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 recently recounted his journey and spoke about his future plans. Excerpts:
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 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.
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, Igbo 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.
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 (Igbo), 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, Igbo 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.
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 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 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.
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. (Sources: Forbes)