When over 40 years ago Abimbola Azeh was making a career choice, she did not see herself as a cobbler. Rather, she envisioned herself in the robes of a barrister in the mould of those portrayed on the BBC television show, Crown Court. She loved the courtroom drama of the show and was drawn to study law. But 15 years into her law practice, she discovered, among other things, that her fantasy was not aligning with reality. Instead, she got drawn to a hobby that providentially crept up on her – shoemaking. Twenty years after, Mona Matthews is an established Nigerian shoe brand. Abimbola Azeh speaks to LM.
You studied law; you became a lawyer. Now, you are a cobbler. What is the story behind that?
I have been thinking recently and I think a part of me had always been this way inclined. I’ve always been interested in how things look, how people look, and how can one prove how a person looks. So, I think essentially you will say I am an aesthetics kind of person. And then back then going to school, you were either a science student or an art student. If you had fairly good grades there was the assumption that what was the best art course was, probably, law. And on top of that, my father was Ekiti and with Ekitis there is this thing about reading book (laughs). My older brother is a doctor. I studied law. My younger brother studied architecture. I think my younger sister escaped. So, I think that was it, to start with. So, I think the seeds had always been in me somewhat. If you had left me at the time I was going into university, I probably would have done something like theatre arts or something in that line because when I look back again, those are the kind of things I’ve been passionate about. But back to the law. I studied law. I finished at the University of Lagos and then I went to work. I worked as a lawyer, and I ran my own chambers. So, full-time law was probably about 15 years or so and then after a few years, I started doing other things. But essentially, I also got born again and I worked in church. I worked with This Present House, and I worked with Living Waters; and while I was working in those two places, I started making shoes for myself because I couldn’t find my own size. I couldn’t find the kind of shoes I liked. I couldn’t find comfortable shoes for me. So, I started making and designing shoes for myself. I got shoemakers who were making them for me, and people saw what I was making, and they liked them. They asked me to make them for them as well and so I found shoemakers. But you know, it wasn’t a business at that point. It was like a hobby. But when I was at the second church where I worked as a church office administrator, I started feeling a bit of despair in me and I knew it was time to move on to do something else. So, I spoke to my pastor. He was like, “Ah! Okay. So, what are you going to do? Pray about it.” And seriously, because I had made shoes before, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make but then at this time I had now realised that I had to do it properly.
The other thing about the law for me was that when I was choosing law (when I say choosing, with my father breathing heavily behind my back). When I was choosing law like that, I also think that I was more interested in the practice of law as we saw it on television back in the days. Crown Court comes to mind, and you see the drama of the law court, the arguments, the investigation and all of that but in the actual practice of the law here that I was exposed to, some aspects didn’t really go down well with me; particularly, after I became a Christian. So, those tilted me away from the law personally.
Coming into shoemaking, several things also came into play. First of all, it was an opportunity for me to express myself artistically because I had always had those tendencies anyway. Then, it was also an opportunity to learn how to do business properly. A friend of mine I had spoken to about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to go about it, encouraged me to take a business course which I did. So, I was at the Fate Foundation at the same time as I was starting my business. The other thing also was, even as far back as when I started it, was the fact that in Nigeria we were just importing things. All our factories had become moribund. Textile industries crashed. The leather industry was nothing to write home about. We just weren’t manufacturing anything. We seemed to have a lot of cash and were just importing everything. Toothpicks, pencils, anything. And even importing things that left here as raw materials like leather, cocoa and a lot of other things. One of the things that were also on my mind was that if this was the little, I could do to contribute to us making things I wanted to do that. I wanted to be part of that story when it’s told, that Nigerians can produce good things.
Also, in 2002 when I started, one of the things that were also prevalent was the issue of 419, advanced fraud and all of that. And that was what Nigeria seemed to be known for. So, I was interested in changing that narrative and I wanted Mona Matthews to be one of the ways people say lots of beautiful things about Nigeria beyond 419.
I can see that your finishing is quite neat. How do you ensure quality? How are you able to make sure that the stitches are right?
