Mrs. Chinwe Ezenwa is the former Director of the Maritime Service Department of the Ministry of Transport, the former Managing Director National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) and an entrepreneur of repute in bag making known as Lelook Bags. In this exclusive interview with MMS Plus’ Ifeoma Oguamanam, she elaborates on the way forward in achieving success in entrepreneurship in Nigeria.
What is entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship can be defined as the act of using your creative mind to create wel you have to try and create wealth.
Why entrepreneurship for someone like you who have been in the industry for so many years, why not consulting?
That will not be right, besides, I multitask a lot, and actually, I am also into consulting in the maritime sector.
Entrepreneurial skills runs in my blood, it is in my DNA, even as a young girl living with my grandmother who was a trader, she passed a lot of her skills to me and I developed those skills, so business is a part of my foundation , I am business minded in whatever I do.
What are the necessary tools for successful entrepreneurship?
You must be passionate in whatever you are doing, money must be secondary because it is not everything that gives you money that can make you happy, you have to be patient if not you will miss everything because business is not good all the time, there will be moments of low profit turn out, but the passion and drive is what keeps you going. You must believe in what you are doing to succeed in it because for experienced entrepreneurs failure is not an option.
Educationally, it is important to be knowledgeable, I had to study further and obtained a master’s degree in marketing to ensure that I have adequate prerequisite skill so as to help me understand the current marketing trends, education is key but it is not everything because I know entrepreneurs who never went to school, it does not really have too much to do with going to school that is where Nigerians have missed it all, our society place too much importance on certificates and this has not led us anywhere. High quality service delivery is very important and discipline.
How long have you been in this business of bag making?
I have been in this business for a very long time, I started sometime in the year 2000, I have been a lifelong entrepreneur from the age of 10, so all my life is about business, even as an employee in the civil service, I employed business strategies to run it well. When I was in NIWA, I ran it as if it were my own business because I made sure that we made profit out of it. Any task I am given to do that does not allow me to apply my entrepreneurial skills is not worth my while.
What are the gender issues in entrepreneurship?
It is numerous, as women we have a lot of factors that militates against us as entrepreneurs, the major one is cultural because right from childhood people are indoctrinated to think that the female child will always take a second place compared to male, so that inferiority complex starts from the home. Imagine a woman with five female children that is told that she has no child until she bears a male child, shows that our society does not encourage the girl child to be an entrepreneur.
Then there is the banking institutions that will always require collateral from women before giving them loans because most women do not own properties, where will she get the bank requirements from , even those women that have helped their husbands achieve wealth cannot access loans because the properties deeds are in the names of their husbands and banks do not accept third party loans.
Government must change the fact that women in Nigeria cannot access loans to finance their business; they must give women direct access to loans because they have what it takes to pay back, they are more prudent, transparent, and disciplined in money matters, although there are a few bad ones that will rather buy Brazilian hair than put the money into good use, the majority are women including those from the rural areas, who go to the farm, collect the produce, take it to the market and sell, afterwards they use the money to train their children.
If Nigeria is to move forward in entrepreneurial development, if we want to see great employment scheme that works, it starts with the women, give them that opportunity and you will be amazed at what they can achieve.
So, what is the role of banks in sustainable entrepreneurship?
There is a lot the banks can do, there is an enormous lot that they can do but most of them are not sincere, it is now that Access bank, Diamond Bank and United Bank Africa have something for women, where have they been all this while? But they are still targeting the wrong category of women, the elite women, what about those women in the village that can be grouped into a co-operative and given access to small loans, then see how they do with it.
The Bank of Industry (BOI), is always in the media saying they have done this or that for women, where are the statistics of the women they claim to have empowered? They do not give women working capital, the real Nigerian women are those in the hinterlands, the BOI should go down there and translate all those their requirements into various many Nigerian languages and create loan packages that they can easily access because the funds do not belong to BOI, it belongs to Nigeria and as long as they are Nigerian citizens they are entitled to this loan at a single digit rate , not at what they are currently giving while claiming that they are a friendly bank where you can collect working capital at between 17 and 19 percent while they buy you machinery at 7 percent.
