Paul Orajiaka, a 37 year-old Nigerian entrepreneur, is the founder of Auldon Limited, a manufacturer of African-themed toys. Auldon manufactures dolls and other toys which depict, promote and teach Africa’s cultural heritage to children. Orajiaka founded the company 17 years ago with less than $100; it now has annual revenues of more than $10 million.
Apart from Nigeria, Auldon’s toys are now sought after in countries like South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, and some parts of Europe. Last year, Auldon launched the Unity Girl Dolls, a set of multi-cultural dolls clad in the traditional attires of Nigeria’s major ethnic groups. It has been a runaway success and a tremendous hit among Nigerian parents and their daughters.
Orajiaka is currently studying for a Doctorate in Business Administration [DBA] at Henley Business School of the University of Readin, majoring in Entrepreneurship. I recently had a chat with him where he recounted his journey and spoke about his future plans.
Why did you decide to venture into manufacturing African-themed toys?
I grew up in Warri in Southern Nigeria, and I did my secondary school education in Benin state. I recall that immediately after my secondary school education at Igbinedion Secondary School, Benin City, my sole ambition was to travel to the United States to seek the proverbial greener pastures. I never exactly planned to venture into the toy business. I was 18 at the time and determined to leave Nigerian at all costs. So, along with my friends, I made countless unfruitful trips to the American embassy in pursuit of an American visa. Eventually, all my friends were given visas, except me.
Naturally, I became dejected and ashamed. I had no clue as to what my next line of action was going to be. So I decided to stay back in Lagos and not return to my hometown where I would be mocked by my friends. You see, a lot of shame was attached to my disappointment at that time, being the only one out of all my friends who was denied an opportunity to go the U.S. So I decided that the only way out for me was to stay back in Lagos and work with my in-law in Idumota market and that is how that reluctant step taken out of frustration ended up becoming my glorious journey to success and fulfillment.
Idumota is a very saturated business hub and it’s not exactly the classiest place. Very few young men I know would like to start out in a place like that? How demanding was it building a business from Idumota?
I look back now and smile because it was indeed a difficult decision to make at that time. Idumota is largely congested and is a hustle-driven environment. It wasn’t fun at all. I felt like a fish thrown into a sea, filled with sharks and there I was trying hard not to be eaten up. All these factors emboldened me to strive in making a mark. With this in mind, I had no choice but to get used to it.
Not long after settling in, the lid on my eyes were taken off after I came across young men who were doing extremely well in their different spheres of business.
Just before, I got too carried away I realized it was equally imperative, that I go back to school and get educated. So while I was working for my in-law, I enrolled as an accounting student at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), after which I proceeded to getting a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from Lagos Business School, Pan-African University (PAN). Expectedly, after graduating from school, I became better equipped for the journey ahead, which saw me take the management and administration of my business to a greater scale.
Today, I can confidently beat my chest and say, a humble beginning which started about 17 years ago as a small venture, is now a leading company, importing and supplying top quality range of educational toys to wholesalers and retailers in Nigeria. Going back, 1997, when we started, our capital base was just $30, but as at 2014, the company’s turnover has surged to over a $7 million. We have also metamorphosed into a Limited Liability company, status, which we attained in 2002 employing well over 400 people, inclusive of direct and indirect.
Nigeria is not known to be a conducive environment that enables small businesses to thrive. What gave you the drive to forge on amid challenges you must have encountered, especially funding?
You are not far from the truth; I almost gave up because initially, it was an uphill task building this business from scratch, especially without funding from banks. It was near impossible to continue, but my frustration and anger at
at the banking system coupled with lack of support, only made me further persevere, be more passionate and determined to ensure that the business grew. I tell you, it would be unfair to blame or criticize some Nigerian entrepreneurs who fail to surmount the numerous challenges which stifle their growth. That said, I have come to realize- despite the myriad of challenges bedeviling them, which range from power, lack of funds, wickedly high bank interest, lack of infrastructure e.t.c. An entrepreneur can still attain success, if he/she can recapture the passion and emotions of its beginning likewise inculcate same in its staff.
What led to the Unity Doll Project?
Over the years, my attention got drawn to the painful fact that our cultural values is fast eroding, because most parents this days, shy away from teaching their children about their culture but instead allow them imbibe foreign cultures which robs them off their identity and very existence as Nigerians.
I was saddened to see that most toys in Nigeria have no social and cultural relevance to children.
For me that was a vacuum, I needed to feel urgently, so I swung into action in order to make that important change, and that change gave birth to the Unity Girl Doll Project, a collection of 14-inch child developmental dolls that represent Nigeria’s three major tribes – Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba – delivering a social message to infants across the country and by extension the world at large, enlightening them about the Nigerian culture, allowing them have a sense of ownership early in life which puts them in good stead to making a positive impact when they are grown.
For me my passion is educating them before time with positive Nigerian values and that’s why all the dolls have contents which teach them all the positive stories and values they need to inculcate as they grow.
With all the challenges threatening to tear us apart coupled with the tribal sentiments causing division among us, we have asked ourselves what will unify us as a country. Although we have diverse cultures, our strength comes from our diversity that is why we did our research and decided to inculcate in our infants the need to embrace their indigenous culture and that of others early on. By so doing, it becomes easy to love others, because the message that we are one is passed to them from the beginning, also we are mindful of the fact that the girl child is a future mother, and would be home a keeper someday that would keep the home and by extension the nation together. So you would agree with me that it is only wise to give them the needed positive start that would make them great mothers, with their very first doll.
