JOY IGBODIKE is Mechanical Engineer (option –production), who has mastered the art of creating functional and practical furniture items. She is the creative director, Jaebee Furniture and Founder, JB Furniture School, where she provides smart furniture solutions for the everyday Nigerian. She speaks with KEMI AJUMOBI on training interior designers, production engineers, technical college students, interns, carpenters and more on the ethics of the business among other matters. Excerpt
How you started
Upon graduation, I started working with my mom officially. The fact that we made furniture, our home always had beautiful pieces and was the object of admiration for many of my classmates. When I persuaded my friend’s parents to come and buy, the price was unaffordable for many. This was largely due to the fact that the business was focused on creating luxury furniture and most of my mother’s clients were multinationals and expatriates. So the average family couldn’t afford the high end furniture available. This frustrated me greatly. I began to find new methods where I could still create great furniture but at lower cost so it could be gotten by the average income earner in Nigeria. My new discoveries weren’t accepted by management and so I had to resign. I started my own business with zero capital and a lot of passion.
Did you experience any challenges departing from your mother’s business?
Yes, I had a lot of challenges like any start-up business owner. The first challenge was funding. The business is capital intensive and at the time I was resigning from my mother’s furniture business, I had about N70, 000 as savings. This limited my capacity to acquire the necessary materials to start. So I had to collect some rejected furniture items from her factory to refurbish and start my business. The second challenge was emotional. When I left, my mother did not speak to me for some time because she felt I was not fair to her. Thirdly, the people closest to me didn’t believe in me. I used to be very emotional, my mother believed that I didn’t have the strength to manage people and thus, build a successful business. She was sure I would not survive it and eventually run back to her. Even though, I had some occasions where I went to her for guidance, I stayed true to myself. At those times, she would suggest that I come back.
Your decision to create affordable pieces and infuse unique features, does it affect your profit?
No, not at all. Rather, my decision to create affordable pieces and infuse unique features to it makes it more profitable. Here’s the reason why. My core strength is in reducing cost of production by cutting down waste. So when other furniture makers create furniture and have waste, I wouldn’t. For example, where someone else uses three pieces of wood, I could use two so the money for the extra wood would be used to purchase the special feature for my product. I alter the designs to reduce actual material usage and so my price stays the same. This unique method of mine differentiated me from the rest and attracted more customers to me because my products were classy and of high quality. Also, I believe that profit comes more from turnover. I am more interested in scaling my business and turning out more items per time. So I would rather sell a hundred items and make a thousand naira in hundred places than sell one piece and make fifty thousand naira.
I deliver training in three ways; I use my social media platform to train people for free. I teach one topic every month and generate a discussion around it so people can benefit. I also do private consultation and assist other furniture makers and interior designers who have questions about increasing their profits and reducing cost in producing high quality furniture items. There is also the question of right ethics and modern techniques of production that people ask me about. I believe with such impartation of knowledge, we can achieve more in terms of service delivery in Nigeria. I also have an online school because I realised that there are a lot of people all over Nigeria who want to learn but are restricted by their geographical locations. The online school gives the students the convenience of learning from wherever in the world they are in, and they can learn at their own pace. When the students log in, they get access to all the video trainings which are highly practical and they can ask questions which will be responded to. I use presentation slides and explainer videos to teach the students. I also do one-on-one training and internship. We also have people who register online and come to the factory for hands-on training. They want to learn the other aspects of building a successful furniture business and see first-hand, my work routine, customer relationship and how to engage staff optimally. I also organise Master Classes for advanced students in the furniture industry who want to perfect a particular area of the trade.
Challenging economy affecting cost of production
The economy has indeed affected my production cost because of the exchange rate. The market price of the imported materials we use has increased greatly. However, this has helped us to source for local alternatives. To still keep our production cost low, we have reduced the amount of imported materials. Surprisingly, we have some of the materials we had previously imported and so we use local products and then import where necessary without compromising the quality of our delivery. For me, it is better because it is about being able to work with what we have. Despite the inflation, we haven’t really increased our prices because of this technique of using home-grown materials.
Types of wood used
I make use of mahogany, teal, Gmelina, Pine, Appah, Iroko. The type of wood I use depends on what I’m producing but I always ensure that I get my wood from one of the best sources. I also joined the Association of the plank sellers which helps in getting the wood at the best price. Wood selection is about sorting and grading and so, as a member of the association, I have the privilege of selecting the best wood for my furniture production before they sell to the open market.
My challenges are not far-fetched from what any other manufacturer would have in Nigeria. Power is one of the greatest challenges because we always have to generate our own power to run our machines. I wouldn’t say labour is a challenge because over the years, I have been able to understand that part and taken care of it. Although, I wish we had more skilled workers in Nigeria which is part of what drives me to train others so we can have a better workforce for the furniture making industry in Nigeria. Another challenge is access to markets.
Advice to the government of Nigeria at all levels
If I was able to speak to the government about furniture making industry, I would say that they should have a policy that empowers people to be able to produce or give a rebate in terms of taxation. Currently, the Chinese come into our country, go into our forests to cut our wood and take to their country, process it and then the processed wood is imported back to us. There is a large number of imported plywood even from Ghana. The local ones cannot meet the demands. I’d tell them to encourage manufacturers. They should give us some kind of tax relief. They should also be strict with the tariffs on imported furniture so that it forces people to turn to local alternatives and thus grow the local market. This will then encourage competition among the current furniture makers and cause a ripple effect of better furniture as there would be competition in the market.
Jaebee Furnitures in the future
I see Jaebee Furnitures as the Ikea of Africa. To offer great furniture designs that combine function, quality and sustainability at a low price. A place where good home furnishing is affordable for the everyday Nigerian/African, especially for young career individuals and families with young children. To achieve this, I would definitely need partnership or investments that will help us increase our capacity to deliver on both the furniture items and training personnel. Our goal is that there will be a Jaebee furniture in one out of every one thousand Nigerian homes.