Lagos is a beguiling city saturated with colour, music, and a hypnotic aura that promotes the hustle and chop life motto. But then, there’s the chaos; unending gridlocks and the blaring horns of frustrated drivers. Now imagine wearing these experiences on your feet, literally. This is just one of the things Wasulu Habib Olawale wishes to share with people through his brand, Smiley Africa. The brand is also bent on changing the African shopping experience. What started as a side hustle for Habib is now one of Nigeria’s budding community-centred brands.

How it started

The year is 2019. Wasulu Habib Olawale is working as a Communications Lead in a tech company. This is after pursuing a career in marketing and content creation. But like many young people, he wants to do more than work a 9 to 5. He wishes to start a business, a side hustle. But he does not want to do this blindly. So he visits top e-commerce websites in search of what he could venture into that would meet people’s needs. Habib notices that some of the top sections are socks and wristwatches. But he is immediately drawn to the socks section. “I noticed how bright, colourful and cheerful the sock designs on these websites were. But when I looked at the Nigerian brands, the experience was not the same. And I just thought, people wear socks all the time. We could do something here,” Habib recalls.

Habib Olawale, founder Smileys.Africa
Habib Olawale, founder of Smileys.Africa

By April of the same year, he launched Smiley Socks, a colourful and vibrant sock brand designed to ignite fun and excitement. “We initially launched on social media before launching our website. And it was great. We were getting orders from the website, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms,” he says. Habib reaches out to Bolatito Akanbi, a former colleague, to come on board as a co-founder. His wife, Zainab, also joined the brand as the head web designer. “Bola and I do most of our in-house designs. Then Zainab handles the website. She is a pretty good web designer. Whenever we have cool ideas for the website, she brings them to life,” he says.

About a year later, Smiley Socks began getting requests for other products. “We found out most of our customers loved gifting. And they were constantly looking for what to add to their orders. So we started adding more products. People were requesting quality activewear, so we took that on. We added beanies to the brand,” he says. Soon after, they rebranded from Smiley Socks to Smileys. “Currently, people just call us Smileys Africa,” Habib adds.

The brand

Smileys Africa is an African athleisure brand that provides comfortable and exciting products for young Africans. The brand’s products include socks, beanies, briefs, ultra tees, collapsible bottles, and activewear. Their products are size and weather friendly. For example, the active jacket is made of lightweight material that can be worn on both hot and cold days.

Smileys “undefeated 1/4” active wear
Smileys “undefeated 1/4” active wear

At the core of the company is the community it is building. When it launched its activewear, it partnered with different fitness influencers across the country and started a mini-blog to share experiences. “We call them ambassadors because they represent the brand,” says Habib. “Initially, it was not structured. But now, we work with an influencer housing brand called Creative Agora. These influencers get 10 per cent off any product they buy, and when their customers use their voucher code, they also get 10 per cent off,” he adds. 

The brand is currently working on expanding the affiliate marketing program with a three-month ambassador program where ambassadors can collaborate, create merchandise that means something to people, and earn from it. “We want to provide value for these influencers beyond the commissions and products they get. They can create products, and we will help market them even if they put them on other e-commerce platforms,” says Habib.

Apart from affiliate marketing, Smileys is also big on collaborating with creators. “There is so much we can do when we collaborate with people, creators especially. It’s a way to let people express themselves and share their flair. That was how Femi Ajiboye came in,” he says. Femi Ajiboye is the creator behind Smileys’ latest collection, Lagos in a Box, launched in June.

Lagos in a box collection

Lagos in a box

Lagos in a box collection is a collaboration with Femi Ajiboye featuring the Lagos experience through relatable sock designs. The entire collection is available in four designs. The first icon is called the Fela and the nightlife. “One of the cool things I attach to Lagos is the nightlife,” says Habib. “I have stayed in many states in Nigeria, and the nightlife is not the same everywhere. But Lagos is on another level. The city doesn’t sleep. And when you think nightlife, you think fun. You think music. You think Afrobeats. Lagos is the heart of Afrobeat, and there’s no Afrobeat without Fela.”

The next icon is the Eyo, a cultural festival unique to Lagos. The third design is the Lagos monuments, which include the Aro meta, the Lagos theatre, and the Ikoyi bridge. The final design is the Danfo, the colloquial name for commercial buses in Lagos. “Anyone that knows Lagos, know the yellow danfo is the Lagos badge. You can’t experience Lagos without the Danfo,” Habib says.

The collection is available in eight variations – two variations of each icon. These socks come in two boxes – mainland and island. However, it is a limited collection of just 200 boxes. Customers receive a Spotify playlist of songs such as Eko by Kizz Daniel, Ojuelegba by Wizkid, and Lagos Party by Banky W with every order. The collection embodies the Lagos experience, evoking nostalgia.

The “Fela and the nightlife” and “Danfo” designs.

“There are many creators in Nigeria. One of the ways they can monetize their talent is through merchandise tied to value. We wish to collaborate with more creators that can design or share stories through these products,” says Habib. “We are also keen on community. Every creator has their community, and collaborations are a good way to access these different communities,” he adds. 

Smileys has a give-back program where they give out socks. “We noticed that many students do not have socks. And it can mess with their confidence, circling back to how they approach education. Wearing comfortable clothing can help build confidence,” says Habib. The brand has an account where people can send random donations. The money is used to manufacture these socks and distribute them to schools. They collaborate with several NGOs to reach out to schools and have donated over a thousand socks.

From Lasgidi to Africa

Creating a successful brand has a cost, especially in a market like Nigeria with its many quirks. Currency inflation is one of the challenges Smileys faces, as manufacturing is dependent on the value of the naira. “The naira’s fluctuation against the dollar affects the cost of these products, which reflects on the pricing,” explains Habib.

Another issue that the company is dealing with is logistics. Africa currently lacks a structured intra-Africa delivery system. As a result, transporting the products to other African countries can be difficult and costly. “Sometimes the cost of delivery is 50 per cent more than the cost of the product. We have figured out a delivery system that works within the country. Getting our products within Lagos takes 24 hours. Outside Lagos can be from 2-5 days, depending on the distance,” he says. “But we have not cracked the intra-Africa delivery. I’m sure we are not the only business this affects. If I had the power, I would make it easier to move around Africa without stress,” he adds.

Smileys is looking to expand distribution to major cities in Africa. The company’s products are currently available in Kigali. But it intends to get store partners across Africa. “This year, we began with Rwanda. We are also considering partnering with walk-in stores in Nigeria to better connect with our customers,” says Habib. The company also plans to expand its B2B arm, having worked on merchandise with companies like Abeg, Stackshift, and We Africa.

One thing the brand would also like to explore is artificial intelligence for clothing. “Tech has made that experience cool. Knowing your clothing size and how it would look on you without having to try it on. We tried it before, but the technology was not as advanced as it is now. “It’d be interesting to see how we can incorporate the experience into our products,” he says.

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