By Josephine Agbonkhese
Marketing a made-in-Nigeria product is, by far, the most difficult part of being a creative entrepreneur. But with Bukky Asehinde’s intervention five years ago, that is becoming history. Chief Executive Officer of Bellafricana, the popular e-commerce platform helping to create visibility for creative businesses, Asehinde is an alumna of the University of Westminster, London, where she studied Biochemistry. Here, she tells how she is changing the narratives for creative entrepreneurs in Nigeria and Africa.
Why the interest in creative entrepreneurs?
As you already know, there’s so much creativity in Africa but the media is not exactly doing the best of job in portraying that creativity. I am particularly focused on promoting indigenous brands that have an African edge. I decided to do this when I felt someone needed to resolve the problem of access to international market for local creative entrepreneurs. This was something I observed when I moved back to Nigeria in 2012. Prior to that, I had been out of the country for about a decade and while in the UK, I worked in many indigenous companies, including Wembley Arena and as a Manager at McDonald’s; all of which shaped my perception of indigenous businesses.
Immediately I returned to Nigeria, I needed to undergo the compulsory National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, having studied abroad. It was in the course of NYSC service that I noticed a pattern among creative people who owned businesses—they just want to create. They don’t understand so many things about marketing. I felt it would be amazing to create a platform where people producing amazing things could be connected to consumers looking to buy from them. I felt there was no better way to do that than to create an online platform where people from all over the world could access these locally-made products already‘verified’ by us since we are on ground here. This will give consumers the confidence to patronise these brands since they have been verified to be of good quality. The idea dropped in 2014 and began as an e-commerce platform until about 2015 when we adjusted our focus and started verifying quality businesses in Nigeria.
How exactly easy or difficult is it to market Nigerian brands to the world since‘made-in-Nigeria’ has almost become synonymous with ‘poor quality’?
We are changing the narratives because we still believe that quality is made here, and I am grateful for the confidence consumers already have in us. With our verification seal on any brand, they instantly assume it to be of good quality. We are however also very particular about quality and ensure the brands we project are of world-class standard. A look at our website will daze you. I mean, you will see how much of ‘quality’ is currently being made in Nigeria. I tell you, so many great things are being made here locally despite the fact that we’re not in the most enabling environment.
Are there measures by which you ensure these products are of good quality?
Yes. We handpick businesses because we want to make sure the kinds of businesses seen on our platform are businesses that started from scratch and desire to grow; businesses which understand that they have to take their time to nurture. The way we operate, before verifying a product, we must examine it no matter what part of the country its producer is based. For certain products that require testing, we use them on ourselves before verifying. Also, another thing we do is training. Some business owners have skills gap, so we partner with experts who can train them better; not just in the creation of their products, but also in the running of their business on skills such as packaging, financing, marketing and branding.
Your target is entrepreneurs all over Africa; how far has this vision gone?
We’ve gone quite far. Right now, we are creating allies in all the countries because we believe in partnership. Through collaboration, we are already bringing to limelight business owners from Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and many others. Our annual event ‘ACE Award,’ has also given us a great edge in celebrating creativity and innovation in Africa. The award focuses on micro-businesses from different sectors which are having an impact on their economies by creating jobs and developing their countries in one way or the other.
…and how would you rate your success so far?
Amazing. In Nigeria alone right now, we have over 100 businesses that have been verified; and these cut across different parts of the country. We have over 500 businesses that are actually in our network and we are still verifying that their qualities meet world standard.
Millions of consumers globally are already relying on our verification for assurance about various made-in-Nigeria brands. To an extent, that’s a good level of success for us. Also, we’ve been able to initiate partnership with top stakeholders such as the Nigerian Export Promotion Council, NEPC. Its Executive Director, Mr. Segun Awolowo Jr, has heavily supported our work because it is also in the line of non-oil exports which the country is currently keen on diversifying into.
… your biggest challenge?
There are quite a lot of them, but my biggest challenge is getting the right people to employ; people who are able to tap into your vision.
What personality traits could have triggered the switch from Biochemistry to promoting local entrepreneurs?
My mummy always reminds me that as a child, I always loved to bring people together. I was also drawn to creative, beautiful things and loved to put things in place for better aesthetics. Everyone, therefore, thought I was going to be an interior decorator. But I guess all of these traits have contributed to what I am doing right now. Bella Africana is a community of creative businesses and I am proud to be championing quality in creative indigenous businesses in Nigeria.
Who has influenced your life the most?
My mum; due to her entrepreneurial mindset. My dad was a white-collar person. My mum is a businesswoman and has been travelling since she was 17, doing buying and selling. She was one of the first women who used to sell fabrics in Balogun and Oshodi markets in Lagos. My mum has acquired for herself loads of cars and houses and supported the overseas education of my siblings and I, just by selling fabrics. She is a woman I am so proud of. Of course, my dad has always been there for us too.