I started my business with N10, 000, says Harrison Umoh
Idongesit Harrison Umoh is the owner and CEO of Idong Harrie Limited, a footwear and accessory manufacturing and retailing company based in Lagos that specializes in handmade shoes, slippers, sandals, wallets, handbags and all manner of small leather accessories. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she reveals how she started out with pocket money, the challenges she faces in a male-dominated industry and how women are refusing to take advantage of business opportunities around them.
When did you decide to go into entrepreneurship and did you always think this is what you would do?
I would say I stumbled into this because growing up, I wanted to become a lawyer but I later changed my mind to become an economist. But then along the line, I found out that I could make shoes and turned out to be something I enjoyed doing. It started out as a hobby and I was just thrilled that I could create something with my own hands and I took it from there.
How did you start out?
I started this as a hobby in 2005, I was in my second year in the university then and I was sitting and thinking about my life. My eyes fell on a pair of slippers someone had given my mum, it was a beaded slippers and something in me, which I believe now to be the Holy Spirit, told me, ‘Idong you can create this slippers’. I took the slippers and checked how it was made then took it to Tejuosho market and to my surprise; all the materials were there. I immediately bought all the materials needed to make the upper part of the slippers and I took it home and started trying to re-create the original slippers. Amazingly, I got it and this gave me joy but there was a problem - I could create the upper part but not the bottom. As fate would have it, there was this cobbler that had a shop opposite my house and took the slippers to him asking if he could make the bottom part and he did. However the first day I wore the slippers, which also happened to be a rainy day, I hadn’t moved 10 steps from my house when the slippers cut and all the beads scattered. I had to walk with one slipper back home but from then on; I decided I was going to make my slippers myself, with special focus on the materials being used. I went back to ask him where he got his materials from and he said from Mushin market. When I got to the market, I stood out because bearing in mind that this was in 2005 and most women hadn’t really fully gotten into the footwear industry. However, I met a God-sent fellow shoe-maker who showed me some of his works, and which turned out to be things I wanted to make. Seeing my enthusiasm, he offered to train me on how to make the bottom part properly and on the use of leather. I under-studied him for a month and at the end, I became proficient and started selling footwear I made myself to my friends in school.
How did you raise the needed capital?
Believe it or not, I started this business with N10, 000- pocket money given to me by my father that I had been saving. Out of this money, I used N7, 000 to buy a sewing machine (as at then, you could get a fairly-used Butterfly sewing machine for this amount) and the remaining N3, 000, I spent on materials. I won’t even call it a business then because I just knew I could make slippers for petty sales and didn’t take it too serious. After I finished my service year, I was opportuned to work with Nokia where they paid me N70, 000. I was blown away with this ‘big money’ and I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and pushed my shoe-making dreams to a corner. But I knew that I would always still go back to making footwear, which I eventually did.
What is the moment you have faced business-wise?
There have been so many moments, in fact, I still faced one yesterday. But top of the list has to be getting negative feedbacks from customers. However, this happened mostly when I was starting out compared to now that I am an expert (laughing). Another problem I have is with my workers.
What are some of the challenges you have faced and how are you overcoming them?
Getting people to recognize and believe in my brand. When I started, I was mainly making men’s products and a lot of men didn’t believe in what I was doing and asked why I woke up one morning and decided to make men’s shoes. This was long before this ‘Buy Nigeria To Grow The Naira’, so it was like me introducing something new to them and trying to convince them to buy my products. Another great challenge is getting adequate raw materials. For example, I might make a pair of shoes with a particular shade of blue and it is on my website, but by the time a customer wants to order for it and I go to the market, I wouldn’t see that shade again and then I have to start apologizing and explaining to the customer, which doesn’t look too good.
What has been the high-points so far?
One day I went for a meeting and I saw three people wearing my products in the room. The fact that people still order and buy my products daily, this means they believe in what I’m doing, in the brand. When customers refer others to me, it gives me immense joy. I have customers that have been buying from me steadily since 2013 and they’re still buying till now.
Would you say you have achieved your set out goals business-wise?
Well, if it is my set out goal in the last one year, I would say yes but I have long-term goals, which are yet to materialize but I would say I have achieved my short-term goals.
In your opinion, do you think enough women are setting out to be entrepreneurs and how easy is it for women to start businesses?
I would say yes and no. Yes, because a lot of women are now business owners. I mean, look at make up artists, they’re now beating fashion designers clearly. No, because when it comes to business competitions, seminars, putting themselves out there and applying for proper help and loans to boost their businesses, men have this cornered hands down. Despite the myriad opportunities out there, women aren’t taking advantage at all. They come crying to me about their businesses and when I direct them to places that can help, they would refuse. I was a Tony Elumelu Foundation recipient and the percentage of women to men was about 21:79, not even up to a quarter and this is how it is for every single business opportunity.
Why do you think this is so?
I would say laziness and many of them don’t believe in themselves. Judges ask some women questions about their businesses, which should be at the tip of their fingers, and to answer becomes a problem. Basic questions like ‘who are your competitors, what is your unique selling point?’ most of them claim they don’t have time to answer these questions. Some of them refuse to participate in pitching competitions, claiming they are shy but they don’t know nobody can know your business better than you, the owner.
Do you think the government is doing enough to support and create enabling environments for small businesses and SMEs?
Yes and No. Yes, they are beginning to make small efforts. Look at what Lagos State is doing, creating schemes where small businesses can apply for grants, loans and trainings in their different industries. Lagos is offering small businesses loans at an extremely low interest rate. This is a major opportunity small businesses can benefit from. No also because they have refused to provide basic infrastructure that can help us grow such as electricity, water, and the likes.
How is the ongoing recession affecting you?
For me, it’s been a mixture of bad and good. Bad, because most of our raw materials are imported. I went to Kano in January to see about buying leather in large quantities and though I partnered with a few sellers, I can tell you the difference in price between the local and imported is very marginal. Personally, I would rather buy the imported ones because it offers varieties and proximity. It has been good because it has enabled a lot of people look inwards, buying locally made shoes instead of importing because of the forex difference. It has really boosted sales for us, I must confess.
What keeps you going?
Customers that patronize me daily, no day passes that I don’t have several orders. My staff also: they’re dependent on me for their daily bread and they have families that are dependent on them as well. This makes me jump out of bed every morning. Also, I’m building something that is made in Nigeria and we are putting Nigeria on the global map.
What would you tell anyone that intends going down this path?
Perseverance and persistency. Consistency is important. Entrepreneurship is not all sunshine and roses: you may be depressed, be left with nothing in your account and you would want to quit severally. Every entrepreneur goes through these phases, just keep improving and staying true to yourself. However, just start; there is no better time than the present. Your morning is when you wake up and it’s never too late to start working on your dream.