Fresh out of the University, Claudia Oputa had big dreams and plans but becoming a shoemaker was not part of that. It was an accidental detour that has become a calling of sorts. Initially, people didn’t believe she had the entrepreneurship spirit in her, let alone the chance of succeeding in a male-dominated industry. But against all odds, she proved everybody wrong.
Today, Claudia is the CEO of HFactory, one of Nigeria’s fast-growing shoe brands. In this interview with Business Elites Africa, she chronicles her struggles, wins, and future plans.
BEA: What led you into the shoemaking business?
Claudia: When I graduated from Abia State University in 2008, where I studied Environmental Resources Management, I went for my compulsory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) program. After the service year, I participated in this skill acquisition training just for fun instead of staying idle. Along the line, I found that people picked interest in some of the shoes I made. At the end of that, I went job hunting with my earned college degree and stuff but couldn’t find any. Then, I wondered why I would waste my time looking for a job when I could put my shoemaking skills to good use. That was how the journey started.
BEA: As a college graduate, when you decided to start shoemaking, didn’t your family or friends object to it?
Claudia: The only people worried about the decision were the men around me, especially my husband. He felt I was too soft for such a business, but he went along with it when he saw that I was passionate about it. I became so engrossed in the business that my kids would say the only thing Mommy thinks about is shoes. The idea of a female shoemaker was also strange to some people because it’s a male-dominated industry. Some didn’t believe I was the one making the shoes myself. So I would make videos of me making shoes just to prove to them that it’s my handwork.
BEA: When did you decide to set it up as a proper shoe company?
Claudia: It was in 2018 when I saw that people were interested in my products, and I was fully convinced that this was what I wanted to do full-time. I realised that I needed to brand myself. I needed to position myself as a brand name instead of just a roadside shoemaker. So I came up with the name Hagan Factory (Hagan is my last child’s name).
BEA: Do you still make the shoes all by yourself?
Claudia: Of course not. When the number of customers increased, I couldn’t handle it alone. So I hired more hands, and that came with its challenges. I have a few married men on my team, and you know that most African men have a problem with a woman boss. So managing the men working for me has been a struggle.
Another challenge that I have had to deal with is sourcing leather. In Nigeria, leather sourcing is always shoemakers’ biggest challenge. This is mainly because the leather we produce in the country has poor finishing, so we rely on leather imported from Europe.
For instance, the only leather market in the whole South West of Nigeria is in Mushin, Lagos. It means all the shoemakers, retailers, and wholesalers in this region come to Mushin to purchase leather. Because of this, getting the exact leather you want at a given time isn’t easy. If I buy a sheet of leather and use it to produce a particular shoe design, and customers love it, I’ll have a problem replicating that design with the same leather.
If I exhaust the leather and get orders for that design, I could get to the market, and they say the leather is sold-out. I would have to persuade the customer to settle for a different leather or lose that customer.
BEA: What lessons has entrepreneurship taught you?
Claudia: Firstly, you have to be a good team leader. You can’t do it alone; you need a team, and you must learn how to work with them regardless of their individuality. Secondly, you have to be patient. If you are an impatient person, you won’t last in business. You also have to be persistent. This wasn’t where I was 3-4 years back. We’re moving up gradually. We take up the challenge as it comes every day.
You need to tell yourself you can’t give up. Another thing is that as an entrepreneur, you must be open-minded. Sometimes you will envisage a positive outcome that comes out negative. You must try again and keep moving.
BEA: Where do you see your brand in five years?
Claudia: First, I’m hoping, praying, and working towards owning a standard shoe factory in the next three years, not even five. We would be able to employ at least 30 workers. I also want us to become a household name in Africa. I want to capture the heart of Africa and attract major international investments. We are looking forward to producing shoes that can compete favourably with Italian shoes and other prominent foreign brands.
BEA: Have you secured any external funding?
Claudia: I don’t have investors at the moment. We have been bootstrapping the business from inception. Even though a few times, Bank of Industry has reached out that I should come and take a loan, I’ve been reluctant. I’m confident we’ll generate enough revenue to fund our immediate growth plans. But if that doesn’t happen in the next 12 months, we’ll probably go for a loan.
BEA: What would you tell an entrepreneur who is also struggling to run a business in Nigeria?
Claudia: You have to be courageous and persistent. You have to make up your mind and say, this is what I want to do despite all odds, and put in the work. Attaining success will be challenging, but it is possible. Most people look at me now and say, ‘I want to be like HFactory’. I didn’t get to where I am today by sleeping. I worked hard for it. I was persistent. Sometimes, customers would turn down our shoes and ask for a refund. But I kept at it and continued to improve on our products. You have to be passionate about what you do; if not, it’s easy to give up. Everything I think about is just shoes and how to get the business to the next level. I’m constantly learning and improving our products and processes.
So I will reiterate, be persistent and don’t give up, even though the country is looking very hard and people are struggling. Please don’t give up on your dreams.
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