First of all, I let my artisans know the profile of my customers. This year I am 35 years at the bar and a lot of my colleagues are sitting on the bench, the court of appeal, high benches, Senior Advocates of Nigeria, professors of law all over the world, just to mention a few, MDs of multinational companies. And I say to my shoemakers, these are the people who are buying these shoes, but they can afford to buy shoes from anywhere in the world. Now, if I am making shoes and I expect them to buy, there is a certain standard. That is where we started from. I don’t want them to wear shoes that even if they conceded and did buy and wear the shoes, that would be so obvious that it is one cobbler around the corner that made the shoes. They should be able to stand anywhere in the world with those shoes. So, I paint that picture for them to see. We have other mechanisms as well. You get paid for what we accept. So, it is a pay-as-you-go type of thing. So, if the quality doesn’t meet our standard, then we don’t accept it. Another thing I started thinking about recently, which I think helps me is, that I think my father was slightly OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). So, he could spot a speck from afar. And I think I got a bit of that from him. So, once I pick up an item and I see something, it is the flaw that jumps out at me. It is almost impossible for me to see an item and not see the flaw. What happens is that I see the flaw first before I begin to admire it. So, everyone that works with me is very conscious of that. I taught my staff to imbibe that quality. And so, we lookout for flaws. So, the shoemakers know they don’t get paid if there is a problem and it helps.
Did you do any specific course in quality control or quality assurance, or was it something that has just gone along with your conscience?
You know I am old school. I started making shoes at 39. So, I had 38 years of experience wearing shoes. And a good part of those 38 years was spent wearing good shoes, when the Naira was strong enough for us to wear Italian shoes, Marks and Spencer’s, Clarks and things like that. I tell people my schoolbag was leather. We had leather school satchels in those days. So, it’s innate. It’s something that we grew up with and so I’ve learned to recognise that. One way of developing new styles and things like that, is we have a way that we will try them out. Some shoes I actually make for myself first and wear to find out what the defects there are and if it passes the test, we will begin to make them. There is a process. So, it takes a little while for us to begin to put things out. But fortunately for us, a lot of our shoemakers have been with us for a long time. They have experience and we’re also blessed with people who are proud of their work. You know this is handwork. We are not using machines beyond the average sewing machine and things like that. They are true craftsmen and are proud and passionate about the work that they do. So, there is no professional training as such. In many ways, Mona Matthews is a pioneer in how we do this business.
How do you get your raw materials? Do you have to import your tanned leather, or do you tan your own leather?
To start with, what we do in Nigeria is that we have leather. We have these small and big animals, and we have an export industry for our leather. We also have tanneries in the North that produce leather. The tanneries in the North do not produce leather for the Nigerian market per se. They produce leather and export it majorly. They export to China, Italy and Spain I believe. A lot of the skins are harvested during Ramadan and taken to the tanneries immediately and then when they are processed and taken out of the country. Some are finished, and some are semi-processed when taken out as wet. Some are taken out, like maybe a stage after that, but the bottom line is that when the leather goes out there, it is finished and then is brought back. Sometimes, the leather is even used out there and then when they are done with production is brought over as leftover. You know how our garment industry works here. So, the fabric they buy from Yaba and Aba and some of those markets, are essentially the end of production fabric from western factories.
They are not rejects. So, when they want to start a production line, they buy excess so they can meet their target and once they have met their target and they don’t use the fabrics anymore, some people go around and pick up the fabrics and come back and sell it to us here. Some of the leather that we use comes to us like that, some come directly from the North, some come as rejects from the tanneries, the ones that the exporters didn’t use. There is a market in Lagos where all kinds of leather are sold – the very good, the not so good. It’s left to you to go there. So, we don’t import the leather. We don’t import much. The only things we import are maybe accessories. In some cases where we can also buy. But these days, we can also buy online directly and bring them in so really what stands us apart is the quality of our craftsmen and the fact that they know how to pick good leather and good material and the designs they make and the standards we have set for ourselves.
What is your model?
