Onychek – luxurious African brands all on one site

Made in Africa will be the fashion world’s next leading destination for all things luxurious if Onychek gets its way.

Laduma Ngxokolo, of MaXhosa by Laduma, a brand available on Onychek, models one of his creations.

Ray Maota

The fashion world’s next destination for luxury goods should be Africa, according to Chekwas Okafor, the founder of onychek.com, an e-commerce site focused on ‘Made in Africa’ luxury fashion and brands.

For the 26-year-old health and safety expert turned tech entrepreneur, fashion is a family business.

Okafor said: “To a certain extent, I’ve always been running away from fashion. When I was younger, my father imported textiles from China. At the time, I didn’t want to get into the business, which I didn’t think of as fashion – just as something that paid the bills.”

The family connection is evident in the name Okafor gave his company, which was derived from his father’s company, Onchek.

“My father inspired the name,” he said. “You see, my father is my inspiration and I have always wanted to be like him. Another big reason is that my dad’s company once imported textiles from China to Nigeria, so I want to reverse that.

“It is my goal to export textiles (in the form of fashion) from Africa to the world. So naming my company after my dad’s company, Onchek, is a good way to remind myself of who I am and the problem that I am trying to solve.”

The business of fashion

Okafor’s target audience are sophisticated consumers who appreciate African culture and believe that quality products can be made in Africa. “These consumers are also conscious about where and how their clothing is made.”

His company’s competitive advantage, he believes, is that all the products on the website are made in Africa.

“Another competitive edge is our focus on content creation. We understand that the luxury African fashion industry is still in its infancy, therefore we have made the commitment to educate the world about this industry. We put out weekly long-form content that ranges from the history of a particular product to how products are made, to an African fashion dictionary.”

In five years, Onychek aims to be the world’s most compelling destination for made in Africa luxury fashion, Okafor added.

Challenges for the start-up

To change people’s perception about African luxury seems to be Onychek’s main challenge.

“This is why we are working to educate consumers about the intricacies of making these products and also their significance to African culture,” said Okafor.

He has learned the importance of being versatile, of networking and reaching out to people in his industry. This has reminded him that it can take a long time to launch a company.

“Be open to new ideas. The idea I started out with two years ago is different from the company I launched now. Most roadblocks have ended up being beneficial to me.”

He gave a few pointers for start-ups:

  • Ideas are worthless; execution is key.
  • Marketing is important. If you build the company, it does not mean that they will come. You’ve got to market your business.
  • It is crucial to ask for help when you need it. Reach out to people you have not spoken to before; you will be amazed at how many people are willing to help.
  • Products speak louder than plans. People are willing to help when they see something tangible.

Onychek initially struggled to bring designers on board. Designers, protective of their brands, were initially hesitant to collaborate, so Okafor adopted a guerrilla approach to making a pitch.

“Because I prefer to show instead of just tell, I bought products from all the prospective brands I was targeting. I made an editorial with high-quality images and a mock-up of the company and the website. Based on that, some of them reached out because they were able to visualize what I was building,” he said.

Onychek now stocks seven brands including Kenya’s Adele Dejak and South Africa’s MaXhosa by Laduma.

“There are many African designers based in the diaspora who make their products around the world because the continent’s fashion infrastructure is still underdeveloped.

“However, our focus is on companies that maximize value addition in the region by boosting employment of local suppliers, craftsmen and manufacturers.”

In 2017, the online retailer hopes to add designers such as Deola Sagoe and Lisa Folawiyo, favourites among Nigeria’s jet-setting elite.

Technology and innovation

Given that Onychek is an online retailer, it is almost entirely powered by technology.

“I taught myself HTML/CSS and JavaScript to manage the backend of the store myself, and it has proven invaluable. In the future, we plan to utilize a more sophisticated technology feature,” Okafor said.

He also spoke about what was needed to bolster innovation in Africa:

  • Education – this is a major component of innovation because more skilled people inherently build useful things for society. With the internet, one can easily learn a lot; however, it is paramount that our education system prepares graduates for the ever-changing technology scene. Also, I cannot overemphasize the importance of leadership development at higher education institutions.
  • Access to capital – many wealthy Africans are relatively still risk averse. Most still prefer to buy land than to fund a local start-up. There has to be some education that needs to happen. This can be angel/venture capital funds reaching out to wealthy Africans and educating them about the positive impact of investing in local start-ups. Media can also play a role by telling stories of successful angel/venture capital investors that have had lucrative exits. It might take a while for people to grasp the importance, but we have to get this right if we are to have more innovation on the African continent. Access to capital encourages entrepreneurs to take risks. Risk begets innovation.
  • Media – it is important to tell the stories of successful local start-ups. When I was in Nigeria, I hardly knew of young founders leading a top company. Telling the stories of African entrepreneurs to young Africans is equally important. You never know who you are going to inspire.