Hi Chidinma, what’s your background, and what are you currently working on?
The Footwear Academy is a footwear hub that enables young people to produce export-standard footwear products through training, access to quality and affordable raw materials, and job-matching opportunities. We started out in July 2017.
My background surprisingly is not in shoemaking or fashion. I have a degree in Zoology from the University of Nigeria. So afterward, I did my one-year NYSC in Akwa Ibom in 2013, and immediately after, I got a job in a telecommunications firm, I worked in the Marketing department, so I started out in marketing and brand building career in the telecommunications industry.
After 2 years, I moved up to a tech company as a digital marketing officer and moved to a research company as head of operations and business development, so I was more into marketing, business development, and branding than shoemaking.
I got introduced to shoemaking by my husband surprisingly; he wanted to start out a shoe company because he had an interest in it. I had a good interest in marketing, so we put our heads together and started out The Footwear Academy.
What motivated you to get started with The Footwear Academy?
What motivated us to get started with The Footwear Academy was that we wanted to teach shoemaking and make it the new cool.
We noticed that currently if people wanted to learn shoemaking, they would have to go through 2 routes; they would either have to go through the apprenticeship system which is the Igbo apprenticeship system which exists currently in Abia State in the Eastern part of Nigeria and this apprenticeship system doesn’t really favor women because they only take a male apprentice.
Also, it takes about 5-10 years for young people to learn shoemaking through this system which wasn’t working for a lot of graduates and young people because of the lengthy period, and a lot of the people teaching it were not encouraging.
The second reason why we started was that there is another avenue you could learn; you could go to the Nigerian Institute Of Leather And Science Technology, Zaria. It’s a school, you have to go through the 2 or 4-year program, and we knew that most young people now want to learn in a fast-paced environment, in a fun way, and in other to make shoemaking interesting, we needed to bring it and make it sweet and snacky, which is what we started to do.
We saw that there were other schools in the world doing the same thing, they provided short courses in shoemaking that were easy to learn, easy to apply and students could leave within a period of 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 1 month, 6 weeks and become shoemakers.
We knew that was what people wanted, and interestingly, as soon as we started, we got a lot of inquiries and interest from young people.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We are not a tech company per se, so the tech model might not really work for us.
We’ve scaled through storytelling, talking about the work that we’ve done; our customers have also referred other customers that our shoes are of high quality.
Basically, what we’ve done to attract and retain customers has been to be consistent in our product offering, to keep improving on our products, training program, and collaboration.
We’ve been able to get a lot of international schools and bodies to collaborate with us in providing an open-source training-trainer program to enable us to have access to a wider knowledge base. So, this has also helped us attract more students to the school.
What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
As I said, our business model is mostly training, we make money through training, production, we also produce mostly business-to-business (B2B) production, we sell raw materials, and we also connect our trainees to job-matching opportunities.
Many young people are unable to afford even our cheapest program which is N50,000, so some of the things we’ve done and how we’ve grown our revenue is to partner with foundations, NGOs, government to provide this training for free, this is the business model we’ve employed.
We started employing it last year when we got back from Italy and we reached out to PIND Foundation (Partnership Initiative of the Niger Delta), proposed to them to invest in the leather industry because a lot of young people were interested but they couldn’t afford the training, and right now, they have done that investment and we are currently training more than 100 young people between the ages of 16 – 30 for free.
At the end of the training program, students will be job-linked with job-matching opportunities; as I said, this is one of the services that we offer, and some people that want to start out through the entrepreneurship link will also be linked with loans and funding opportunities.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
I have a background in digital marketing, as I worked in a tech company; I went through training in digital marketing, so it was quite easy to start employing digital marketing strategies for The Footwear Academy, and as soon as we started out in 2017, we got our branding right, we got our website done, and we were consistent in posting contents on all our social media platforms.
We also applied for a lot of pitching opportunities and events, and so when people started searching for us at those events, they could find our websites, they could see that we were already doing stuff on social media.
Whenever we have the training, we share a lot of content and we also reached out to a lot of international schools and started speaking with them, and following them, we saw the things that they were doing and we started expanding our mindset.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and the obstacles you overcame?
We faced a lot of challenges. I don’t know where to even start from. We have faced a lot of challenges because then again the footwear industry in Nigeria has a lot of opportunities, and when there are a lot of opportunities, there are also challenges and vice versa.
