Trying to be the best version of you at work can be pretty awesome to do, however; there is a likelihood that you would get into the bad books of some co-employees. This was the least worry of Kemi Juba, who had always made conscious efforts to be indispensable at her place of work. She has opted to join the footwear industry through her footwear production startup, K.Aspen. The industry is estimated to export one million pairs of shoes daily to other African countries, such as Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Gabon, among others.  We interviewed Kemi Juba and she shared some of her experiences in the industry with us at Aim Higher Africa.
Can you give us a little detail about your background?
My name is Kemi Juba and I was born and bred in Lagos, Nigeria. I am an entrepreneur and extremely passionate about developing sustainable businesses. My passion for business has led me to pursue an MBA in Global Business at the University of South Wales after earning a B.Sc. in Marine Science from the University of Lagos. I am a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) as well as a certified digital marketer.
I am a footwear designer and currently the (founder and) creative director of K.Aspen. The brand is the product of merging my creativity, entrepreneurial drive, business development and management skills. I started the brand initially because I didn’t have many options open to me with regards to locally (designed and) made footwear but very quickly realised that there was a wider market for the same. The brand, which is barely two (2) years has achieved multiple milestones.
I am also part of the management team at David Hannover & Shepherds, a business consulting firm which provides intelligent solutions for companies, where I leverage my management and business development skills.

In addition to my passion for businesses, I am equally passionate about non-profits and sustainable development goals (SDGs). This led me to become a member of various non-profits and I am currently involved in a number of pro-bono pursuits. In my leisure time, I love cooking, listening to music, watching movies and following fashion trends.

Having studied marine science, what informed your choice of delving into business?
Growing up, I had always been and still love being a self-sustaining lady. My flair for business dates back to my university days. For example, I started retailing menswear while in my second year. This was due to what I perceived as the oversaturation of female clothing in most retail stores with very few menswear retailers, coupled with the urge to earn extra income in addition to my monthly allowance. Fast-forward to my third year, where at the age of 19 I launched a clothing line called ‘KJ couture’. I felt professional womenswear was extremely boring and I felt the urge to add a few twists to the suits I made for working-class women. The business was a mild success, however, I had to take a break in my final year to concentrate fully on my degree. Notwithstanding, the businesses ended up failing due to my inability to get tailors that were consistent, diligent and paid attention to detail. Looking back, I already had a habit of identifying gaps in the market, especially in the fashion sector.
From your profile, you are a woman of many paths. Would you say that it was an intentional action to gain knowledge from all these fields of endeavour or was it a thing of chance?
I would say I made intentional choices but at the same time, I was (and am) fortunate enough to be blessed with chance encounters on my journey so far. An attribute I have observed about myself is my thirst and hunger for knowledge in the different paths I have taken. I have always known subconsciously that, I would someday start my own company. However, I had no idea, as to how, when, and what I was going to eventually do. Nevertheless, I always made a conscious effort, to be indispensable in my place of work. All of this has really shaped the woman I am today, both in my business and personal lives.

What do you think about fashion and its market trend in Nigeria and Africa as a whole?
First and foremost, I view fashion as a way of life. It depicts part of who you are and who you want (or aim) to become. I say this because people’s first perception of you is based on how you look, amongst other factors. Fashion in Nigeria and Africa has seen tremendous growth in the last decade. It is safe to assume that almost everyone has a piece of Nigerian-made clothing in their wardrobe. However, the same cannot be said yet for made in Nigeria footwear or Nigerian designer footwear. That said, the industry is growing at a steady rate, with renewed interest spawned by the recession in 2015 and good publicity. Nevertheless, the market is still very unpredictable. It is still somewhat difficult to follow trends in certain segments of the footwear market; e.g. production of high heels/stilettos; due to the lack of widely available machinery and materials, not to talk of the lack of artisan skills to properly bring some designs to life.
Are your footwear made and designed in Nigeria?
All K.Aspen’s footwears are designed in Nigeria, by myself and a partner. All our male products along with our female products (excluding our high heeled shoes) are 100% made in Nigeria. We recently debuted our first high heeled collection, with heel heights ranging from 80- 100mm. Given that the production of high-heels is currently not viable here in Nigeria and in order to give our customers the best product, we collaborated with an international artisan to produce our designs to exact specifications.

