The 3-Step Cycle That's Enabling Me to Redefine an Entire African Industry
by Helen Chukwu on May 18, 2022
Building a couture fashion house out of Nigeria isn't all hemlines and buttons; it's about self-reliance, empowerment and competition.
The world of fashion has been my playground for as long as I can remember. When I moved to Nigeria from London six years ago, I saw that there was no stability in production in the fashion industry in Africa. The facilities were not up to the mark, the quality of garments was nowhere close to the best, and the workforce had neither enough education nor the necessary skill sets. Fast-forward six years ahead to the present — and the scenario looks largely the same. There are people on the streets looking for jobs, self-taught in the basics of tailoring and machinery, trying to make a living by offering to adjust people’s garments.
I knew six years ago that I was going to change this space. As the founder of Helen Couture, I believe I’m well on my way. I had my first big breakthrough recently via a Forbes feature; as an entrepreneur perhaps you can relate — it feels wonderful to finally be heard and to hit the first milestone of your vision of working with and being one of the game-changers in your industry.
If like me, you’re on a journey to build a brand that will make a real impact, improve the lives of future generations and redefine how an industry works, then there are three pieces of advice I have for you. From my experience, these three ‘steps’ tie into each other and form a self-reinforcing loop of sorts. Following this process passionately, deliberately and long-term will help you make waves as an entrepreneur.
1. Build self-reliance
Amongst the many quotes I have bookmarked, perhaps my favorite was always one by Ralph Waldo Emerson that said: "Be yourself - no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another." It was not until the COVID pandemic that I fully grasped the importance of this message. I’m sure you’ll agree, the pandemic underscored just how important it is for us to look inwards, and to uncover and use our own strengths. Times of great uncertainty forced us to turn to our own people – to our own communities and countrymen - and to find ways to be self-reliant. All of a sudden, we could neither export anything for a living nor import what we had become used to getting from abroad. We couldn’t rely on China. Or on India. Or on Indonesia. Or any other country. We had to rely on ourselves, and where we found ourselves lacking, we had to make ourselves better. And the people who could not learn how to do this came to rely on people like us – the ones who did figure it out.
If you’re an entrepreneur based in another part of Africa (or any other emerging part of the world), I’m certain you noticed this in your line of work and in your community as well. Therefore, my first piece of advice to you on your journey in building a resilient enterprise is simple - accept complete responsibility. Take ownership. Get comfortable in your own skin. Learn how you can produce the best quality work – work that you can be proud of, with the resources available to you now, in your own country. Be brave enough to start where you are.
2. Empower, educate, empathize, repeat
Despite macro-economic and political concerns, Nigeria has seen a lot of truly inspiring progress. We’ve skilled up in the agriculture sector. We’ve built a thriving oil and gas industry. Why can’t we do the same for fashion? Improvements in the fashion industry in the city considered the giant of Africa can create employment, empowerment and inclusivity for generations to come. How do we begin? With education.
I’ve always believed (at least in the context of Africa) that if you empower one woman, you empower an entire household. And to me, the best path to empowerment has always been education.
I know what your first thought might be — it’s easy for big multinational corporations such as IBM or Target to set aside a portion of their CSR budgets towards education, but it’s hard to invest in it as an entrepreneur. I’m here to tell you it isn’t - not if you think of it as an integral part of your operations. For instance, at Helen Couture, while we certainly have a thriving production space that makes beautiful clothes, we also focus on educating the women under our wings in conjunction with their work. Furthermore, we know education isn’t enough — empathy matters. Different organizations demonstrate empathy differently. Microsoft has a lab program called Microsoft Garage to support employees’ side gigs. Audi goes out of its way to hire and train veterans. Apple builds wellness centers. In our case, because the biggest cause of attrition in young female talent in Africa is the demand of motherhood, we plan to provide a safe hub for our colleagues to bring in their children.
To me, education, empowerment and empathy are essentials in building a venture that is trusted and loved. You can find a myriad of creative ways of integrating them into your culture — and I encourage you to do so. Start small, but start. Adhering to these principles will set you apart as a leader.
3. Obsess over quality to compete with the best in the world
Once you’ve decided to be self-reliant and are committed to empowering your workforce, it’s time to strengthen your value proposition for your customers. To me, the biggest differentiator is quality. You should be obsessed with refining what you produce until it’s at par with, or better than, the best of the best globally. For us, our mission is to build a fashion house that blazes a trail for the quality of what’s created from Nigeria for the world. We’re certainly scaling up production and will be able to manufacture 10,000 garments per day in the next few years. But we won’t take our eyes off quality.
If you’re planning to (or already are) vying for highly discerning customers from the U.S., UK, the Middle East or Asia, especially through a creative or luxury venture, quality is your golden ticket. You might find it hard to compete with Chinese companies in a mass-market venture if you’re competing on the basis of price. But if you commit to superior design, innovation and quality — you will be noticed.
The better your creations, the more you grow, and the more confidence you develop to be self-reliant. You go back to step #1 and take things up a notch. It’s a fantastic loop.
I believe that all entrepreneurial ventures committed to empowerment and impact will have beautiful journeys - ones that will touch and advance thousands of lives. My last piece of advice to you, no matter where you find yourself in this journey today, is to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Keep laying one brick after another. Have a vision with a long-term perspective. You’ll get there. I know we all will.