Originally trained at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Nigeria as a physiotherapist, the foray of Morolake Ogunbeku-Bello into business was needless to say, a daunting task.
Marrying her background in the medical profession with growing up in Nigeria, Morolake was well positioned to acknowledge the importance of Ori (African shea butter), a viable product used extensively in Nigeria. But she went further, after various works of research and training, to reinvent this product. She calls her brand the Ori-Ewa Shea butter
In this exclusive interview, she talks about her journey so far and why every home should have Ori-Ewa shea. Her story is inspiring as much as it is challenging. Happy reading.
Tell us briefly about your brand, Ori-Ewa shea butter.
Ori-Ewa shea is an indispensable companion and every home must have one. This is because from our head (hair) to the toes (foot), shea butter is very useful. Apart from preventing hair breakage and promoting hair growth, it’s effect on joint pain and inflammation is magical.
In addition, here are a few of its other benefits/uses: Good for rough/dry skin, skin rashes, and a peeling skin It helps to heal small skin wounds, sunburn; It can also remove blemishes and wrinkles.
On the whole, Ori-Ewa shea makes the skin healthy, and can even prevent stretch marks during pregnancy.
How did you start the Ori-Ewa brand?
The business idea came when I was looking for something to do outside the medical field where I was originally trained. I have always wanted to be an exporter. So the search began and then I came across non-oil products and shea butter happens to be one of them.
I did an extensive research on how to start, by training and joining an international association on shea butter.
I also joined a cooperative here in Nigeria to know more about the product and for proper training because shea butter is more than what we see on the street and most especially when you’re looking at the export side of the business.
After this, I went for the international conference of Global Shea Alliance (GSA) in the Benin Republic and several other conferences organized by USAID, NEXTT, NEPC etc.
Indeed, the startup capital is not quite much, but the cost of training, as well as conferences, is quite high. Although some are free, becoming a member of the cooperative and international body is not.
What inspired you to start it?
Like I said earlier, I got into the business because I was looking for a source of extra income and export happened to be my target. I needed to start small.
I was counseled to start selling locally before getting international offers and buyers. That was how I started shea butter formulations and packaging; packing them in small plastic containers based on the training I have had.
What and what obstacles stood in your way when you started and how did you overcome them?
As for me, I don’t see obstacles. Rather, I see them as challenges and those things I need to work on. However, a major issue remains the quality and pricing; most people compare the price of Ori-Ewa shea butter to the shea butter they sell on the streets as well as in the local markets.
Little do they know that the local ones are usually exposed to direct sunlight and dust making them dirty, thereby lowering their quality. Having said that, it’s important to emphasize that Ori-Ewa Shea is pure, clean and packed under good hygienic conditions.
The Quality of our shea butter is top notch. Ori-Ewa Shea is unique just because the quality is not what you can find in any market in Nigeria today. It is Grade A, with an export quality that has all the healing properties intact.
When it comes to our brand, quality takes the front seat. And that’s the major reason why our customers keep coming back.
Compared to when you started, how large is your market right now and how do you hope to scale it?
To the glory of God, I started in a very small way with 1kg, then 5kg, then 7kg and so on. At the moment I have buyers in different parts of the country and with God’s help, I have some of my products in the USA already, Texas to be precise.
Right now, I’m seriously on the lookout for partnerships with international companies that make use of shea butter.
Looking back, what are those two key qualities you think any budding entrepreneur must have?
The two key words are; One, take that step (as in START). Two, DON’T GIVE UP (once you’ve taken that bold step, the next bolder step doesn’t quit, don’t stop, don’t give up, just keep moving).
The reason is that life is all about risk taking and it’s better to fail as a brave woman and not as a coward who hasn’t tried anything. People would say “she actually tried even though she failed; she didn’t give up“.
Remember the popular saying, quitters never win and winners never quit. Even the Bible says it that no one has put his hands on the plow and look back is fit for the kingdom of God. Just keep going, don’t stop.
In addition to taking the bold step and being resilient, what other qualities do you think a budding entrepreneur must have? Share your thoughts here
Young African entrepreneurs have turned their sights to manufacturing on the continent with new fervor. Just as the world has come to know China for its manufacturing prowess through the Made in China brand, many young Africans look to do likewise with finished products from the continent.
