Marketing a made-in-Nigeria product is one of the most difficult aspects of being a creative entrepreneur, but with Bukky Asehinde’s intervention five years ago, this is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Chief Executive Officer of Bellafricana, an e-commerce platform helping to create visibility for creative businesses and connecting them to consumers worldwide, Asehinde is an alumna of the University of Westminster, London, where she studied Biochemistry. In this interview, she discusses in detail how she is changing the narratives for creative entrepreneurs in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.

What prompted the switch from Biochemistry to promoting local entrepreneurs?
My mum 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 and everyone therefore thought I was going to be an interior decorator. However, I guess all of these traits have contributed to what I am doing right now. Bellafricana is a community of creative businesses and I am proud to be championing quality in creative indigenous businesses in Nigeria.

Why and when did you take interest in creative entrepreneurs?
As most of us already know, there’s so much creativity in Africa and I believe the media is not doing enough in portraying the 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 markets for local creative entrepreneurs as this was something I observed when I moved back to Nigeria in 2012. Prior to this time, 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 McDonalds; all of which shaped my perception of indigenous businesses. Immediately I returned to Nigeria, I needed to undergo National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) having studied abroad and during my NYSC, I noticed a pattern among creative people who owned businesses- they just wanted to create, they didn’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 this 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 was it marketing Nigerian brands to the world since ‘made-in-Nigeria’ is not well received both home and abroad?
We are changing the narrative 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 amaze you, you will see how many quality goods are currently being produced 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 of environments.

Are there measures by which you ensure featured goods are of international and export quality?
Yes. We handpick businesses because we want to ensure the kind of goods seen on our platform are businesses that started from scratch and desire to grow; businesses that understand that they have to take their time to nurture and grow steadily. 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 test 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 are entrepreneurs all over Africa, how far has this vision gone?
I would say 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 difference sectors, which are having an impact on their economies by creating jobs and developing these countries in one way or the other.

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) and its Executive Director, Segun Awolowo, 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.

What would you say is 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.

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, heavily involved in trading. She was one of the early women who sold 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.

Source: Tobi Awodipe for Guardian

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