What kind of deal is that? so I think this government should really look into this critically if they really intend to change the fortunes of this country, let them make the banks to soften their requirements for loans for women because I know for a fact that most women are denied access to loans. For instance, I had to go to America to access loan to produce goods in Nigeria at 6 percent, I had to register this company in the USA.
As for the BOI, they insist that they will have business development service providers (BDFP), who are they? How many women know of the existence of their BDSPs? We have a lot issues with empowerment but our government and the banks would rather continue to play politics with the job creation slogan.
But of a truth women can actually create job for their offspring, so that when they graduate from school rather than seek jobs, they work in the business created by their mother that is the starting point. Government gives big names like Small and Medium Scale Enterprise Development Agency of Nigeria (SMSEDAN).
Why not appoint a village market woman leader to be in charge of soft loans while they monitor it or better still why don’t they look for experienced and established entrepreneurs like us and we will tell them what to do, because we don’t belong, we are not recognized, but my happiness is that I am creating wealthy is this country, I am paying tax, and empowering people and reducing poverty.
What is the role of transportation in entrepreneurship?
Means of transport can be on foot , by car by rail or by air or by sea, without transport there is no business because that is the greatest problem with government initiative to make agriculture our mainstay, they have not sat down to decide how to get the produce to the market if everybody goes to farm, when they are still battling with trying to rehabilitate the rail lines, of course inland water transportation is nonexistence, how many people can access inland water ways to get their farm produce to the city? In the planning process of development, the transporter must be there, transportation must be given priority, generation of power must be there because we need all that, human capacity and financial institutions, all must be present, so that, harvested farm produce like mango, tomatoes, pepper and the rest of them will cease to decay in the areas where they are produced. Right now, the cost of transporting these things to the city is even more expensive than what it costs to grow them and with the subsidy issue, it should be that, it is those who are into agricultural production that should receive subsidy and not some people who take Nigerian funds to refine crude oil.
How can raw materials be developed and utilised?
Nigerians are like a people whose house got burnt and they lost everything because we are just building everything all over again and in the area of raw materials the ministry of solid minerals is right in the middle, we have our own solid mineral resources and it is from there we can get steel to produce machinery, we do not have to go to China to buy machine.
From the petroleum by- product comes all the PVCs we use for making bags, I have visited China to see where they are made from start to finish. We have these things and other countries come here, collect them and use them to develop their own economy because we told them that we do need them and by the time they have refined it they bring it back here and we buy it back from them. So we don’t have raw materials even though we have a Raw Materials Research and Development Centre , they need to let us know the outcome of their research on some of these agricultural products like cotton in the last 10 years , may be they have researched but it is not in the public domain. The Nigeria government lacks the political will to make sure that local industries do not die, everybody prefers made in China , Japan, America to made in Nigeria and I must say that I am one of the people who believe in made in Nigeria because our bags, I carry my own with pride, are all labeled made in Nigeria.
How can preference for foreign items define us and I don’t understand why something made in Europe should define us in Nigeria, you have to carry somebody’s hair in Brazil to answer Ngozi or Funmi ,it makes no sense. In fact, it is a sign of inferiority complex.
How does your business empower staff to become entrepreneurs?
They look at me and see my passion and drive and they understand that if I can stand at 64 years going up and down they cannot sit down and watch T.V. I am a leader by example, I like good things and I make good things both for myself and for others. Every year I take at least three of my staff to China and other countries, to go and see what people elsewhere are doing with their talent, so I have empowered them by exposing them because each time a particular group comes back to Nigeria they are never the same.
So when I talk they listen. The Chinese work for up to 15 hours a day nonstop, in Nigeria we hardly put in more than 6 hours of work and we are tired, by the time they returned to Nigeria they are a different breed. I also empower them by challenging them to do things that seems impossible to them, if somebody somewhere is doing it, there is no reason why they cannot do the same and even better. I motivate them and show them that hard work does not kill, in fact, idleness kills faster.
