When Onyinye Gift Ikechukwu called upon his creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, something interesting happened.
By Victor Eyike, bird stories agency
Within a meter on Benin City’s popular 5-Junction Road, ten men gather for a daily ritual. They are greeted by a strong-built young woman in beige work overalls and leather shoes, who leads them in prayer. Then the men collect their tools and head in various ways, each to a carpentry station of his own. Onyinye Gift Ikechukwu, the woman in overalls, does the same.
Ikechukwu is the owner and chief designer of Cheeo Furnitures, an open hub for skilled furniture makers in this town in Edo State.
Work is beginning in earnest in the courtyard, where several pieces of furniture, including tables, chairs, beds and other interior design items, have already been completed and displayed for sale.
“The yard is generally open to any furniture maker. So different people come here to work. I start my day by praying and putting on my uniform before sorting out the materials to use in the day,” Ikechukwu explained before getting to work.
Although there are several other furniture yards on this stretch of road, Cheeo is unique. In most shipyards a businessman owns the business and the craftsmen, many of whom are extremely skilled, work for a salary. At Cheeo, everyone is equal – everyone rents a space and maintains their independence. And Ikechukwu has achieved something of a cult status among fellow artisans. While many people see her as an unwelcome intruder into the menial “men’s world” of the furniture manufacturing industry, her colleagues at the center see her as something of a local hero.
Furniture maker Chude Smart said Ikechukwu’s open garden concept not only gives craftsmen space to work, but attracts more customers. He also provided something they can’t make work on their own.
“Every time we are here, we are supported by our comrades. Sometimes we borrow materials from each other. It makes the job easy and quick,” he said. speaking his local dialect.
Ikechukwu also offers something artisans wouldn’t get elsewhere: social media marketing. Ikechukwu is turning to social media — particularly Instagram — to market the products in the yard.
“At the end of the day, there are so many qualified furniture makers, you just have to spread your work through social media platforms and try to reach customers before your competitors,” she said.
Although Ikechukwu had qualms when she ventured into furniture making, she was determined to make her mark in a male-dominated furniture-making industry that brings in more than ₦50 billion (nearly US$120 million) a year, according to the Nigerian factual site, Nigerian Finder. Only 19 at the time, she was ready to take on any challenge that came her way.
“I was looking for admission into the higher education institution at the time and was being turned down, so I wanted to try something different. I tried several skills, but it just wasn’t working for me Then I tried furniture making and knew that was the real deal,” she said.
Although she managed to continue her education, Ikechukwu’s parents were not comfortable with her decision.
“My parents were skeptical about it, especially my mother. I was coming home with injuries and they wanted me to focus on something else. But now that they’ve adapted, they clearly see that I have a deep passion for it and wholeheartedly support me and my work,” Ikechukwu said.
Despite their early reservations, Ikechukwu now credits his father, Ikechukwu Chidele, as his most important support.
“My father was instrumental in my growth. His drive and diligence as a spray painter motivated me. At one point, I almost ventured into his industry, but I knew it wasn’t my calling, so I dove into furniture making,” she said.
For his part, the elder Ikechukwu now seems much more comfortable with his daughter’s decision.
“I was surprised when she started a furniture design business. At first, I was afraid that she would be overwhelmed with work to the detriment of her studies, but over time, Onyinye showed zeal and resilience. I’m proud of her for what she does. She has my blessing in what she has chosen to do in life,” said Ikechukwu Chidele.
Even Ikechukwu’s mother, Ikechukwu Udoka Magdalene, became one of his biggest supporters and credits her daughter for changing her perception of craftsmanship.
“I was always concerned about her safety and how she could combine school with furniture design. She did a fantastic job and I’m extremely proud of her,” Udoka said.
While this bold move may shatter gender bias, Ikechukwu, like many Nigerians from average families, cannot afford to look back. Cheeo has now become the cornerstone of the family. He pays the bills and funds his own continuing education.
“I am the first child in my family, I have two siblings. My father is a spray painter while my mother is a local gospel singer who makes and sells snacks. I do not come from a wealthy family , but my parents did their best to make sure we had a roof over our heads and went to school,” she said.
