One afternoon, Nwamaka Okoye turned the middle-class Lagos home of her parents upside down.
To her parents, the interior design was just fine, but that wasn’t enough for Nwamaka. One day when they were out, she moved the furniture around and rearranged them tastefully.
She was eleven years old.
“It’s my weakness. I have to be around nice surroundings,” she’s telling me in her office in Lagos. We are two storeys up and the city noise is only a distant hum.
I take a look around and everything I see confirms her confession. A small white flower pot sits pretty to the left by the window ledge and a minimalist painting of a red lounge chair hangs behind her.
Nwamaka Okoye is the CEO of Housessories , a furniture and interior design house in Lagos working with a clientele that includes Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority, Tetra Pak West Africa, Jobberman and more.
The room we are sitting – Nwamaka’s office – has an unmissable spartan feel to it. But, though bareboned, the knowledge is never lost on you that you are looking at something beautiful, exquisite, intentional and expensive.
If you asked her, though, she’s quick to correct that Housessories’ furniture is not expensive.
“When we started, you needed to be on a high-street like Awolowo Road or on the Island to get anything decent [re: furniture]. And prices were just out of this world,” Nwamaka tells me. She’s leaning closer to her spartan desk now poking the air with her index finger.
And it makes sense.
Later in the Housessories showroom, I would see a premium wooden-top table of four that retails for N50,000 ($110).
Since that day many years ago – aged 11 and armed with a raw design sense – Nwamaka has come a long way.
She now has a Degree in Interior Architecture from the University of Nigeria, studied Interior Design at the post-graduate level at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, along with a Masters Degree in Engineering Technology from East Tennessee State University, Tennessee.
Working a mission
At the entrance to Housessories showroom in Isolo, Lagos, the company’s mission statement glows on a backlit white plaque.
“To change the way people see, buy and use furniture.”
The goal for Housessories extends beyond making furniture. It extends beyond making them affordably. It’s about awakening the consciousness of Nigerians to clean, functional design, she says.
“I feel like the environment here, Nigeria, there is so much ugliness around. Everywhere you look. Walls are not straight. And I’m sure the people want something better,” Nwamaka huffs justifiably.
“Mundane things can and should be beautiful”, says Nwamaka. “For instance, a trash can should look good. And that was our mission – provide people with affordable furniture that is thoughtfully designed and aesthetically pleasing”.
Although, affordability by itself is a remarkable selling proposition. This design philosophy of functional aesthetics is even better. It’s one that the Nigerian growing middle class agrees with.
This sentiment is on the brightest display among the startups that are cropping up and clustering around Yaba, Lagos.
It’s the same idea that’s at the center of Housessories’ design process.
Of the many projects that Housessories has worked on, their project with One Africa Media (the holding company for Jobberman, a local jobs listing startup, Cheki.ng and privateproperty.ng) is the most memorable, Nwamaka tells me.
“Jobberman’s was a fun project because they are young people, they had three companies with three different cultures and we had to reflect each one.”
Keeping with the edgy, simple and functional designs they also introduced uncommon elements to the design.
The aluminum husk at the check-in desk of Jobberman is Nwamaka’s idea. The creative team hauled an old engine from a mechanic village to form the base of the check-in desk.
You can’t miss the anomalous beauty when you step into the Jobberman office at the Elephant House in Marina.
“We actually wanted things to look mismatched. I actually like designs that don’t look too together. There has to be some quirkiness,” Nwamaka tells me, explaining what seems like an unhinged design outlook.
This quirkiness gives the design a soul, she says.
With more startups like Jobberman cropping up and getting funding from local and international investors, the future looks bright for Housessories .
Building from scratch
In the showroom and production arm of Housessories, busy staffers are designing, modeling, and producing furniture, and interior design mockups.
It’s a flurry of activity when I enter the room where all the furniture is made.
After I recovered from my initial shock (I was under the impression that all the furniture was simply imported), I turned to ask how they manage to pull off what could well be a miracle.
Among other things, the fact that furniture importation was banned since the early 2000s plays a big role in this.
“We hire for passion. People who work here aren’t just working for the paycheck,“ Nwamaka tells.
Talent was the first in a series of hurdles she had to scale.
Another was dealing with regulatory authorities.
“Paying taxes for instance. Because we didn’t want any issues. Because ethics in business is very important to [us]. So it was really important I organize the business in a way that nothing can come back and haunt us,” Nwamaka says.
When Nwamaka started Housessories in 2010, one of her goals was to design local furniture that is non-distinguishable from imported ones in quality and finish.
“How do you know something is made in Nigeria? When it’s faulty, isn’t it?” she asks answering her own question.
“I always tell our people, when people see our work, the only way people should know you are in Nigeria is from the burglary proofing on the windows.“
The list of clients on Housessories’ rolodex is a testament to the quality of their work. It’s a long list. And between April of 2016 and December, Housessories had signed and concluded 175 projects.
“Each of these projects looks very different. Because what we do is we try to understand the client’s brand and then reflect that brand. So, instead of making the creative process about us, we make it about the business.”
Housessories currently has two product lines:. There is Eezy Office which produces furniture for brand-conscious companies who want furniture on-demand and then there is Refined Cabinets, Housessories’ arm that sells wholesale cabinets.
In a $50 billion local furniture market, Housessories is upbeat about the future.
“We want to be the top three in any brand [product line] we choose to promote in Nigeria. And we’ll move out to West Africa as well. ”
Nwamaka Okoye’s 10 tips for starting and running a furniture business in Nigeria
- Believe in yourself
- Hire for the long haul. Hire people that will be committed. Invest in them. Money doesn’t always solve the problem. It’s the people.
- Experiment- start small. If you think you need 200 machines, start with two first.
- Find your sources. Know the market. Know where you are buying your materials. Keep up with sources. So you always get the best price.
- Check what the regulatory agencies require. Make sure you are registered with the right agencies. Don’t make an expensive mistake.
- Don’t try and do everything in the beginning. Be sure of what market you want to serve. You can’t be all things to all people.
- Ensure that you have processes. Make sure that when people are leaving, there is a framework to compensate for their exit.
- Every client is important. Don’t favor big clients over smaller ones.
- Be selective about your body of work. Use the right materials. Be mad about quality.
- Don’t take life too seriously. In this our business, you are dealing with lots of artisans and they can disappoint you. It can become traumatic. You need to have the presence of mind to stay calm.
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