To provide insights and effective strategies for aspiring young entrepreneurs and professionals, we’ve turned our gaze to African brands pioneering their Made in Africa products to the global market. Rahama Wright, Founder and CEO of beauty brand, Shea Yeleen, is one such mogul. Wright says what others see as ready baked success is a 10-year journey of persistence and openness to failure and learning.
Wright’s work is influenced by her mother’s story and those of women in Northern Ghana and Mali where she worked and volunteered right after college. In 2005, Rahama Wright founded Shea Yeleen International, a social enterprise with a mission to provide living wages to women shea butter producers in West Africa.
The enterprise’s profit arm, Shea Yeleen Health & Beauty LLC, was founded in 2012 and manufactures and distributes shea based products to international markets. Foot to the pedal and consistent hard work has brought Shea Yeleen to more than 100 Whole Foods Markets and independent stores. It is worth noting that Whole Foods is a Fortune 500 global supermarket chain.
In Part 1 of this feature, Wright unveiled the secrets of her marketing sauce that has landed her coveted product placements and press features. She shared how using one’s personal brand can position you for success. Wright told her story better than anyone could and it is her openness and commitment to sharing her insight with all aspiring entrepreneurs and marketers that left a lasting impression.
So to start, some questions on getting Shea Yeleen to market. How were you able to get your products into Whole Foods?
This is the advice I would give to someone who is just starting out and trying to get their products into retail: Be persistent! I pitched 3 times before I was able to get my items into Whole Foods. One thing I have learned is that NO can be a pathway to YES, eventually.
Of course, you should get feedback and understand why you are getting the NOs; don’t write it off as a rejection but as a way to improve for the next pitch. The primary reasons I was rejected 3 times was because I was talking to the wrong buyer and I needed better packaging.
I upgraded my packaging including putting the soaps in boxes instead of sleeves, and used the space on the packaging to share our community development story and the benefits of our ingredients. I also created packaging that would pop off shelves by comparing my packaging to brands that were already on the shelf. This helped me better position my products. In short, if you want to get into retail, first pitch, adjust your pitch and product based on feedback and keep pitching until you get a yes!
Also, if you are not getting traction in one area, move to another area to get in front of the right buyer. I wasn’t getting traction in one Whole Foods region and moved to another region. Getting in front of the right buyer required identifying someone who was looking for and thinking about products that Shea Yeleen was offering.
The [final] thing is start small. For some retailers, you have to pay thousands of dollars to get your products in and if you don’t do well, they kick you out, which will cost you more money. Understanding the differences between big box retailers is really important.
In terms of strategy, did you employ different methods getting into the local retailers like the mom and pop shops than you did the larger retailers like Whole Foods?
They are almost the same but Whole Foods is a bit more corporate than the independent stores. A mom and pop shop is more accessible, because you can schedule a meeting with the owner or buyer and say, ‘would you give me a chance and bring my products in?’ and that’s literally what I did.
I’ve learned about working with sales brokers, and there is a whole industry around sales brokers and distributors that’s a part of retail, and I made the mistake of relying too much on sales brokers who just did not deliver. Early on in your business you are the sales person. I wasted thousands of dollars on the wrong sales brokers.
Even though it is hard and takes a lot of time to go door to door, you need to build your business initially until you get to the point where you can attract the right talent to manage that business. The region that is our best region, I opened all of those stores; I literally went door to door and was able to cultivate a really great relationship with the regional buyer.
We also brought two of the shea producers from Tamale, Ghana here to the U.S. and they toured the stores with me, which was an incredible experience for the customers and the shea producers, who could now see where their shea butter ends up. This is an important part of the Shea Yeleen mission.
It is not just about getting an African product and selling it. It is really about opening the doors for women producers of that product to understand the global supply chain and what they are a part of. Although the women come from rural communities, they can still be global leaders in the marketplace.
What about other distribution channels? I know that you were recently in the subscription beauty box, Curlbox. Do you plan on doing more subscription boxes?
We’ve done 2 subscription boxes and the verdict is still out. I believe that these subscription boxes are geared towards brands that are more well-known than smaller companies.