“I wasn’t born easy, but my parents taught me to keep pushing. With my furniture company, I can now contribute, in addition to paying my fees. »
After passing her exams and qualifying to attend university, Ikechukwu is now studying at the University of Benin, one of the most prestigious tertiary institutions in Nigeria.
“My parents always wanted me to get a formal education regardless of my desire to be a furniture maker. I received my primary and secondary education in Benin City, Edo State. public administration at the University of Benin,” said Ikechukwu proudly.
Looking back, she says it was worth it despite the ridicule she suffered from her friends – especially for doing the many odd jobs needed to initially raise capital for her burgeoning furniture business.
She also confesses that she was tempted to quit college and go into business full-time, but said it would “literally kill my parents, who fought so hard to ensure that I and my siblings got a good education.” .
“Honestly, I was afraid that one day I would succumb and quit school. But I know that education is vital and I must continue to balance my studies and my work,” she added.
She is also acutely aware of the importance of her business to the families of other woodworkers who use her facilities. Buying materials in bulk helps increase their profit margins.
“We get our materials from different suppliers. Some sell their boards at a cheaper price than others,” she said.
Ikechukwu has now earned the respect of his colleagues, not only for starting the hub, but also for his woodworking. At first overprotective, they now see her as one of their own.
“They don’t discriminate. There is mutual respect here in the yard. Although some clients are hesitant to trust me with their work, I try to convince them with photos and videos of my previous jobs to gain their trust. So my gender as a woman doesn’t really get in the way of my work,” she said.
On average, she makes about 200 sales a year.
“Although the cost of production is increasing insanely, the market is still vibrant and profitable,” she said.
But it’s not always easy. Like any business venture, Cheeo has its ups and downs, especially when customers dry up.
“I get discouraged sometimes, we keep waiting for customers but get nothing. It weighs on me mentally, but then I have to stay motivated and keep pushing,” she said.
She remains attracted to local customers like Chuks Ideh, who loves the quality she gets from Ikechukwu.
“I always prefer to make my furniture from scratch rather than buying from a seller. Furniture is an asset that we cannot do without in our homes. I don’t care if it’s male or female who takes care of the work, as long as it meets my requirements,” Ideh explained.
Furniture buyer Ibidun Joy said she buys from Ikechukwu because of the reliability she finds from the yard’s craftsmen.
“It is difficult to find a reliable furniture manufacturer. So when I’m looking for one, I always ask my friends for recommendations. I saw Onyinye several times every time I came to buy furniture in the yard. What she does is great. She deserves all the accolades,” Ibidun said.
These sentiments are echoed by Franca Suwe, a second customer, who visits the hub to purchase a queen-size bed frame.
“The furniture industry is a very stressful business. I remember my brother, who was a furniture maker, always looking stressed trying to please very picky customers. I once saw him struggling to finish a wardrobe with a client breathing down his neck. Onyinye is doing very well and I will continue to buy my furniture from him,” Suwe said.
“It takes a lot of persuasion to close a deal because some clients prefer men while others will make almost unrealistic demands, especially at the end. Sometimes I get lucky and get instant clients, especially those who see my work on my Instagram page,” Ikechukwu shared in turn.
Amos Ighorodje is one of the clients who found her online.
“I wanted to make a wardrobe for my bedroom and when I mentioned it to a colleague in the office, he immediately referred me to (the) Cheeo Furniture page. Although I liked what I saw, I I was skeptical when I saw it was female-led, but she proved me wrong by delivering a high-end wardrobe that is the envy of my friends,” Ighorodje said.
While many Nigerians insist on buying imported furniture, designer Bright Are has called on Nigerians, especially the ‘elite’, to support local businesses.
“Some potential customers think that it is always better to import their accessories because they will get good quality and variety at very moderate prices. This is a major problem for home furniture designers. It would help us grow and grow the economy if Nigerians could start patronizing local furniture,” he said.
But Onyinye sees an opportunity in the challenge posed by imported goods. This opportunity is to improve its quality and ensure its competitiveness to win more customers.
His goal is to make Cheeo a household name and a leading furniture manufacturing company in Nigeria – and beyond.
“Over the next 10 years, I hope to make Cheeo furniture a household name in Africa with unique products to compete in the export market,” she concluded.