Femi Olayebi is the Chief Creative Director at My World of Bags, a handbag design and manufacturing company producing 147eponymous leather handbags and accessories line, FemiHandbags, a line that caters to corporate organisations. In 2008, she became one of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Scholars, and was twice nominated to attend programmes in the United States where she job-shadowed some of the world’s most famous handbag designers and experienced corporate business ethics first-hand. In January 2017, she was selected by WeConnect International in Washington as the 2017 Women’s Business Enterprise Winner in the Best Mentor and Role Model category for the mentoring role she plays in the lives of younger up-and-coming designers. Her handbags are currently being sold in Lagos, Paris and New York. Olayebi is a Nigerian leather designer that has been on top of her game for over 25 years. She speaks with Azuka Ogujiuba on her journey to becoming one of Nigeria’s foremost leather designers
Who is Femi Olayebi?
I run a handbag design and manufacturing outfit called ‘My World of Bags’. But I think I’m currently better known as the Chief Creative Director of FemiHandbags, a line of affordable luxury leather handbags and accessories I thoroughly enjoy creating. I have a bachelor’s degree in French from the University of Ibadan and then followed my dream of becoming a translator and headed to the Institut de Traducteurs et d’Interpretes in Strasbourg, France, under the sponsorship of the French government to catch that dream. On my return to Nigeria, I worked as a freelance translator for several international organisations, including ECOWAS. In 1992, the tides turned: I tried my hands at making a baby bag for my first baby and became an accidental entrepreneur. I’m based in Ibadan. I am married to an amazing man and I am mum to three amazing daughters.
Considering your educational background, what inspired you to venture into making handbags?
I call myself a child of serendipity. Designing and manufacturing handbags pretty much happened by accident after I went baby shopping for my first baby and couldn’t find a diaper bag I liked. Frankly, nothing in my background had prepared me for the world of entrepreneurship and I was nowhere near being business savvy. I am the daughter of teachers – my mum was a teacher and my dad was a professor of Classical Philology. So, I grew up within the corridors of academia. At the time it so happened that I had only just learnt how to use a sewing machine. The creative streak in me pushed me to believe that I could try my hands at making my own bag. I headed to the market, bought some pretty fabric and proceeded to cut and sew. It seemed pretty logical at the time but looking back, it was a very casual act. It has turned out to be one of the pieces in the puzzle of my life that God was slowly putting together. Little did I know that I was sowing the seed that would become the company that I run today.
Why leather as a preferred material for production?
When I started out, I used a great variety of materials ranging from chinos to denim to anything I could lay my hands upon. But as I experimented with different materials and as my business grew I came to the realisation that the material of choice would have to be genuine leather if I wanted to create the high quality and sophisticated pieces I dreamt up and capture what I felt was my target market. Great quality leather is such a beautiful material and coupled with good quality hardware and great stitching, it’s something that people are prepared to pay a premium for.
With over 25 years of experience what would you say are the significant changes in the industry, between when you started and now?
When we eventually ventured into the world of leather I discovered that all that was available to leather designers was imported leather in spite of the fact that Nigeria is one of the largest producers of livestock in Africa and was reputed to produce some of the world’s best sheep and goat skins. Leather production used to be big business – there used to be over 30 tanneries in the country. But they all started to decline with the advent of oil, just as other local industries were collapsing due to infrastructural challenges and inadequate technical capacity. As the problems became aggravated, focus shifted from the local consumer, the smaller tanneries closed down and the few existing ones that had the financial clout began to cater exclusively to European markets. That is still the case today and most of the few functional tanneries export all of their finished products to the global fashion brands. Also, the majority of Nigerian hides were used to produce ‘ponmo’ and that has remained a recurrent problem even as moves are being made to reduce its consumption. So, the challenges persist and the leather industry has remained unable to attain its full potential. But steps are definitely being taken to move the industry forward.
What challenges did you face when you started out and how did you tackle them? Are those challenges still present today?
The challenges I faced when I started out were enormous. Firstly, I had no role models or mentors to look up to and pretty much had to figure everything out myself. Then there was, and still is the persistent problem of getting artisans with specific skill-sets required to manufacture our products to my very high demanding standards. I, therefore, had a very high turnover of employees. But as time went on, we found the right balance and they came to understand that I was not going to settle for anything less than the best. I also did not have much technical knowledge myself – I countered this by reading a ton of books on bag-making and experimenting a great deal. I did not have the appropriate tools, equipment and machinery to work with and only started acquiring them slowly as the years went by. And as we are all aware the power problem that every Nigerian business faces still stares us in the face.