We have created a doll that is bound to inculcate in them the following, moral values, social values, social relevance and natural uniqueness which distinguishes us from foreign cultures alien from ours.
The dolls come in 14-inch sizes and are dressed in local attires likewise posses the following characters; Amaka (Ibo), Ronke (Yoruba) and Aisha (Hausa). The three dolls contain booklets that tell you about the rich culture, robust background, language and all other important detail of the three main tribe; Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba. One other thing worthy of mentioning is to present the Nigerian girl in looks peculiar to her, not the kind of looks that do not really represent Africa. What we have done is to create dolls that have relevance to us, look like us and portray our image in the right manner.
As it concerns the age bracket, we try to create a doll that a child as young as one year can use. The dolls have other features that older kids can use also. The Unity Doll also possesses beads, which children can customise and wear on the dolls, or on themselves. We tried to make the dolls fit for any young girl to use so that at every stage of her life, she finds something relevant to her age in the dolls. But our target, are children between the ages of 1- 10 years.
How well have Nigerians taken to the Unity Doll and how strong are your distribution channels?
I am very pleased at the level of acceptance of these dolls and our other toys all over the country which has been massive and this are connected to the following reasons, namely; affordability, premium quality, availability, uniqueness and most importantly the educative value the dolls offer. So it is safe to say we are a market leader with strong prospect for increased growth. Currently, we distribute to all leading retail outlets and supermarkets across the country, namely Game, Shoprite, Spar, Next, Park n Shop Emab, and so on, the list goes on. Our visibility level is very high and that’s because there is a growing level of attachment between the dolls and our target market which are the girl child ranging from age1 – 10 and their parents. Unity Dolls has also started a fan club for the girl child where they can be groomed with positive key values needed to grow, and it is open to all children who fall within the stipulated age, 1-10. All they need do is register or have their parents register for them to become members on Unitygirlfanclub.com website. We also hope to increase distribution and presence over a period.
Teachers also appreciate it, for obvious reasons the educational value it gives and the fact that children learn faster when they are taught with fun things that easily captures their attention. That is why, If you observe these days, most things in nature are replicated in toys.
For instance, when teaching a child about fruits say an Apple, you show him a replica of that fruit, so he/ she can grasp easily, same goes for animals, e.g. Zebra, you must show the child a zebra toy because children no longer go to Zoos to see animals. In the same vein, you find children learning how to become engineers by dismantling and assembling toys.
That’s why I always appeal that parents buy educative toys that possess good quality for their children. You need to be sure of the quality. Toys should be safe for children to play with. We want to be sure that children play with toys that have social relevance and not ones that teach violence. That is why if you go around our shops, you will never find a gun toy in whatever form. We do not even sell toys that have violent features. We ensure that our toys are 90 per cent educative. We deal more in educational toys because we believe that aside being in business, we want to impact positive values on our children.
Any plans for the future?
At the moment we are working very hard on a number of ideas targeted at ensuring that Unity Dolls are present in every home in the country two years from now; also Auldon is hoping to strategically set up offices and retail outlets in the 36 states of the country most importantly satisfying our ever increasing demand for the dolls. New educative features that would engage and thrill children are also been conceptualized by our research team.
Also in the next five years we are planning to replicate a family fun resort, in the mould of Disney, after which our eyes are set on expanding to other frontiers, both Europe and Africa. Already there has been significant level of demand for Unity dolls, in Europe and Africa, Particularly Africa. What we hope to do in those places is to first of all gain significant presence in select countries in both climes, particularly Africa, especially where demand is highest after which we would then start customizing/ adapting the Unity Dolls into their own culture. We would love to one day be like ToysRus, the world’s leading kids store for all kind of toys.
Another thing; Auldon is considering assembling toys in the country so that it can create more jobs for people. Nigeria does not have the expertise to manufacture world-class toys, so what we plan on doing is get Completely Knocked Down Toys (CKG’S) that will be assembled here in the country. To this effect we have set the ball in motion to partner Lagos State Technical and Vocation Education board, where we can teach the students the process of assembling CKG’s after which they are employed after graduation.
Are there CSR initiatives you intend to embark on?
Yes, Auldon is very passionate about CSR, there is quite a lot we have done and especially in the area of education. No good man forgets where he is coming from. As part of our policy, my company ensures that part of the proceeds from the sale of our toys is donated to some reputable non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for the promotion of the girl-child education. There is also a percentage that has been set aside for the promotion of the girl -child education from each doll sold. If you look at UNICEF statistics concerning the girl child, you will find out that the Nigerian girl-child is one of the most disadvantaged in the world. Statistics has shown that the girl-child, especially from the Northern part of Nigeria, suffers from neglect in all ramifications. We are aware that little contributions like this, as well as working with reputable girl-child foundations, would make a great difference.
Also, Auldon has just concluded the renovation of some schools in dire need of refurbishing. A school in Ikorodu which was in a sorry site has just been completed and would soon be commissioned by the Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola. I also take it upon myself to lecture students, in all Technical colleges across Lagos State, business skills that would see them become independent after graduation.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.