Returning Home with a Vision – Abisade Adenubi

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– Culled from Book designrr

Life happens in phases, and it is essential to recognize what season you are in and where you need to be in that season.

Abisade Adenubi is an international lawyer, entrepreneur and doctoral researcher with a unique almost 15-year professional profile. She is the founder of Heritage Apparels, a textile and apparel production factory in Nigeria. Abisade is committed to the revival of the textile and apparel industry in Africa and is deeply persuaded of the fashion industry’s capacity to contribute significantly to the continent’s economic transformation. She is truly a global citizen, having lived and worked across 4 continents and visited nearly 50 countries.

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I left Nigeria to study in England at the age of seventeen. After completing my A-levels and my first degree in Law at the London School of Economics, I trained and qualified as a lawyer and worked for several years in leading international law firms and financial institutions as a legal counsel, advising clients on corporate finance and risk issues. In 2010, I set up a ladies-wear brand, designing and creating classic, well-crafted pieces for professionals in London city. I worked mostly with European textiles and partnered with garment factories in Bangkok, Mumbai, and London to produce our designs. I entered the fashion business somewhat by accident, in that I did not set out to start a business but was reacting to a problem I had personally encountered with ill-constructed garments in Nigeria. Little did I know that what had started out as a side business would become my major occupation for several years.

I decided to upskill by taking courses at the London College of Fashion and the Chelsea College of Art and Design to gain a good understanding of the whole value and supply chain in the fashion industry. I learned about the manufacturing process, range planning and other technical aspects of the business. All whilst continuing to work as a lawyer and run the business as well. It was a great challenge juggling everything but there was no other way, I had to keep this dream alive.

In August 2015, I planned a production trip to my partner factory in Bangkok. It was whilst I was on the 13-hour flight back from Bangkok to London, that I thought “I shouldn’t have to travel for so long to meet with my production team”. Therefore, I started thinking about alternatives, London was too expensive, and Asia was too far. I decided to explore Nigeria, for a factory to work with, but did not find one that was producing to the standards I was accustomed to. Around the same time, I was researching on African materials. If I were going to move my production to Nigeria, it would not make sense to keep importing all my fabric from Europe. I was curious to explore what materials we have on the continent and how I could use these in the context of my brand; a look my clients loved. I travelled from Côte d’Ivoire to Ghana and Gambia in search of heritage materials I could work with. I got artisans to weave Kente fabric for me and was introduced to the beautiful tie-dye in Banjul. Gradually, the ethos of the brand was evolving into something with a deeper, more socially conscious flair.

As part of my exploratory trip, I travelled to Abeokuta in Nigeria, which is the home of Adire fabric. It was whilst on this trip that I stumbled upon the factory premises which my business currently occupies. At the time, the factory was not operational, it had about 60 machines, but there was no life in it. Instantly, I saw the opportunity – not only could I set up production there for my own brand, I could solve the problem of poor garment construction for other labels faced with similar issues, I could create employment for so many people and prove that quality apparel can be produced in Nigeria. I was restless all the while I was still working as a corporate lawyer in London. I knew I wanted more, and the seed that had been sown in my heart the day I saw the factory continued to grow.

Taking over the factory was a long and arduous process. People often ask me what inspired me to give up my life and work in the UK and Switzerland to move to Abeokuta, a town in South-West Nigeria to run a factory. For me, it was primarily my compelling vision. When I laid eyes on that factory in its lifeless state, what I was in fact seeing was a business that would employ thousands of people, contributing to the livelihoods of their families and to economic development and empowerment in the community and the country. What I was seeing was mass produced garments that people would swear could not have been made locally, and me giving the doubters a tour of our facilities to show them that they in fact had been made in Nigeria. What I was seeing was the opportunity to create uniforms our military and paramilitary officials would be proud to wear. What I was seeing was a dedicated service to designers who wanted to scale into retail operations but had struggled with the same quality issues I had experienced years before. What I was seeing was an expansion into fabric production and modernizing the production methods of our African textiles, whilst retaining our cultural heritage. What I was seeing was my contribution to the revival of Nigeria and Africa’s heritage in the apparel and garment manufacturing sector.

Having lived and worked in Europe for almost 20 years, I could sense that the next phase of my life was approaching and that I would need a geographical shift, back to Nigeria. I had begun to feel the agitations that signalled to me that it was time to move and embrace a new challenge. The great thing was that I had a clear vision of what I was moving back to do – build a factory; that became my singular focus. I have learned that when you have a compelling vision, you are literally unable to stop until what you have built matches the image you have in your mind. Are there challenges building a business from scratch in Nigeria? Absolutely! But there is incredible power in having a clear vision that makes the difficult road bearable.

One of the most important things for me in building the factory was ensuring that my staff were trained to the best standards. I recruited young people from the local community who were willing to learn and employed Master trainers from Sri Lanka to exclusively train my staff for six months. This is not a popular approach because it is costly, but the intensive training to match international standards helped me create the knowledge base needed. I have learned that it is crucial to be true to yourself and your vision, then work to execute it, whether it is popular or not. Entrepreneurship is difficult. If you are moving into a new terrain without knowing precisely what you want to do, it can be even more challenging.

Should every African in the diaspora move back? No, I strongly believe that everybody’s journey in life is unique. We must honour the path each person is being led on, and not make decisions on the strength of other people’s convictions. In many instances, there is an emotional attachment to one’s home country, so it is important to determine whether one is moving back for sentimental reasons or in response to a desire to make an impact or pursue an opportunity, because it is a challenging journey.

My factory now employs about forty staff, and I derive immense fulfilment from building a business that is contributing to economic empowerment in the country.

One of the mantras that I live by is that impossible is nothing as long as your heart is in it and you are willing to work towards it. Whatever it is you want to achieve is possible if you roll up your sleeves and put your heart into it.

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