us. Yes, we produce a large volume, but we’ve never produced this sort of volume. Besides we’ve been privileged to provide employment for so many young people. We have factory full of young people, supporting the production and we’ve also been able to help many small businesses, by forming partnership with them. We just tried to bring as many people as possible on board to be part of this project. So we envision that by the end of February, production should be over. We should have reached the point of distributing everything, because we also need to have people protected as fast as possible. We can’t afford to delay.


Are you shutting the PPE production line down and going back to the main business, post- COVID-19?

To be honest, the main business never shut down. What we’ve done was to reduce our production output for the luxury handbag. We really want this PPE line to remain sustainable, and be able to provide for our medical and health care workers. You know medical personnel always need PPE. We definitely want that line to stay alive. It might reduce significantly, but MWOB will still be producing corporate goods for brands. I think another thing is that we need to upscale and build capacity, especially now that we know that we can do one or two things at the same time. There are many different lines that we are having during this period. We are learning as much as possible so that we’ll be able to sustain each of the lines, to the required degrees. So MWOB is not going to shut down.


Why do the average Nigerians still go for foreign goods despite the fact that we have local manufacturers like you that produce quality goods?

I think we’ve come a long way as a country. Maybe 25 years ago, we never had many factories like ours that were able to do this. Maybe we had, but they needed new skills, new capacity and things like that, a variety of options.  We cannot deny that we’ve definitely learned a lot from the western world, because a lot of inventions, lot of machineries were discovered there. Even the computer we are using, now and the machines are produced by the west. But I think that this is a progressive matter. Now we are leading by example. We are saying we want to source locally, we want to involve local manufacturers, local vendors, so it’s definitely going to set a standard for other brands. But in our experience, we’ve seen that thinking and the craving for foreign brands over the local ones change significantly. Femi Handbags are made completely in Ibadan and we have a large clientele base for the bags. I think that we are definitely seeing a change, we are seeing a turn. I think the border shutdown has made many people to think about ways we can produce and source from home. And so, hopefully, we’ll see the birth of new industry, into the New Year. But’ I’ll say that thinking process has changed.


The FG recently announced the re-opening of the nation’s land borders it had shut since last year. How are you taking the news; since some manufacturers believe such actions were necessary to protect local industries, while others believe the world had become a global market, and no country could afford to shut its doors against the rest of the world?

I think definitely we have seen that a lot of growth is borne out of collaborations and those collaborations are borne out of the openness of the land borders. I can’t think re-opening the land borders will damage the growth that has been recorded by local businesses. But I think the border closure has taught us to look inwards. MWOB is a home-grown brand and re-opening the land borders does not change anything, significantly, as far as we are concerned. But that does not mean we are not ready to collaborate with foreign brands. I think the foreign brands have a lot to learn from us; because many businesses in Nigeria have been able to wriggle their ways through the pandemic, so foreign brands have a lot to gain from that. So we are not looking at border closure been a problem, what we are seeing is a lot of collaboration that is being borne. Certainly, I think we are confident that borders re-opening are not going to harm what we have been able to build so far.


Are you thinking of exploring other markets beyond Nigeria for your PPE items?

To be honest, I can’t say we have such plans for now, because the focus is keeping Nigeria safe. We are producing 2.5 million items, and we have over 200 million Nigerians. That simply means we still have a lot of gaps to fill before thinking of exploring other markets. Our delight for now is that we are part of the solutions at home. And who knows where all of these would take us. We are optimistic that we’ve been able to help small businesses grow. We’ve deepened our partnerships with young people, with local businesses. We want to keep on doing that, so that we’ll be able to impact on economies around us. I think that would birth new ideas. That would birth new collaborations. But right now, our focus is keeping Nigeria safe, keeping the virus down, by trying to create as much access as possible to PPE materials.


What next after your interventionist initiative?

Honestly that’s a question that has been on our minds. I think for us we would like to see how we can continue to support our health workers, on a long term basis. Our other corporate lines would come back to life once businesses start to hold conferences and gatherings. Then Femi Handbag will continue to thrive as business that helps drive conversation in the leather industry. We also want to create employment. There are too many young people who are unemployed. We want to expand our manufacturing lines, help people to develop the skill that they need to do better. I think the pandemic has also taught us a lot, especially on the need to have multiple channels of revenue, so that if this one is down, the other one will continue to bring money. We should not have pandemic shut down our lives, shut down our businesses. We should have multiple ways of generating revenues.


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