I guess the moment you realise that you are not working in a company that would feed you and your family but a company that will have a generational impact, it changes how you approach the job or the business. It becomes an assignment, a responsibility with which you can’t be lackadaisical. It drives you to learn, to push walls, to jump obstacles. It drives you to think beyond yourself, to learn from other people’s mistakes.- Cynthia Chisom Ezechukwu, CEO, The Aboki Africa.
According to a report by the Bank of Industry (BOI), the Nigerian Informal Sector (IS) is a major contributor to its economy, accounting for a significant portion of employment and national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The International Monetary Fund also noted that the Nigerian informal sector accounted for 65 percent of Nigeria’s 2017 GDP. Everyday, several ‘jobs’ and projects are actively carried out within this sector, even though most of it’s key players operate on a relatively crude level. One of such players are the Abokis.
If you have ever lived, visited or are based in Nigeria you must have heard the word Aboki a couple of times. You would agree with us that the word is associated with male cobblers who often hail from the northern part of Nigeria. The word Aboki means ‘friend’ and is originated from the Hausa language. About 95 percent of cobblers across Nigeria come from the north-most of whom have very little or no formal education. They usually move from street to street with their toolboxes and a pocketful of hope in search of customers in the neighbourhoods.
These small scale entrepreneurs make their living through daily earnings from shoe repairs. Although their processes are crude, they are active players in Nigeria’s Informal Sector (IS). This is where The Aboki Africa steps in with a plan to redefine the sub-sector of shoe repairs and improve the work and financial lives of cobblers. In a recent interview, Ventures Africa had an insightful session with Cynthia Chisom Ezechukwu, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Managing Director (MD) of The Aboki Africa. She is a Nigerian-born impact-driven entrepreneur who has gained global recognition for creating impeccable impact and systems in the shoe repair sector. Below is our conversation thread with Ezechukwu:
Ventures Africa (VA): Please share a short bio of yourself.
Chison Ezechukwu (CE): I am Cynthia Chisom Ezechukwu, MD, The Aboki Africa, a social enterprise focused on eradicating poverty, CEO, The Aboki Shoe Repair, a fastest-growing shoe repair company in Nigeria. I am also the Founder of Startup Advisory Africa, an advisory focused on building African businesses that can stand the test of time.
I have gained an MSc. in Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Management from Imperial College London. I am a Member of the Business Graduate Association in the United Kingdom and have been recognised by IBM as an Enterprise Design Thinking Practitioner.
I am an advocate for Nigeria’s Success and Africa’s growth. That is why I am committed to providing startup advisory to startups all around my country and Africa at large. When I am not advising startups or running a company, you will find me in my personal workshop exploring new shoe repair techniques.
VA: As an unconventional path for women, what was the defining moment for you to start The Aboki Shoe Repair and why?
CE: It all started from observing the needs of the ladies back then in school. The shoe maker’s shop was very far from the ladies hall and much closer to the male halls of residence. One fateful day, I noticed an argument going on between a female student and a cobbler. I noticed how untidy the process was, the look of frustration on the student’s face, how disappointed she was with the outcome and most importantly, I observed how lackadaisical the cobbler was to the female customer and the work itself.
It was then, that I was led to get more information about the shoe repair world. I saw how excellence was a watchword in other countries in Europe who engaged in this art of shoe repair. I saw how passionate they were towards the work and I also saw how a company would be in existence for 100 years and all they do is fix shoes. It was then I realised that the standard of shoe repair is very low in Nigeria and Africa and it was up to someone to see this gap and work towards closing it by raising the standard of shoe repair. Apparently, that person is me. I mean there were naysayers, who did not find the idea of female cobbler appealing especially from my early days of training in Onitsha. But I knew if the standard must be raised, then I must push through those walls. And I am still pushing through those norms and mindset. It’s been a thrilling journey for me.
VA: How did you transform your passion/interest in shoe repairs into a profitable business venture?
CE: I guess the moment you realise that you are not working on a company that would feed you and your family but a company that will have a generational impact, it changes how you approach the job or the business. It becomes an assignment, a responsibility with which you can’t be lackadaisical. It drives you to learn, to push walls, to jump obstacles. It drives you to think beyond yourself, to learn from other people’s mistakes. To understand that the decisions you make today will have an impact on a family or person you will never get to meet. So eventually you realise that you can no longer sit on the passion bench but get on the business field.
So that was it for me, from the onset of the spiritual insight I knew that this passion, this love will bless many people. It was then I realised that I must buckle up my seat and work/build with them in mind.
VA: What is your view on monetizing a passion and what are the basic things that need to be considered while transforming one’s passion into a business venture?
CE: So like I mentioned, it’s all from a mindset. After working with many startup founders in Nigeria, I have noticed that what differentiates most startup founders is their mindset, their approach to what they are building. Others are seeing just their vicinities while others are seeing nations. I started seeing nations from the beginning.