How favourable is the economy in relation to the production of footwear in Nigeria?
Nigeria is generally a tough country to do business in, with a number of factors contributing to challenges that pretty much all businesses (large or small) face when operating here. In relation to the production of footwear here, we have specific challenges such as; the availability and price of raw materials; getting skilled artisans and the high cost of purchasing modern machinery. In recent times; due to the recession (and the fact that finished leather is imported); raw materials i.e. finished leather has become much more expensive. Designers are generally limited to what local importers bring in. Most of the footwear artisans I have come across, do not have the required skills to properly translate designs into products. In addition, machinery does not come cheap, which is currently translating into a slow progression of the footwear industry in Nigeria.
What makes your footwear unique or distinguished from other competing brands?
Firstly, our designs are different. There is a popular saying that no one‘s product is completely original in fashion, which I agree with. However, our designs come with a twist, be it by colour, shape or leather texture used, coupled with accessories. Secondly, K.Aspen is a brand with big dreams and global ambitions. There are quite a number of good to great local brands that are competitors but at the same time, we have our sights set higher i.e. taking K.Aspen internationally. We aspire to be like international brands like Dune, Tory Burch, Steve Madden, Sam Edelman and we do our best to makes sure our products can satisfy international markets. We pay attention to the little details at every stage, from designing with creativity and for comfort, to the finishing of the product itself. Most importantly, we are focused on the after service i.e. from customer feedback to returns and or exchanges.
Thirdly, we have a good return policy. Most Nigerian brands or businesses often have zero return or exchange policies, which I feel is one of the major reasons, customers do not appreciate Nigerian brands. For us at K.Aspen, if there is a genuine reason behind a return or an exchange, after proper vetting, we do the needful.
Does K. Aspen hope to diversify into other lines of business?
Oh yes, we do. We hope to tease our customers with some new product categories soon.
What does your staff strength look like, mode of operation and the major challenges faced during the establishment of your startup?
We have a small team of 9 at the moment, ranging through design, production, marketing, P.R and admin. One of our major challenges is the cost associated with building a brand. Initially, I always wondered why designer brands were always expensive. It dawned on me that, other than the product, which must be great, the way people perceive your brand, also affects their buying behaviour. Money needs to be spent to make sure everything is top notch, from the products, product packaging, advertising, types of influencers engaged, through to the types of exhibitions one attends. This is all necessary, especially when competing with global brands.

What sustainable development goal (SDG) is more endearing to your heart and in what ways have you personally worked towards its realisation?
Definitely, the eighth SDG, which is the decent work for all and economic growth. I have had the opportunity to listen to various employees across different fields, especially employees working on the shop floor. The working conditions are usually the same; very low pay, hostile work environment, zero bonuses, zero health policies, lack of employee training and the list goes on.
Hence our vision at K.Aspen, which is to change the narrative of African fashion start-ups, through the brand’s innovative products, company culture, core values and most importantly, employee growth. We are really keen on employee growth, and growth for us doesn’t necessarily translate to finances alone, but also with regards to employee empowerment.
Empowering shop floor employees is imperative, to be able to survive the harsh conditions of a country like ours. For a situation whereby, one loses his or her job, or an unfortunate event occurs around them, they, in turn, have the; knowledge, insight and psychological ability to think positive and look for solutions.
What are the major challenges of start-ups run by millennials in Nigeria and what approaches can be used to resolve them?
Some of the major challenges are; poor brand visibility due to little or no start-up fund, unpredictable market due to inflation, lack of national data to aid possible future ventures, the low purchasing power of mid-income earners, due to the economy. To resolve some of these issues, start-ups should create products or services that solve a problem, as opposed to just following trends. This would automatically lead to organic brand visibility.
For instance, K.Aspen was built upon the lack of extremely few existing Nigerian owned footwear brands as of 2016. Unfortunately, that reason alone wouldn’t be enough for us as a brand, to keep our existence. That said, we have to constantly keep innovating designs that will set us apart from our competitors.


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