The success story of Monalisa Abimbola Azeh, the founder of Mona Matthews, a Nigerian shoemaking company, rekindles hope for many aspiring entrepreneurs who might be thinking of jettisoning their dreams because they lack the financial wherewithal. Mrs. Azeh started her shoemaking business with no capital. Today, her company is worth several millions of naira. Mona Matthews produces hand-made shoes with matching bags for women, as well as high quality leather footwear for men.
The lovely lady behind the Mona Matthews brand, in an exclusive interview with FinIntell, shares how she was able to weather the storm.
You left legal practice to start shoemaking business after about 17 years experience in law. One would have thought you will just set up a law firm.
I actually had a law firm. I was called to bar in 1985, and before I started shoemaking business in 2002, I ventured into other things apart from the law. I just got the impression that I could do other things apart from law, particularly creative things that are interesting for me. I went into event management; strictly on production of musical concert. I also worked in my church office.
You must have seen a need in the fashion industry for you to now settle with shoemaking?
Maybe there was a need. I actually started making shoes for myself. The need was first personal. I was having difficulty in getting my shoe size. I couldn’t get nice and trendy kind of shoes that I was interested in. Even when I went abroad, I still had that problem. That was really what prompted my quest into shoe making. But I found out that when I started making my shoes, people actually liked what I was doing. They always wanted to know where I got them from. And when I told them I made the shoes, people were truly surprised.
The whole idea started when I noticed that Nigerian men wear nice leather shoes made by Nigerian shoemakers. That got me thinking that I could get something good for myself. Unfortunately, all the shoemakers I met said they don’t make female shoes. It was when I insisted that some of them now showed interest and were willing to make female shoes. They didn’t even know how to go about it. So I gave the first one I met a male sandal to make a female version of it. He made it and I wore it. Though it wasn’t fantastic, but that got me started.
One thing about made in Nigeria shoes is their durability. The shoemakers I worked with used real leather, good gum, and they stitched well. That encouraged me to make more shoes. But even at that, I still didn’t think of it as a business despite the fact that I get orders out of just making my own shoes. It eventually got to a point when I wanted to leave where I was working to set up a proper business. I had so many things that I could do. I thought of going into event management proper. I also thought of going back to my legal practice. I just had a lot of option because I am an enterprising person. I am always ready to take risk, and I am not afraid of learning new things. I also like challenges. So the option to me was plenty.
I decided to seek for advice from my pastor, and he advised me to pray about the business God wanted me to start. I listened to his advice and went ahead to pray about it. After some days, I was led into shoemaking, an option I would not have thought of as number one because I had not really explored it as a business. But I told myself, since God wants me to do this business I have to start it out. So I ventured into it even without capital. I didn’t have so much then because I was a church administrator with very humble salary.
(Interjects) Of course, the salary has to be humble since it is God’s work?
(General laughter) Exactly! But I enjoyed what I was doing because I wasn’t really thinking of money on the job. So I started without any money. I had an idea of how I wanted to run the business and I didn’t really need any money because of the business concept.
What I did was to share the vision of the business with a friend who was in the financial world. He told me the concept was a very good business model which some international companies even uses. He told me Nike, the largest company as far as shoe business is concern in the world, uses the same model. And that really encouraged me. It meant that I could start what I wanted to do immediately without having to have money.
My friend also advised me to register for a programme at the Fate Foundation. The programme was for those planning to start business. It was called the Aspiring Entrepreneurial Programme. So, as soon as I left my job, I applied to join them. Luckily for me, the school was just starting a new session of the programme. I also had an advantage; I started the business simultaneously with the programme. And that helped a lot because I was able to apply what they were teaching us in class.
Would you like to share with us the strategic model your business runs on?
It is called outsourcing. You basically outsource your production. You look for suitable hands that are able to produce to your specifications. That is what Apple does with its products. The company doesn’t really have Apple i-phone factory. They outsource to some factories in China; somebody does the designs, give the factories the specifications, and they prepare a prototype. Once the prototype is certified to be appropriate and meet the standard, then they begin production. So what Apple and Nike basically do is that they market the product. They create the brand and market it. We use the same model.