First of all, we are years behind in terms of footwear education in Nigeria, the apprentice system which, as I said, was a problem because even when we started, we thought it would be easy to get some of the existing shoemakers that had spent years in the industry to come in and teach the younger generations, but that didn’t happen, because a lot of the existing shoemakers were really bad shoemakers.
I’m saying this because we’ve worked with more than 30 shoemakers and they will either have a character issue and integrity issue and their knowledge base was also very limited; most of them didn’t have formal education so they didn’t have means of communicating in English which was also bad.
That was a challenge because we started out thinking our business model will be to get trainers, experienced shoemakers to come and train younger people, but that didn’t work out because getting this older generation to come and train was an issue.
They didn’t have the mindset of training people or passing on their knowledge, and even if they did, they weren’t open to sharing; and then, a lot of them didn’t have formal education, a lot of them learned through the apprenticeship system, so they couldn’t understand how or why a young person will learn shoemaking in a week, or a short period of time.
They couldn’t understand the dream or vision that we had for the business and that was also an issue, so we had to take it upon ourselves to travel to Italy to learn shoemaking so we could start training people ourselves.
Funding was once an issue but we won a couple of grants and that helped as well and then we won the Proudly Made in Aba Hackathon, and they gave us $50,000 to develop the footwear industry in Aba, so we moved from Lagos to Aba in 2018, but moved fully in 2019.
Moving from Lagos to Abia state was also another big challenge because, in Lagos, there were people with disposable income that could afford the training at N65,000, but when we moved to Aba, we reduced the training cost to N35,000.
We weren’t getting any students for almost a year, we had only about 2 students that could afford the training, and that was a challenge because we weren’t making any money, we were only making money from production and some other sides of the business, but we weren’t making any money at all from training which was really discouraging.
But, it was an opportunity to reach out to the government and organizations like the PIND Foundation which we are currently working with to tell them that there is interest in this area for young people, but they can’t afford it, so they should provide some form of funding for them to come and learn for free, which is what is currently happening right now, and that’s how we’ve been able to do that.
Have you had any failed business?
I don’t think I have any. I do have a digital marketing company that I started out with a friend of mine, it hasn’t failed, she’s currently running it, but it’s not as successful as I think it should be.
My husband and I once had a pharmacy; we had to sell it, not because it failed, but because we wanted to concentrate more of our time to The Footwear Academy.
She’s our baby, so we had to sell the pharmacy; I had to reduce my activities at my digital marketing company just so that The Footwear Academy can have my full attention.
What are some sources of learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I always say that if you are going to build something that is going to last, you have to build slowly, and deeply. Think about a tree, you have to plant it, water it, keep showing it love, keep being consistent, so you have to know that a tree won’t just spring out in 2 or 3 days or 1 year, some trees will take time to build and spread out its roots underneath the soil, and then start growing, and this is the same for businesses.
A lot of young people are not interested in actually building businesses that are long-lasting. For instance, there is this wave of starting the next tech thing, raising so much money, but people are not thinking about the real issues that exist in Nigeria, people are not really solving problems anymore.
The truth is we had like a tech idea for the footwear industry, but later, we understood the footwear education in Nigeria is on its own most basic level, so we had to keep the tech idea on one side, because the generation is not ready for it, and we started working to start solving the little issues that exist in the industry so that we can get to the point where technology will be an enabler.
A lot of people are not thinking about the most basic problems in Nigeria, they are not thinking about solving the things that really exist for the people around them. Young people should look within and think about local problems that they could solve within their capacity, and then grow from there.
We grew from just trying to shorten and make the shoemaking education experience interesting for young people to even solving issues within the industry so that other shoemakers can make money, so that the entire value chain will make sense, so it’s my advice for young people, if you are going to build something that will last, you have to build slowly and you have to build deeply.
Always picture the tree that’s solid, it’s always deeply rooted, so whenever the wind comes, whenever pandemic like Covid-19 comes or uncertainty comes, your business is still going to stand and also stand the test of time. A lot of businesses have closed down during this pandemic, and the people that still exist in business are people that are solving regular problems for regular people.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are not currently hiring for any positions right now because we are recruiting from the people we train.
For instance, from this 100 we are currently training, we usually take about 5 people and retain them as trainers in the academy, and for other positions as well. We always recruit from the people we trained.
Will you be available to mentor few entrepreneurs?
I really do mentorship for a couple of people, and not mostly my students honestly, but right now, no one currently. I’m not taking new mentors because I’m currently overwhelmed with work.
Where can we go to learn more about you?
You can reach me on LinkedIn.