So, when I started, I knew the quality I wanted to achieve from the beginning. I couldn’t afford to achieve that quality if I set up a factory, but I couldn’t even afford to set up a factory at the time. So one of my friends, I just spoke to him and said listen this is what I want to do, what I do is called outsourcing. Mona Matthews is a design company. We design the shoes, and we retail. All our production is outsourced, and so, we have the shoemakers who are running their cottage industries. They have their small workshops where they produce for us and we can standardise a lot of things – sizing, quality, colour and so many things over the years. But it gives us a lot of advantages. First of all, we are more versatile than a lot of people who are doing what we are doing because we are not stuck with a particular type of product. We have more versatility, but we are small, so it is easy for us to pivot. We don’t carry overheads because we are not employing the shoemakers. But then, our cost of production is high because we have to pay them per piece but then it is still pay-as-you-go. In recent times, it’s been helpful with COVID and all of that. At the moment, we’ve reached a point where we now need to scale. So even in scaling, we are still looking at a multi-faceted approach. We are not putting all our eggs in one basket. If we decide we want to go with our own factory, our own workshop, it will just be for some part of our products. There will still be other things that we will still outsource.
How did you come about being able to escape all these things small business owners entangle themselves with like loans and other liabilities?
I think my legal background and legal practice helped me in that regard, in the sense that even when I was practising law and running my practice, I had a small office. There were times when I even worked from home and if I had a matter that had to do with an aspect of the law I wasn’t familiar with, I will call a colleague in and he would do that part of the work for me. So, I think from the get-go outsourcing and not needing to start with buying equipment and renting. I started in my living room. The last lawyer I worked with, who is very senior in Nigeria was working from home, way before this work from home thing became the norm. I had seen that and I have experienced that, and I had known that you can do very good quality work produced from anywhere if you set the systems in place and you could make the systems work for you. I knew for instance that I could run a good law practice without having an office in Western House. I had seen it. I had experienced It and I knew it could work. So, I think I just superimposed that experience on what I was doing. My emphasis has been on the final product. What I spent the last 19 years plus doing is building the brand, building the craftsmen who produce the products that represent the brand. So, we built up skills and expertise. We have experience. And so, over the years, what that has done for us, is that it has put us in a place where we can compete with anybody in the world without having to invest heavily in what we didn’t need; and I have seen people who have started that other way – buying the equipment, taking the loans and falling flat on their faces because they ignored the most essential thing which is the manpower, the skillset required to bring the kind of products that they wanted. Now if we decide to start that, we already have the capital in terms of knowledge capital, skill capital, payment capital, required to do that successfully.
So, you talked about scaling. Is that export?
I will say exporting yes because we already do that. Not on a large scale. On an individual basis. We have clients that live abroad so we export to individuals. But why I said scale up, export is one of it but it’s not the foremost thing in my mind. It’s actually increasing the numbers of what we are producing at the moment, reaching a larger market, getting more market share and then hopefully being able to reduce overall prices to a point where we can get a larger market share just by being in that space and of course other locations and things like that.
How do you get your market?
We have a pretty wide customer base. So, in 19 years we have served quite a number of people and we try to keep them close, we try to retain them. We understand what will keep them close. There are ambassadors but we also do shows. We hold our own shows. Of course, COVID has destroyed some of those now, but we hold our own shows. We also attend fashion shows. We don’t do the high fashion things; we do more like the fashion souks and large exhibitions and things like that. We have a minimal online presence. What we depend on really is our existing customer base, even though the shoes don’t spoil fast enough, they do remember us when they need to get new shoes. When people have experienced the brand, they tend to come back. We try very hard to satisfy our customers and we don’t like losing any of our customers, so we hold them as tight as possible.
In a few years, you will not be as active as you are in the business right now. What is your plan for succession?
To be quite honest, I haven’t seriously thought about it because I am not about to start hanging up my boots. The way my business is structured, I don’t do any running around. My house is a few minutes away from my shop and even if I have outlets, it’s not going to be me who will be doing all of that. There is a structure in place and there will be more structure added to enable them to run by themselves. Thank goodness for technology and all that one can do with technology these days. So, I’m very aware of that and I am going to leverage technology as much as possible because I am not the kind of person who will just sit down, not do anything. But going forward with the business and the brand, I am not sentimental. It doesn’t have to outlive me. If anything, I am more interested in my brand being responsible for birthing children and having grandchildren rather than perpetuating myself. I don’t care if I die, and Mona Matthews dies. It is not a problem for me. I am not interested in that, it’s a personal thing for me. What I am more interested in, is people who have seen what I have done, and are saying, “I like what she’s doing, I want to be like her.” And quite a few people I have mentored and some people I have coached, who are doing the business and are doing it well. They paid for it, but I coach people if they want to be shoe designers. But because of how the business is structured, I don’t care if it outlives me.