Your mindset is the foundation of it all. It wakes you up and informs your decisions. It tells you you need a mentor, you need to build your communication skills, your leadership skills, people skills, you need to learn about BMC and VPC, you need to learn about financial accounting, that you need to be at this conference and not at home lounging and surfing through social media because many people are depending on you. That is the first and most important part of this journey of transitioning from passion into a business venture.
Pursuing a passion is self-indulgence but pursuing a business venture is people indulgence, thinking people no longer self. There is more to it but it all starts from here.
VA: How did your work with London’s top 10 Royal shoemaking brand, Crockett and Jones improve your brand?
CE: Working at Crockett and Jones exposed me to the culture and mindset of senior leather craftsmen, how they treat this craft of leather transformation. I was able to see shoes through their eyes and it was a beautiful experience, looking at how each pair has a unique story and learning how to appreciate and tell that story. I also got the chance to work with one of the best Shoe Patina Craftsmen in London, Mr Bismark of Sator Polishing. We instantly clicked the first time we met, he made me appreciate even more the art of shoe repair, restoration and care. I met amazing people and my mind was opened. I would never see myself or my craft as anything less. I am proud to be called a cobbler, to be called an Aboki. I carry that title with so much pride.
VA: Please tell us more about the Aboki Africa program.
CE: The Aboki Africa initiative was initiated in line with my vision for human capital development and poverty eradication particularly within the Africam context where it is obvious that a significant number of countries are plagued by poverty.
The goal is to eradicate poverty significantly by using innovative and sustainable approaches towards solving our indigenous problems. Aboki Africa currently works with internally displaced persons and people below the poverty line. We have trained internally displaced persons with transferable and marketable skills in Shoe Repair which has enabled them to integrate successfully back into society under The Aboki Africa Program. We moved a step further from the already existing approach implemented by other organizations to implementing our Market Space Creation Model (MSCM) which has enabled every beneficiary under our program to continually and consistently earn income weekly and grow their business/livelihood.
We have received recognition from The Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC), the Anshiza Prize Africa, Sator Polishing London, Debola Lagos, African Community Bridge Foundation, Leading Ladies Africa and many more. Not just for the impact we have on the people but for the level of exceptional work being produced by the beneficiaries.
VA: We are aware that the Aboki brand trained internally displaced persons with transferable and marketable skills in shoe repair. Please tell us more about this project and the impact record.
CE: Oh yes, In less than 2 years of launching this programme we have significantly increased the revenue of every beneficiary on our platform by 400 percent. They are able to earn consistent weekly income from us. We have produced excellent craftsmen with customer ratings of 93 percent. We can definitely do better and we are working towards 100 percent by the end of the year.
We have also increased the number of beneficiaries and partners we impact by 1000 percent from 3 to 28 between 2019 and 2020, which was supposed to be a tough year given the pandemic but it was actually a year of significant growth for us in terms of impact, the work produced and the lives touched. There is definitely so much work to be done. Using the MSCM model, each beneficiary earns 20,000 naira average weekly as compared to earning 5,000 naira weekly. But as I said, the progress we have made is nothing compared to what we will do this year 2021.
VA: As a young lady venturing into an unconventional path, what were the challenges you faced at the onset and what are some of the challenges your brand is currently facing?
CE: I definitely experienced a lot of challenges at the beginning from raising funds to believing in the vision to customers accepting the new model of repairs, to language barriers. But I am glad I did go through them because it made us tougher, stronger and resilient. Now when we face challenges, we don’t see it as challenges instead we see it as an opportunity to innovate, to wow or impress our customers, partners and beneficiaries.
But I would say one major opportunity for innovation we have is the part of training the beneficiaries, a good number of our target beneficiaries either don’t speak English and are not very conversant with technology. This means there are times when we desire to use technology to improve communications, increase monitoring and facilitate the growth of the beneficiaries but we end up resulting in manual methods because the goal must be achieved regardless of the limitations. It’s a long process but we take the pain to go through it for their benefits.
Our next target is to provide and train them to use technologies to enable them to get on board the programme as quickly as possible. As simple as an android phone or even access to data to watch training videos ahead of their practical session or their lifelong learning programme bundles has prevented some traction on our KPIs. We would definitely work towards our target, as it makes it easier and faster for them to start earning income under our programme.
For many startups in Nigeria, there is a constant struggle between passion and the need to earn a living. Only very few entrepreneurs have incorporated the need to solve a problem and create social impact at heart on their journey into owning a business. For instance, founders like Ezechukwe, Okaredje of Pickmeup, Giwa-Tubosun of LifeBank (to mention a few) have successfully married these factors into other existing factors to create a formidable Nigerian brand that is gaining a global reputation.