How did you source the funds to establish your bag making business?
I started this business, more than 30 years ago but it was not a full time business because I was working in civil service, then people were not encouraged to be enterprising, if people were doing what I was doing, there will be no room to steal government money but neither should it make room for stealing government time. I saved every single kobo I could and we used to be paid about N500 as monthly salary when I joined the service.
Before then my husband and I used to live in Canada, when we returned to Nigeria we came back with two cars, so when I got a job in the state house I told my husband that we do not need two cars since staff bus picks and drops me off. so I sold one of the cars, a beautiful sporty mustang, and I put the money in the bank I tell people if you do not know what to do with money first of all put it in the bank and leave it there until a business idea comes even if you don’t have the capital but you have the idea you can sell it to those that will finance it for you as long as they are sure that you are committed and competent enough to handle the business.
After I sold the car I raised my initial capital from there because I just wanted to engage in buying and selling since the salary could not sustain me and my children.
So I created a job for somebody who will be running my business while I was at work, fortunately, I have a same parent brother who has hearing impairment, he is deaf and dumb, I engaged him in a training to learn how to make hair and we started a salon after his training, I equally employed an assistant for him, a lady because of his handicap, so we started hair by appointment just as it is done in USA that was how we started and that is where the name of my business ‘le look’ was coined from because he can only see, before you know it, this place became a centre of attraction and we made a name here.
Today that Young man is in the USA still doing what he knows how to do best and he is now attending the University for the deaf called Gallaudet University, as a way to further empower himself. From that money we went into cosmetics because there was a demand for it and later, to importing fruit juice and after Obasanjo banned the importation of fruit juice, then to bag making and in all these, I never allowed my job to suffer.
Because the job was from 7:30-3:30 and anybody who knew me know that I was on top of my job; I start my day here as early as 5:30 to assist my brother open the shop, I will then report to the office by 7:30 and by 4 pm I am here again helping out until 10 pm every day. I hardly have time for socializing, I am a workaholic, a perfectionist, and a disciplinarian.
Where did you learn to make bags?
When I was studying in Canada, I used to go to where they train people on skill acquisition on bags, so I decided to do bags, but not the English version, I decided to make local bags because people do not like to wear our materials, so I said if they cannot wear it let them carry it. Now Ankara is used in Paris for runway. I made my first bag about 15 years ago, after I took one to a conference, as I was leaving someone saw it and ordered a hundred and I gathered a few tailors who agreed to work with me and we supplied our first order. I insisted on putting a made in Nigeria label on it, because that is how it is done in China. They are beautiful because they are a work of art.
What kind of support do you think government and the private sector can provide to empower young entrepreneurs?
There is a lot of support, through skill acquisition, a lot of us are willing to help but the government is not supportive, if only the government can allow some of us to run skill acquisition centre on a Pubic Private Partnership Program (PPPP), basis, a lot of graduates are looking for where to go and learn a skill and there is none, I get not less than 30 calls a day asking for training opportunities in my company.
I do not have the equipment or the space to train 30 people, but if I can partner with one of the state governments or Federal Government or BOI or even SMEDAN, we can be making just handles only and exporting them ,because some people are looking for just handles, some of my workers only specialize in handle making and are paid on the basis of how many they can produce a day. Everybody cannot be in an air conditioned office, we need to get back our moral values.
What is your thought on the future of entrepreneurs in Nigeria?
The future is great because I am a part of that future, the future is information technology (ICT), people are always on the internet buying images, young people should go into photography, creative design coral draw or graphic artistry because that is the future, you do not see the product, it is the image you see that you want and it does not guarantee that you will like what you get on delivery.
So, that is the business, people using pictures to captivate buyers because the world is heading to the internet market and most importantly because now Nigerians are being reoriented by a new government of change and we are the change we want to see, change in attitude, and the business environment will boom because our population is not static and many people cannot afford the dollar since the CBN stopped people from getting foreign exchange, now our school bag orders has increased, people are sourcing their needs internally before they prefer to travel out and buy but when they calculate the dollar value they have a rethink.