Tosin Obalade has a master’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Nottingham, but when she is not working full time as a pharmacist, she is busy building the e-commerce company Zere Fashion House. Ayiba’s Eyitemi Popo spoke with ZFH’s founder to learn more about the company, the challenges involved with managing a start-up, and what it takes to bring African fashion to the world.
Why did you pursue entrepreneurship?
For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a CEO. Though I didn’t know all that it entailed, it was something that fascinated me. I would sit in my dad’s swivel chair pretending to be in charge. I started my first company called “Busola Company” when I was just nine years old and my second right after university. I’ve come to realise that I didn’t choose entrepreneurship; rather I think it chose me. For me, it was never about the perks of being an entrepreneur—becoming significantly rich or being my own boss. I liked the idea of taking a risk and striving to see it yield something beautiful. I liked that I could exercise initiative, run with an idea. and didn’t necessarily require permission from anyone. I get really excited when I see young entrepreneurs succeeding in the relevant fields.
How did you come up with idea for ZFH?
In my final year of university I became very interested in Nigerian fashion brands. One summer’s evening, I met up with a friend and we got talking about buying some outfits from these brands. We were saddened when we realised there was nowhere in England to buy them and that was how I got inspired to start Zere, a fashion store that stocked Nigerian/African fashion brands exclusively. David Cohen, founder and CEO of TechStars said,“Ideas for start-ups often begin with a problem that needs to be solved.” That was definitely true for us. It took several months to research, learn, and plan but nine months later, Zere was open for business.
Tell me about your vision with ZFH. How did you conceptualize the brand?
Over the last few years, Nigeria has experienced an incredible growth of its fashion industry. Nigerian designers are becoming regular features on international runways and designs are increasingly popular with celebrities such as Beyoncé and Angela Simmons. Our vision is to create an online marketplace where African fashion labels can be sold to customers worldwide. Our goal is to put African fashion on the globe and provide an avenue for young, talented, and rising African designers to take their collections to the international platform where their work can be further appreciated.
How has that vision come to fruition? What do you owe your continued growth to?
In April 2014, Zere was rolled out on the e-commerce website Etsy with two designers: Eve and Tribe (previously known as Rukky Simone) and Fabric Express. A year on, we now stock a range of Nigerian designers including GREY, Lady Biba, Slippers by Kene, and Mak Nisy and we have our very own Ankara-based line called ZFH. A lot of our customers had never heard of these designers before and we’ve had great feedback on the quality and style of the designs. We are now at a point where customers are eager to know who we’ll be signing next.
Our growth has been down to four major factors: God, hard work and dedication, learning from other entrepreneurs, and social media. We’ve capitalised on things that we know work and learned from those that didn’t. Moving from Etsy to having our own website has also helped us in promoting the business and contributed greatly to our growth.
What has been the most challenging part of your journey with ZFH?
So far, it’s been getting our name and work out there. As a start-up, the initial audience is limited to family and friends and it’s difficult to break out the constriction. We are learning just how important advertising is and how to fully utilise all the available advertising channels to increase public awareness.
Can you tell us a bit about your business strategy, including how you develop relationships with brands and engage your customers? What are the logistical challenges?
Our current strategy is to promote growth through market penetration. There is an increasing cultural shift towards “tribal” prints which are inspired by Africa. The more we make ourselves known, the easier it becomes for people to learn about us and the services we offer. Our current target base is young to middle-aged women who have great interest in African fashion. The new trendy Iro and Buba pieces by one of our designers Fabric Express, traditional attire worn for decades by different tribes in Africa, have been very popular within this group.
We started off with Nigerian brands, however, we are hoping to get other designers from Africa on our website. We particularly love the kente clothing from Ghana and we’ve seen some beautifully designed outfits using this material. The first thing we do when we approach designers is to explain our vision. They often share the same vision as us which makes it easy for us to work with them in achieving our goal. Our relationship with all our clients is based on mutual respect. One thing I’ve learnt is to understand their views and respect how they run their brand. Every designer is different and understanding this enables me to tailor the operation to suit his or her needs.
Our primary source of engagement with customers has been through social media, especially Instagram. Our ability to sell the items we stock is based on visual representation and how our customers perceive it. If something looks good, then it’s more likely to sell. Instagram bridges that gap perfectly and we are able to showcase all our designers. A lot of emphasis has been placed on Pinterest lately as well. We believe this is another powerful advertising platform and if utilised correctly, holds great dividends.
The biggest challenge is in getting the items from our designers. However, with the emergence of new innovative logistics companies like Jand2Gidi, we believe this challenge can be tackled.
Who is your favourite designer that’s not on your platform?
I’ve got more than one favourite designer at the moment. My current faves are Re Bahia, CLAN, and Lanre DaSilva (LDA).
What’s your day-to-day like? Can you give us some insight into what you do on a daily basis with ZFH?
The day-to-day activities are managed by a team of two: Peter Oladimeji and I. We both combine our full-time jobs with running the company so we spend most evenings and weekends on Zere. My day usually entails interacting with the designers who already stock with us and designers we want to stock, ordering new stock for the website, and managing our accounts. Peter focuses on developing the website to make the user experience better and processing the orders we receive for delivery. Like we said earlier, advertising is quite big for us at the moment so engaging our customers via social media is a major part of our day. We also find ways to collaborate with bloggers and public figures.
What’s next for ZFH? What are some of your future milestones?
In the short term, our focus is to build our customer base and publicise the business to the European and American markets. We want to be the first point of call for African designs In Europe and America. In addition, we hope to sign up more designers, particularly outside Nigeria. In the long term, our intention is to open our own flagship store in London.
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