My advice is don’t do a subscription box if it is just about getting a sample in a box. You should have an entire marketing strategy around getting into a box that employs social media, couponing, and driving traffic to your website. You have to be very strategic about giving away free product because it costs you money.
It is probably more valuable to give products to potential buyers than to do a box. If I am giving away 5000 free samples, I’d prefer to give them to buyers in stores so that they can give samples to their customers. This level of store support is much more beneficial than just giving free product to a box that may not convert to customers.
If you decide to do a box, try to get some analytics. Participation in a subscription box might not convert to customers but being able to get data on your potential customers may be beneficial for future marketing tactics.
You have received wonderful press, from Oprah to Black Enterprise to Women’s Health Magazine, how did you attract those press product features?
The Oprah feature happened because of a leadership program I applied to with the magazine and an organization called the White House Project. Even though I didn’t know if Oprah was going to be present, I made sure to be prepared. I came with 100 handmade gift boxes.
I brought enough for everyone who was attending, including beauty editors and writers. Since I was the only person who brought a product, I was able to stand out. A direct result of my preparation was a spotlight in the beauty section in Oprah Magazine a few months after the leadership program!
Is print press an important tool in your marketing strategy? Do you consistently reach out to press?
We do reach out. Print press won’t give you sales conversion but what it will do is give your brand credibility and help to open doors. Getting into Oprah Magazine was something that I could reference when I was pitching my products.
People tend to think if you get into a magazine feature, all of a sudden you are making millions of dollars. That is not necessarily the case. It is about creating brand presence and credibility that allows you to get access to other resources and tools.
Are there other tools or strategies that you have found allows you to connect Made-In-Africa narrative with local brands and retailers in the U.S.?
Doing speaking gigs has been an important tool to getting my story out. I have spoken at various events from the U.N., the U.S. State Department, and several universities. I’ve traveled to 6 embassies throughout Africa as a guest speaker on issues around women, entrepreneurship, youth development and these opportunities have opened doors and built credibility. Additionally, it’s a way to tell your brand story in your voice.
If you do nothing else for your business, you have to tell your story. I think this is lacking when it comes to African products. Either someone else is bringing our products to market or someone else is telling the story of that product. Although shea butter has been in the U.S. market for decades, in 2015 people still do not know where it comes from, or what the raw material looks like.
They think it comes from a calabash because that is how they see it sold at farmers markets. When we are talking about African branding and as we bring our products to market, it is all about sharing the true authentic story of where these products are coming from.
You just mentioned this in your last answer, but just to be clear, how has your own personal brand helped with your marketing strategy with Shea Yeleen? You mentioned speaking engagements, but are there any other ways your personal brand and work has helped with marketing the company?
The fact that I have direct ties has been really important. I think there has been a huge shift over the last few years around Africa in general. I definitely remember when people wanted to be very separate from the continent, when it wasn’t cool to be African or come from the continent. I believe that is changing and it is changing because Africans are beginning to tell our own story.
When I talk about our producers, I talk about Joanna and Gladys and Tene. They aren’t just vague numbers or statistics, they are people. I think this has been the difference when it comes to Africans creating our own companies and bringing products to market. We have a greater connection to our products and I think people want to be more open and connect to these stories and products.
I did Peace Corps because I genuinely wanted to learn more about the people that I have direct connection to. I’m African, I’m Ghanaian and this has been a huge part of why I created Shea Yeleen.
Would you recommend that founders establish or connect more directly with their companies? I know that the narrative has changed from founders being on the back-end to, with more recent brands and companies, hearing more about the personal narratives of the founders. Would that be your perspective?
Absolutely. People don’t simply buy things; they buy from people. Founders shouldn’t become obsessed with themselves in anyway but it is important that people are able to connect with whoever is behind that brand or product, whether it’s the founders, the team members, or the producers.
I think more and more, especially with the millennial generation, people care about where their products are coming from, they are becoming more inquisitive and that’s why you see these large brands coming out with corporate social responsibility divisions 50 years after they have created the company.
Social responsibility should be the core of your company from the beginning. And I think that’s why more of us are creating companies that are impactful, and telling the story from day one, and that’s important.