What is the most satisfying thing about being a Nigerian leather designer?
Personally, the most satisfying thing about being a Nigerian designer is being recognised for the work that I do and appreciating very much the fact that people are ready to pay top dollar for my pieces. It is extremely humbling and rewarding and only propels me to raise the bar higher and higher at every turn. It’s also gratifying to hear people remark that our products are too well-made to have been manufactured in Ibadan. Which is a shame really as the general perception is that not a lot of good can come from a Nigerian handmade product. But that always brings a smile to my face.
Last year, you organised the Lagos Leather Fair. What was the inspiration behind it and how was it received?
The rash of challenges I faced along with other leather designers was the true inspiration. Being one of the pioneers in the business, I felt that it was time to stop complaining, and the time had come to seek answers and start acting. I felt a strong urge to do something impactful, and believed strongly that I could be part of the solution. Another factor that pushed me to act was reading the findings of a World Bank report that concluded that leather and allied leather products could easily constitute the second largest earner of foreign exchange after oil and gas. I decided that instead of sitting around waiting for the government to fix our problems, one of the ways in which we could bring the challenges to their notice would be to create a platform which would bring together under one roof, the major players along the leather value chain. And so I proceeded to take the boldest step I had ever taken. My hope was that the event would bring to light the sheer numbers of leather designers working away quietly at their craft, start a necessary conversation and attempt to change the narrative within the industry. It would be the first of its kind in the country and I must admit that it was one of those big risks you take when your gut tells you it’s fine even when you’re not quite sure how it would turn out. We brought together leather designers, manufacturers, suppliers of machinery, trainers, retailers, and marketing professionals so that we could begin to connect the dots and find workable and sustainable solutions. We also invited representatives of the Aba Cluster – a very important factor in the ecosystem. The fair also featured master-classes and creative workshops which were hosted by local and international industry experts. It was extremely well received and we immediately had both the private and public sectors key into the vision. We had dared to make the move and we were stunned by the unexpected and extraordinary success of the event.
Since the last fair, what will you say is the current narrative of the Nigerian leather industry and what impact do you think the fair had on it?
The fair had a few major objectives which were: to promote the made-in-Nigeria initiative by showcasing Nigerian talent, highlight the importance of value-addition within the industry; create a business networking platform for stakeholders in this sector; facilitate collaborations; provide incentives for all concerned; and ensure that the national drive for promoting the agro sector is all inclusive. The awareness created by the fair at the state and federal levels have led to several pending agreements being signed, and one major consequence was forming a partnership with the Nigerian Export Promotion Council to start a quarterly series of handbag trainings for budding handbag designers. A lot of the designers who participated were also able to scale their businesses from the exposure provided by the fair. The hope is that all these will lead to more private public partnerships which will be followed by the right interventions to move the industry forward. A leather policy has also been revisited and drafted by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment and is awaiting validation.
Where do you see the industry in the next couple of years?
In 2009, the Nigerian leather industry had an estimated GDP of N85 billion. In Aba alone, there is a thriving shoe and bag industry and hundreds of thousands of artisans are engaged in the finished made-in-Aba leather goods sector at various levels of processing, production, trading, etc. The global leather trade is huge. Unfortunately, the right facilities, machinery and equipment are not in place to ensure that the products are well finished, and most of the products are then shipped off to other neighbouring countries. If the sector can be developed, if we can improve the quality of our production, if we can fix our capacity building problems in terms of access to the necessary raw materials and machinery, and if we can begin to train and build a phenomenal workforce of skilled workmen and women, we will become more competitive and begin to operate on an entirely different scale. We can also then begin to think of formalizing the export of leather goods to first-world countries. The truth is Nigeria’s leather goods industry holds an amazing potential to succeed once the challenges of the sector are tackled and if support initiatives are put in place to facilitate its growth. Nigeria can then make its mark on the world stage.
Would you say FemiHandbags has reached its potential?
We are still working very hard to achieve more. So, the answer is no – we have not. We have succeeded in creating a strong brand that has become locally recognisable through our small capsule collections of beautifully crafted handbags and we are grateful for the recognition. Along the way we have also been able to create employment, transform lives, provide training and work experience for young up-and-coming creative talent. We take our mentoring role very seriously and through personal interventions, have been able to help guide younger creatives to accomplish their business growth goals. At Femi Handbags, we are now solidly focused on developing our capacity and building a viable production chain so that we can further extend our reach beyond the frontiers of our immediate locality to a potentially global audience and compete with the biggest names in the industry.