When Onyinye Gift Ikechukwu engaged her creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, something interesting happened.
By Victor Eyike, bird story agency
In a yard down on Benin City’s popular 5-Junction Road, ten men gather for a daily ritual. They are greeted by a strongly built young woman wearing workman’s tan overalls and leather shoes, who leads them in prayer. Afterwards, the men pick up their tools and head their various ways, each to a carpentry workstation of their own. Onyinye Gift Ikechukwu, the woman in the overalls, does the same.
Ikechukwu is the proprietor and chief designer of Cheeo Furnitures — a hub open to skilled furniture builders in this city in Edo State.
Work starts in earnest in the yard, where several pieces of furniture, including tables, chairs, beds and other pieces of home decor, are already complete and on display for sale.
“The yard is usually open to any furniture maker. So, different people come here to work. I start my day by praying and changing to my uniform before sorting out the materials for use in the day,” Ikechukwu explained, before getting down to work.
Although there are several other furniture yards on this stretch of road, Cheeo is unique. In most yards, a businessman owns the business and the artisans — many extremely skilled — work for a wage. At Cheeo all are equal — everyone rents space and retains their independence. And Ikechukwu has gained something of a cult status amongst her fellow artisans. Where many people see her as an unwelcome intruder into the menial, “man’s world” of the furniture-making business, her co-workers at the hub see her as something of a local hero.
Furniture maker Chude Smart said Ikechukwu’s open-yard concept not only accorded the artisans space to work but attracted more customers. It also provided something they can’t get working alone.
“Whenever we’re here, we’re supported by our mates. Sometimes we borrow materials from one another. It makes the work easy and fast,” he said. speaking his local dialect.
Ikechukwu also offers something the artisans would not get elsewhere: social media marketing. Ikechukwu turns to social media – particularly Instagram – to market the products in the yard.
“The bottom line is, there are so many skilled furniture makers, You just have to put your work out there through social media platforms and try to reach clients 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 manufacturing sector that rakes in more than ₦50 billion (almost 120 million US dollars) annually, according to the Nigerian factual site, Nigerian Finder. Only 19 at the time, she was ready to ride out whatever challenges came her way.
“I was seeking admission into the tertiary institution at that time and I was getting declined, so I desired to try something different. I tried several skills, but it just wasn’t working for me. Then I tried furniture making and I knew it was the real deal,” she said.
Although she did manage to continue with her studies, Ikechukwu’s parents were not comfortable with her decision.
“My parents were sceptical about it, especially my mother. I was coming back home with injuries and they wished I focused on something else. But now they have adjusted, they clearly see I have a deep passion for it and whole-heartedly support me and my work,” Ikechukwu said.
Despite their early reservations, Ikechukwu now credits her father, Ikechukwu Chidele, with providing some her most important support.
“My father was instrumental to my growth. His drive and diligence as a spray painter motivated me. At some point, I almost ventured into his industry but then I knew that was not my calling, So I delved into furniture making,” she said.
For his part, the elder Ikechukwu seems to now be a lot more comfortable with his daughter’s decision.
“I was surprised when she started a furniture design business. At first, I was scared she may be overwhelmed by the work to the detriment of her studies but over time, Onyinye has shown zeal and resilience. I am proud of her for what she is doing. She has my blessings in what she chose to do in life,” Ikechukwu Chidele said.
Even Ikechukwu’s mother, Ikechukwu Udoka Magdalene, has become one of her greatest supporters, and credits her daughter for changing her perception of the craft.
“I was always bothered about her safety and how she would be able to combine schooling with furniture design. She has been doing a fantastic job and I am extremely proud of her, Udoka said.
Though the daring move may be breaking down gender bias, Ikechukwu, like many Nigerians from average families, can’t afford to look back. Cheeo has now become the lifeblood of the family. It pays the bills and funds her own further education.
‘I am the firstborn 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 am not from a wealthy home, but my parents have been doing their best to ensure we have a roof over our heads and go to school,” she said.
“I wasn’t born into affluence, but I was taught to keep hustling by my parents. With my furniture business, I am now able to chip in, besides paying my fees.”
Having passed her examinations and qualified 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, irrespective of my desire to be a furniture maker. I had my primary and secondary education in Benin City, Edo state. I am studying public administration at the University of Benin,” Ikechukwu said proudly.
Looking back she says that it was worth it all despite the ridicule she suffered from friends — especially for doing the many odd jobs required to initially raise capital for her now booming furniture business.
She also confesses to being tempted to quit college and go full-time into business, but said doing so would “literally kill my parents, who have struggled so much to ensure I and my siblings get a good education.”
“Honestly, I have been worried that someday I may succumb and quit schooling. But still, I know education is vital and I have to keep balancing my schooling and work,” she added.
She is also extremely aware of how important her business is to the families of the other woodworkers who use her hub 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 compared to others,” she said.
Ikechukwu has now earned the respect of her colleagues, not just for starting the hub but also for her woodwork. At first over-protective, they now see her as one of themselves.
“They don’t discriminate at all. There is mutual respect here in the yard. Although some clients are sceptical of trusting me with their work, I try to convince them with pictures and videos of my previous jobs to earn their trust. So my gender as a female doesn’t really hinder 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 buoyant and profitable,” she said.
But it is not always smooth sailing. 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. This weighs me down mentally but then I have to stay motivated and keep pushing,” she said.
She remains bouyed by local customers like Chuks Ideh, who likes the quality she gets from Ikechukwu.
“I always prefer to make my furniture from scratch than purchasing from a vendor. Furniture is an asset we can’t do without in our homes. I do not care if it’s a man or woman handling the job, as long as it meets my requirements,” Ideh explained.
Furniture buyer Ibidun Joy said buys from Ikechukwu because of the reliability she finds from the yard’s artisans.
“It’s difficult to get a reliable furniture maker, So when I search for one, I always seek recommendations from my friends. I have seen Onyinye severally whenever I come to purchase furniture from the yard. What she is doing is great. She deserves all the accolades,” Ibidun said.
Those sentiments are shared by Franca Suwe, a second-time customer, visiting the hub to buy a queen-sized bed frame.
“The furniture business is a very stressful venture. I remember my brother, who was a furniture maker, always looking stressed trying to please very difficult customers. I once saw (him) struggling to just complete a wardrobe with a customer breathing down his neck. Onyinye is doing great, and I will continue to buy my furniture from her,” Suwe said.
“It takes a lot of convincing to close a deal because some clients prefer men while others will make almost unrealistic demands, especially on completion. Sometimes, I get lucky and get instant clients, especially those who see my work on my Instagram page,” Ikechukwu in turn explained.
Amos Ighorodje is one of the customers who found her online.
“I wanted to make a wardrobe for my room and when I mentioned it to a colleague in the office, he immediately referred me to (the) Cheeo Furniture page. Though I liked what I saw, I was sceptical when I saw that it was run by a woman, but she proved me wrong by delivering a top-notch wardrobe that is the envy of my friends,” Ighorodje said.
While many Nigerians insist on buying imported furniture, designer Bright Are called on Nigerians, particularly the “elite” to support local enterprises.
“Some potential customers believe it’s always better to import their accessories because they will get good quality, and a wide variety at very moderate prices. That’s a major problem for domestic furniture designers. It would help grow us and the economy if Nigerians can start patronising local furniture,” he said.
But Onyinye sees an opportunity in the challenge mounted by imported goods. That opportunity is to improve her quality and ensure competitiveness to win more customers.
Her eye is set on turning Cheeo into a household name and top furniture manufacturing company in Nigeria – and beyond.
“In 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.