The advantage of outsourcing is that you can start business immediately. It also means that the point at which you are starting is higher. I design and I have shoemakers who created the shoes. All the shoemakers that I engaged have been in business for more than 10-15 years. If I wanted to start making shoes myself, the quality of my production would not have been anything close to the competition at that time. And hiring experienced hands like that would have cost me much. I had to outsource in order to beat all those obstacles and entered the market at a very good level from day one.
I had a vision of a company that was able to produce international standard shoes. If you wear Mona Matthews’ shoes, nobody would think that you are wearing a locally produced shoe; even though we are proud to put made in Lagos, Nigeria, on our products. We are proud of the fact that this beautiful thing can come out of Nigeria. At the same time we emphasis quality and durability because these are the things that the brand stands for.
What is the perception of your customers to made-in-Nigeria shoes compared with the Italian products?
Mona Matthews’ customers are very enlightened and educated people. They are people who have travelled the world. They’ve seen different kind of shoes. So they appreciate the quality of what we do. And as a matter of fact, they are very loyal to our brand and they promote the brand. Most of my customers are the ones who actually bring me new customers. The customers themselves are the brand ambassadors. They talk about the brand because they’ve experienced it and they know what it stands for.
Our shoes are affordable. They are for people who appreciate quality; those who are ready to make little investment into something that will last long for over five years.
What are the secrets that have helped your business growth?
I am someone who listens to advice. If I have a challenge and I fell there is somebody who is in a position to offer some useful information and guardians, I go for advice and listen to the person. I found out that once you are not too proud and you take advice from people, you will learn a lot on how to grow your business. At least, a large amount of the thing I learnt about shoemaking, I learnt them from my shoemakers. I have been privileged to work with some of the best shoemakers in this country. I learnt a lot from them, and I listen to what they say.
I also go online to read whatever I can find about the industry. Learning in business should be a continuous thing. You must keep on improving yourself, expanding your knowledge, and stay humble. You allow people to impact knowledge in you whenever it is appropriate. When I hear about a good shoemaker somewhere, I go after the person to learn.
How has it been doing business in Nigeria?
I am not someone who dwells on the negative. People say there is no money in Nigeria. But in reality, how can someone say that? There are over 17 million people in Lagos alone, and you say there is no money. Even if it is tens of those millions are productive and earning something, that is a lot of money. For instance, if you are selling groundnut at ₦100 per packet, and a fraction of the millions buys groundnut from you, imagine how much you will realise.
There are two ways to look at things; you can either look at the negative or choose to look at the positive. I like the story of the two shoe salesmen who got to a third world country where people there don’t wear shoes. One said there was no business there. The other said the place was a massive field to sell shoes. If you approach Nigeria from that positive perspective, then you will see Nigerians as people of immense opportunities. I always thank God for the grace of being able to see things from that perspective, and being able to also generate ideas that can turn into business.
Some people asked why I have not started exporting my shoes abroad. The truth is that I have not even finished serving Lagos. Lagos is not just a large city, it is a city full of fashionistas; 17 million people who love dressing up. Those are the things I see when I look at this country. I am also aware that there are a lot of young, creative people around who are willing to be part of your vision in one way or the other. So there are so many resources, human capital, etc, that we can tap into. The things that people say are negative about Nigeria –no electricity, no infrastructure etc – are things that have built us up and helped us compete in places where people whose lives are easier cannot compete.
A typical example is the success story of eastern Africans in any long distance race. The east Africans always excel in long races because they live and practice in places where it is more difficult to run. So, when they go for competition in countries where they have good terrain, they excel. If you look at Nigeria like that, when people leave this country to study abroad, they usually excel because the conditions under which they study there are too soft. Anywhere you go outside this country, when you see Nigerians you will know because we are more aggressive, go-getters, resilient, strong, hardworking, and we think out of the box.
I have never been anywhere in the world where they don’t have their own challenges. Places that the government works per se, the people living there commit suicide. For instance, in the United State, an economy that is supposedly working, more people die of suicide than road accident because they are depressed. How many Nigerians commit suicide because of the poor economy?
Don’t you think Nigerian government is not doing enough to help businesses?
