The girls’ family made the journey from Nigeria to the UK when they were both very young, so all they remember from growing up is UK life and culture. As they grew older, they began to realise that they had a cultural heritage that they didn’t know a lot about. The turning point came when Adeola took part in a programme with the National Youth Service after university, that involved travelling to a different country.
“I went to university in Aberdeen, and decided to go back to Nigeria, and while I was there, I went to the markets, saw all the fabrics, and was amazed. I just knew my friends would love them! I thought, how have I never had access to these kinds of clothes in the UK? The whole time I was a student at uni, there just wasn’t a place I could go to buy African print clothing, it was always either a relative, or a friend of my mum who would be visiting from Nigeria, and they would bring something over for us as a present”.
A GAP IN THE MARKET
This new exposure to her cultural heritage made Adeola realise that she wanted to see the barriers broken down for people to be able to access and celebrate this beautiful aspect of their national identity, especially her fellow students from a similar background. As president of the Afro Carribbean Society at her university, Adeola was already on the look-out for similar things to engage the members of the society, and keep things fresh and vibrant, but always struggled to find Africa represented in fashion and popular culture. The society just had to be resourceful and make do with the things they already had access to.
But Adeola had seen a need, and a gap in the market that she believed she could fill, by bringing print fabric and accessories over to the UK, and creating opportunities for business. Initially, Adeola and Jane started advertising African print clothes on an app called Depop, which is a little bit similar to Instagram, only you can sell from your account, and buy from other people. It’s a way to sell second hand items, but also, is a good way to start a small business. The response they received on Depop was overwhelmingly positive. The sisters were quite surprised, as they were expecting things to be a lot slower off the mark.
Word got out quickly, and customers, not just from the UK, but from America and Italy, were flocking to buy these items!
“People were literally demanding this fabric from us, and we were like “ok, ok, I’ll get you your fabric!”, Adeola laughed. “We were so excited when we realised that there is a market for this, people are interested, and have so much love for what we were doing. The next big question was “how do I scale this up into a proper business? That’s where Jane came in…”
As Adeola was coming back from Nigeria, and bringing all these fantastic new clothes with her, Jane fell in love with them. “I would go to her room and steal her stuff”, she said.
When Jane was still living and working in Nigeria, she was limited logistically, so was not practically able to sell anything in the UK, so Jane became the manager of the UK base of the newly formed business. Adeola would ship things to Jane, and Jane would distribute them to UK based customers. By this point, the girls were selling their products to stores, as well as Etsy, and other online places. Jane, with her background in technology and IT, was able to use her skills and past experience to design and develop their new website, cultureville.co.uk, which is their online store. What a big step up from Depop!
The mix of skills that both girls bring to the table really makes the business work well. Adeola explains, “Jane is a lot more tech savvy than me, whereas I am better at running the manufacturing processes, and managing relationships with suppliers, sourcing fabrics, and building networks with the people we work with”. These relationships are the lifeblood of the business, and are going a long way towards the girls’ goal of giving back and investing in the local communities in Nigeria, where opportunities are scarce, and poverty is a big problem.
“During the three years I lived in Nigeria, I had loads of time to spend in the markets, hanging out with the tailors and artisans, and developing real relationships with these suppliers. I got to understand their back stories, where they come from, and why they are in the positions they are in - getting to know them as people, and not just sources of business”. This network helps Cultureville thrive today.
“We are very intentional about how we nurture and sustain those relationships”, Jane explains, “we take a lot of trips to Nigeria, and we spend time with the tailors on an individual, first name basis - for example, we know when their birthdays are, how many people are in their families, when they get married, and even when someone has died. They feel comfortable to share these personal things with us. We never wanted to be distant, in an ‘us and them’ kind of way - we are all part of the same community, and we are passionate about continuing to build community with them”.
Through her organically grown social network, Adeola felt able to trust one particular lady to be a manager for the business on the ground in Nigeria, who could look after business matters in Adeola’s absence. Adeola had known this lady for a very long time, and the lady had an in-depth knowledge of the way things worked, as well as the unique challenges facing it, and its strengths. Her role was to hold everything together by buying the fabrics, building the supply chain, and things like that. She continues to manage the business as it grows, and as Jane and Adeola continue to add new suppliers and tailors to their network. “As you grow, you need to ensure you have the capacity and the infrastructure in place”, says Adeola. “The first manager was based in Abuja, but since then, we have added a new manager in Lagos, the commercial centre of Nigeria. In Lagos, there is a wider variety of fabrics, and a wider variety of suppliers, so that really feeds into our growth”.