Your tutelage at Fate Foundation must have prepared you for mentoring people, is that something that was part of your curriculum, or do you feel as if you had gotten this education you must hand it down to people?
I think it was part of me to start with. I’m the sort of person that sincerely believes that there can always be a better version of who we are right now. When I see people around me who are, and I see that they are not where they could be even in an informal way, I would reach out as long as the person is receptive. So when I was in Fate I had a mentor but it was an interesting one because my mentor hadn’t even as much experience as was required in my field. After all, she stopped doing it. So, at the time I met her she saw my shoes and said, “Wow! What you are doing is beautiful!” But we still have a relationship today. I think because of my natural makeup, mentoring is something I like to do and encourage. I signed up as a mentor with Fate Foundation. I did a couple of trainings and whenever there was someone whose field is similar to mine, I am always happy to mentor them. So, it was a combination of Fate and who I am as a person.
What has been the happiest moment in your enterprise?
I can’t say there was one moment like that. It’s always a combination of little moments and you just go to bed happy. For me a satisfied customer is a happy moment. Good feedback is a happy moment. And resolving an issue is a happy moment. They come in small packages over some time but there is a cumulative effect of that. Just being able to solve people’s footwear needs, provide employment for people, and provide work for my shoemakers. I’m the kind of person who has to keep reminding herself that she’s not a social entrepreneur. I’m a for-profit entrepreneur but the people side of it is really important to me.
You don’t do too much of heels from the work I’ve seen. Is there a reason why you concentrate more on flats?
China seems to love the young ladies more than the older women. China meets the needs of young ladies. They have a preference for heels out there but there are older women with wobbly knees, extra weight and fat bank accounts. You can’t find what they need. I like to use this example. Let’s say Mrs. A’s daughter got married and there was Aso-Ebi for 100 people, and they all attend the wedding. Automatically, she’s obliged to 100 people. When their daughters are getting married, or they have other events, she will have to take the Aso-Ebi for those 100 people, and she will have to get different colours of shoes. She has bought her house. She’s at the peak of her career. She can afford Mona Matthews. So, she is my ideal customer. She has a husband. She has children. She will soon have grandchildren. So, if I get her, I get a village.
On the personal side, what is your social life like? What do you do to unwind?
Facebook. I am not a party person. I am active in my church; I am a minister. I like the environment, as you know I have worked in church, so I love that. I love live music. In my university days, I did all the Jazz et al. Jazz Wheel. I even did Fela a few times. I did the concerts. When the big bands came to town, I did that. In the process of working with church, I was privileged to work with gospel artists. I organised concerts so I appreciate live music. I was in Steve Rhode’s Voices at a point, not a fantastic voice but I was there. The way I got into Steve Rhode’s Voices was that I pulled a fast one on Uncle Steve. Typically, you would audition to get into Steve Rhode’s voices, and I knew that there was no way I was getting in on that audition. So, I went to the audition, and I told Uncle Steve that I didn’t think he could teach me how to sing, and Uncle Steve went, “what do you mean I can’t teach you how to sing? Of course, I can teach anybody how to sing.” And of course, I got in.
Project the next 5 years, 10 years for Mona Matthews. Do you have any specific milestones you want to reach?
The immediate one would be our own factory, as a production centre. Maybe not a factory, because it still will not be automated. It will still be essentially artisanal but will have some tools that will make our precision better and increase production capacity. A production centre is uppermost on my mind right now. Then like I said we are trying to acquire more market share. So, more outlets in Lagos and maybe some major cities like Abuja to start with then we will see how it pans out. But other parts of Lagos apart from our current outlets right now. Then export. As soon as we can identify possible partners who can work with us we will be doing export. We have a lot of digital partners that we are working with and beginning to see more interest in that direction so that the weight of arranging and organising the logistics won’t be just on us. These are the basic things I am looking at for the moment.
Have you ever gone through any path of desolation where you felt like “maybe I shouldn’t have gone through this path”?
It’s not really a feeling of “maybe I shouldn’t have gone through this path.” It’s sometimes like, “let me just do something else.” And then I think what else do I want to do and then I can’t really think of anything else I want to do. I love my job.
- Abimbola Azeh spoke to Nkanu Egbe, Editor, Lagos Metropolitan