If you give some people everything, they will still not breakthrough. Take some people from here to London, where everything is working, they will still not succeed. The only reason why some Nigerians are doing well today is because we have no economy to stand on in the first place.
How rewarding has it been running a shoe business?
It is rewarding in terms of fulfillment and what one has been able to establish, not necessarily the usual buying of cars or houses. The concept that you can do this and you are doing it is rewarding. The younger people have come into this business since I started and they have taken it to different levels. For me, that is rewarding. The competition in the business also makes us work harder and better.
I give a testimony of one of my shoemakers who couldn’t even afford a mobile phone, but by the time we finished a few of the transactions that we did together, he had bought a car, changed his children’s school, and moved to a better place. When you see things like that, you are happy. I see my shoemakers whom from when we met have gotten married, blessed with children, and the children now go to schools. I believe if a business is providing food, shelter, school fees, and other basic necessities of life, then it is rewarding. It shows you are giving back in your own way to the society. You are creating something that is enduring and you are giving people hope.
Are your materials sourced locally?
Our materials are sourced locally and our shoemakers are indigenous ones. The basic things that we use, like leathers, are in our local markets. Although sometimes when I travelled, I bring in a few things like ornaments. We only insist on quality materials from our shoemakers every time, and they don’t disappoint. Our shoemakers are one of our major assets.
The business requires trust and integrity. Before you can be a shoemaker with Mona Matthews, for instance, you must have the skills and the character. We have a brand and the brand has integrity. If a customer orders for a real leather shoe, the person trusts me that he or she will get a real leather shoe. So, our shoemakers ensure they meet the standard.
What is your advice for young entrepreneurs?
When I see young people setting up all kinds of businesses that did not exist 10 years ago, I am always amazed and very happy.
They however need to learn how to re-invest into the business. If you start a business with nothing, you will understand that whenever you have money in your hand it is a seed. And seeds are not meant for consumption; you plant seeds and allow them to germinate and become multiplied. Some believe money is for spending, but money should be for investment. If you earn money, either salary or business, and you spend everything, then you have wasted your resources. But if you earn it and you find a way of plowing it back and allow it to generate and become something bigger, then you have invested wisely. You can then spend part of the proceeds to celebrate yourself.
Do you train prospective shoe designers?
Yes, we do train people; mostly women because the business is largely a female dominated one. Whether you like it or not, women wear shoes more than men. We wear different colours and different heels; so we have more needs as far as shoes are concern.
I also encourage my shoemakers to train others because the more people they train the more productive they will be. If you have more people working with you, you can produce larger quantity.
Meanwhile, shoemaking is not for everybody because it is a craft. It is an art. It requires a type of person. Some people want to learn this work but they just don’t have what it takes. You have to be very patient and creative. Styles change often; especially female shoes. So, even if you learn how to make the basic shoes, you as a person must be able to adapt to the frequent changes of style. The craft is inborn; it has to be in you first before developing it into a skill.
Do you have plans to venture into other businesses?
I do have a clothing line in mind which will be specific in style. There is a niche that I would like to carve in that area. However, Mona Matthews’s shoes still need to cover Lagos and its environs before venturing into other areas of business.
How do you maintain a work-life balance?
I like my work. My work is not a hard one per se. I browse online and look through magazines for new styles. Also, I have a replica of my office in the house so that I can work from home. I have very good domestic staff too; I just basically supervise them. The way my shoe business works is the same way my domestic staff works. I really don’t stress myself because I relax on the job.
There are a number of things I also do to relax. I love meeting people which is why I enjoy talking to customers. I am fully active in my church and I enjoy doing that too. I like listening to live music. I have a friend who, along with her husband, has a gospel band that does live show. So, once in a month I go there to unwind. Occasionally too, I attend art exhibitions. I also like travelling. I go on holidays –though I always go with my blackberry to keep in touch with my clients and staff. But I have certain days that I don’t work at all; I just rest.
I try to live a very simple life. I don’t believe that you have to buy the latest clothe. I don’t buy ‘Aso Ebi’ and I hardly go to parties. If I can give you an envelope and escape your party, I would rather do that. My friends are not even the party type. Attending parties is really not fun to me. I found out that when you ease yourself from all those things, there is a certain amount of pressure that you take off yourself.