Want more of Rahama Wright’s story? Stay tuned for Part II where Wright shares gems about social media and bringing her brand to African markets.
Abai Schulze moved to to Addis Ababa in 2013 to start ZAAF – a company that specializes in handcrafted luxury leather handbags and accessories produced by Ethiopian artisans. The Ethiopian-American entrepreneur has been able to combine her background in economic development and love for fine arts and creativity into a successful brand. Through ZAAF, she seeks to create unique products, open up avenues of opportunity for talented local artisans, and promote brand Ethiopia.
Schulze graduated from George Washington University where she majored in Economics and minored in Fine Arts. At the core of her entrepreneurial journey, which she terms as an exciting adventure, is to be able to impact people on an individual level. She spoke to me about how she has been able to grow and market her brand.
Taking advantage of learning opportunities
Schulze, who was born in Ethiopia and adopted by an American family at age 11, remained connected to her culture. She travelled to Ethiopia during her summer breaks to do volunteer work. It was during one of these trips that she interned with USAID where she worked with artisans and designers, and helped them to create websites to market their products internationally.
This enabled her to see how businesses work in Ethiopia. Frequently visiting the country also gave her the opportunity to witness its economic transformation firsthand and ignited the desire to return in her.
Her senior thesis analyzed Ethiopia’s potential for exporting textile. “I wanted to go into that field but it didn’t make sense because the initial capital is huge and you have to have actual hands on experience,” Schulze said.
She later found out that Ethiopia has the finest leather in the world which it exports to European countries to be used as raw material by famous brands.
“I wanted to tap into that,” she said. “Why not make it at home, by our own people, add value to it, export it, and market and rebrand Ethiopia?” “That was my initial take on it,” she added.
Schulze’s plan was to get some work experience in the US and go to business school before starting her own company. After graduation she interned at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and later worked at Ashoka. It was while there that she met many entrepreneurs who inspired her to start her own company.
“I changed the timeline and decided to jump in,” she said. “I told myself, ‘If it fails, I am still young, I can start over.’” She then made the physical move to Ethiopia. “You can’t do this type of business from a distance,” she said. “I had to leave everything behind and focus on ZAAF.”
Branding and marketing ZAAF
In trying to figure out how to brand and market ZAAF, Schulze kept in mind the different connotations that come with products made in Africa. “A lot of it has that NGO feeling,” she said. “The language used is often, ‘It is made by poor people. Buy it otherwise they won’t have a job.”
She wanted to reject this guilt-driven purchase angle. “I wanted to show that we are talented, we just need to invest in our own people and we can produce something beautiful,” said Schulze. “You are buying the product because you like the product, not because you are feeling guilty.”
“Otherwise you are not going to have loyal customers who come back,” she added. “If they feel like they have done their good deed of the day, then they will move on to the next company.”
Schulze and her team were careful and deliberate about the language that they used in branding the company. Its products are made by talented Ethiopian artisans who went to school to sharpen their craft.
“They are not people who you just tell to piece two items together,” she said. Working with skilled artisans also ensures that the products are high quality. “We are trying to compete with international brands,” she said. “We want people to buy based on that.” The language they use to talk about the brand reflects all this.
“Our products stand out,” said Schulze. “When we produce them, we really want our customers to feel a sense of where the products are made.” ZAAF integrates ageless geometric patterns created on traditional looms with leather.
“Talented weavers meticulously count knots to produce patterns of fantastic combination of color and style,” she said. The unique aspects of the handbags and accessories has attracted media attention. “That organic attraction has helped us grow,” she added.
Customer engagement is critical to the brand. They engage with customers primarily through social media. They are committed to providing excellent customer service. “If a customer is not happy with a product then we will redo it,” Schulze said. They also work to ensure that products are delivered in a timely fashion.
Another way that Schulze keeps her customers happy is by investing in her team. She creates incentives for them based on their desires and needs. “That way they are loyal and create high quality products,” she said. “When you have a high turnover of employees, you can’t be consistent and your customers won’t be happy.”
Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs:
Your initial purpose has to be strong. You have to be passionate about what you are creating because you will face a lot of challenges over time. This passion will help you find a way to solve them. Surround yourself with people who challenge you because sometimes you will be in your own bubble and you won’t know how far you are going.