Starting small doesn’t mean staying small

This post is part three in a four-part series. Read part one here.

Olufelo Kehinde’s fabric shop sits at a little intersection of two narrow, deeply rutted dirt roads that snake through one small section of a massive market district. Oke-Arin is hot, crowded, and noisy; the drone of diesel-powered generators forces conversations up to an even louder level than one might expect from people trying to strike a bargain. You have to watch your step, too. Many of the storefronts are cut off from the thoroughfare by open sewers, spanned precariously by wooden planks and cement slabs. And the foot traffic is constant — from not only the potential customers, but also workers carrying every type of consumer product imaginable upon their heads and shoulders.

The market is curiously organized by the type of goods sold: there’s a narrow alleyway devoted to kitchen supplies, an entire block for traders of tires and hubcaps, a row of half a dozen vendors all selling bottled water. It’s no different for Olufelo’s shop, which is right in the middle of Oke-Arin’s fashion district. The street is lined on both sides with stalls and storefronts that are adorned with bolts of cloth in an astonishing array of colors, and there are tailors displaying finished clothing as well.

I couldn’t help but wonder: How could Olufelo differentiate her business and product enough to compete in such a busy marketplace?

So, I asked her exactly that, and she beamed.

“Charisma!” she exclaimed pointedly. “How you treat your customers. The quality of your goods.”

But for Olufelo, her biggest competitive breakthrough came not through customer service, but from her own grand ambitions to source fabrics that Lagos had never seen.

Over six years of working with Accion Microfinance Bank (AMfB), Olufelo became eligible for larger and larger working capital loans. With each new loan, her purchasing power increased. She found that she could afford not only to buy greater quantities of fabric to drive down her costs, but also to travel outside of Nigeria to buy patterns that were unique and exotic.

She showed me patterns she had purchased by traveling to neighboring countries in West Africa. This brightly-colored one from Ghana, that deep purple one from Cote d’Ivoire, earth tones from Senegal, and many more from nearby Benin.

They were a hit. And as her sales led to more success, she realized that she could extend her reach even further if she combined her resources with other women in the marketplace. With a little convincing and a lot of organization and leadership, over time, Olufelo parlayed that initial loan of about $750 into a pool of capital in the tens of thousands of dollars that was owned by a four-woman buying group.

Forget West Africa. She went on to tell me proudly that her most recent sourcing trips took her to Indonesia and Thailand.

My jaw dropped. Everything I thought I knew about life in the developing world — for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid — went right out the window. “You flew to Jakarta? By yourself?”

As she went on about Asia, international trade, and shipping containers, I tried my best to process this new way of looking at the world. We have this image in our heads about microenterprises: owned by people living in poverty, managing tiny businesses to keep food on the table. Their stories are real. But equally real are microentrepreneurs who earn and enjoy real success, and grow to participate in the global economy. They all start small, but that doesn’t mean that they stay small.

Olufelo’s story doesn’t end there, however. This isn’t just an account of one remarkable woman’s success. She went on to tell me about the ways in which she was passing on the gift that she had received and nurtured over the last several years… the gift of opportunity. But more on that later.

This post is part two in a four-part series. Read part one here.