Contemporary African art collector and entrepreneur, Morin Obaweya, the shrewd brain behind Morin. O. A contemporary Made-In-Nigeria leather and accessories brand in this chat with MILLICENT AREBUN ONUOHA bares all about her brand’s journey to stardom, the challenges encountered and her tactics for successfully surmounting them
Synopsis of the journey to building the Morin O brand
My name is Morin Obaweyam, creative director and founder of Morin O leather works, which is a leather goods design and manufacturing company. We pride ourselves in producing leather handbags and other leather goods for the sassy fashionable and classy individual. It all began as an offshoot from another creative business that I had done for quite a while. I ran an art gallery previously and that exposed me to a lot travelling in order to source artworks and handicrafts from both local and African creative and craft people. Along the line, I was invited or rather nominated to attend a training that was sponsored by Vital Voices Women Artisan Entrepreneurs Programme. Prior to that, I was encouraged by a couple of people especially my husband who had seen that I was very creative but chose to promote what other creative people were doing as opposed to doing anything of my own.
For a long time, my husband and some other people had suggested that I should look for an outlet for my own personal creativity but I shied away from doing that for a long time. Until I went for the training where I met people from all over Africa who were doing their own thing and there I was, promoting other people’s things. It was a turning point for me and I began to think deeply about the template I could use to express my personal creativity. I finally settled on leather which is a great canvass; it’s durable, colourful and designable. When I got back home, I started thinking and decided to design a couple of handbags and see how we could produce them and that’s how we started. We designed our first set of bags, took them for an exhibition and the response staggered me. That’s how the Morin O journey started in September 2012.
Customers’ response to the brand products from inception till date
I can candidly say that it ran ahead of us. I was quite shocked at the response. At a point I was like ‘wow, no, everybody slow down! We are not there yet, we are just trying to start, sort of testing the market and at the same time improve on our products’ but the response was so huge and alarming. I remember taking some of the bags with me to the United States to be accessed by a friend who is a private banker in Manhattan because I was still very apprehensive. I wanted his candid assessment of the product and his views on where and what I should improve on. He was excited over the bags and told me he wanted to show his friend, a writer who could give me tips on how to write my Facebook page bio. The next thing I knew his friend was so excited about the product that he requested to write a post on it and that’s how our Huffington post article came about. From that we got outlets who wanted to stock our products and we just grew.
I am a traveller. I love people, places and things and I have found out that in the course of every travel; every light, sound, person or building is an imprint. The thing about creativity is that you never know what provoked what, all you know is that one day, it just comes to you and you just see, think and do it. Really, I think it’s a bit of an eclectic fusion of all the little things I see for instance building, structures, size, shapes and even shops, that forms something in my mind that is new.
Challenges in dealing with Nigerian craftsmen and how you surmount them.
I can honestly say that, this is my greatest challenge. The truth about creativity and trying to be innovative is the fact that even though the challenges come, you are always looking for ways to circumvent and surmount them. I always believe that where there is will and hope, there is a way. It’s all about thinking deeply in creative thinking. The greatest challenge we face as creatives is the mindset of the handicraft man. The ability for him to see that he can make products excellently with 100 per cent finishing is the greatest challenge.
I have used all sought of ways to motivate. A typical Nigerian craftsman believes that as he does it, is okay, you should take it as it is because he has done it. Once I challenge their ego with the claim that they can’t make the products their counterpart in India or Asia is producing, they rise to the occasion and produce excellent reproductions of my sample bags I had made in Indian. Another strategy that works is the reward and paying for your mistakes strategy. When they produce a product well, I reward them beyond what they expect and when they don’t do it well, they know they are to pay. Basically, there is a price to pay for mistakes and a reward for excellence. Over time, it becomes part of their psyche and that standard becomes their standard but the journey to this is like swimming against the tide.
Tell us about the floral fusion collection.
We were inspired by the blossoming of floral patterns and floral motifs worldwide. Everybody is talking about bloom, flowers, colours, joy, inspiration, hope et’al and we thought to incorporate all these feelings or elements in our own collection. We decided not to pick any random flower from the internet. Our logo itself is a kind a kind of portrayal of petals, so we decided to develop our own motifs that are unique to us. Then again, we thought that henna is also an African heritage and expression of floral patterns as well as Asian. So, in order for it to have some roots of history and authenticity we incorporated some henna motifs into our floral patterns, like a floral fusion on our classic bags.
Are there accessible funds to promote Made-In-Nigeria brands/products especially as our present government is pro- made-in-Nigeria products and brands?
Oh yes! There are funds, for instance the bank of industry fund and to be factual BOI has been one of the institutions in Nigeria that has encouraged us in our Made-In-Nigeria journey. Both the Bank of Industry and the Nigerian Export Promotion Council because courtesy of a recommendation letter from BOI, we were sponsored to go for international shows that would give us exposure in terms of contemporary designs, standards and outlets that we can showcase our brands to and through.
What has been the role played by leather goods associations in Nigeria on your brand’s journey?
I think there are several pockets of those associations, for instance I think there is an association that accommodates the tanneries so there is a whole value chain in the leather goods business. It’s not as if there is one big umbrella body that covers all the sectors but there are pockets of these associations that are still in the process of consolidating. There has been a couple of fairs that has brought together those in the industry to showcase, discuss the problems facing us and the way forward. So, in terms of that exposure and information they have played a role but I think there is more work to be done.
Word to the budding Made-In-Nigeria designers
The world standards are high. You can’t afford to be subjective or say ‘oh I am a Nigerian and I have an idea so voila! It involves a lot of research, honing your skills and knowledge of international standards and market. Once you have laid the foundation, you begin to develop your own creativity and then sourcing begins. Penetrating the global market requires a lot of intense research and knowledge. The ways I see it is, once you’ve dwelt with the backend, the front end becomes your creative space.
I am a minimalist. What I like is class and style that is subtle so even in my future living space, my idea is that. I am minimalist, I like it when the cut is stylish, simple and elegant,
Recently I have decided to go the organic route. I spoke to my beauty therapist and told her that we both have to do our research. Recently I have been exposed to a lot of exhibition where a lot Nigerian skin and home care brands are really doing so much and I have learnt a lot. These days I use a lot of natural soap that has turmeric, aloe vera or coffee in it. I use a lot of sugar and coffee scrubs too. In a nutshell I am tending towards the organic anti-aging route.