Furniture maker, Olabisi Ola, in this interview with Spice, talks about her foray into carpentry, enjoy!
What are your qualifications?
I have a bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Labour Relations, from the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ogun State, and a diploma in Local Government Studies from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. I also have a certificate in interior design from the Maven School of Interior Design.
What is your work history?
I worked with Citygate Global now Empire Trust Microfinance, as a customer relationship manager and I resigned in May 2014. Prior to that time, I interned with the Interior Designers Association of Nigeria for three months and I was a part of the team that organised the industry’s first interior design exhibition in Nigeria. I also worked with Skye Bank PLC, as a teller and customer service officer.
Why did you quit your job to become a carpenter?
The desire for the highest fulfillment of self. Sometime in March 2014, I became less interested in my eight to six job. I looked into the future and what I saw scared me. I saw myself getting married, having children, growing old and dying without any fulfillment. I became dissatisfied and restless. There was a void I knew my current job at the time, couldn’t fill; I had this intense craving for something tangible. So I resigned even though I had not set any money aside and had no clear definition of what I wanted to do next.
I went for my interior design business and decided to focus on that. I did that for a year but the peace I wanted still eluded me. I knew that wasn’t the path to follow. During one of my quiet times, the thought to narrow my business down to furniture came to me and I did just that. That was how my furniture making journey started in July, 2015.
I sourced for carpenters, created a product collection, and opened a store on Konga – “Timberworks.” As I progressed, I saw the need to reduce production cost. Thus, I made the decision to buy materials myself and just pay the workers for labour. This decision exposed me to the practical details of the business and also made visible the possibilities that abound in what looked impossible.
Did you train on the job?
Yes. I trained on the job by getting free resources online and watching videos online on furniture making. And as it is with people in the arts and craft industry, the demand on your skill is ever evolving . This makes the learning process infinite. So with each piece I make, I learn something new and keep getting better.
When and how did you decide to become a carpenter?
I decided in February 2015. I asked one of the people working with me to assist with putting together a TV console. I had purchased all the needed materials; he only had to couple them. I watched him while he worked and the thought that I could do this came out of nowhere (I believe God spoke to me). I sustained the thought and saw the possibility of me doing it. So I asked if he would train me and he said no. He said, “Madam, you can’t understand this work.It’s more complicated than it looks and it’s not a woman’s job.”But the thought of learning carpentry stayed with me afterwards and I spoke to a friend who promised to help me make enquiries. She came back to tell me that I would have to train for three years and serve for another year if I wanted to train in a carpentry workshop. That discouraged me and I laid the idea to rest.
But in June, I found myself in a very dark place and nothing seemed to be working. I was down financially, emotionally and spiritually. A lot was just going on at the time and it was too much to bear. In the midst of all the chaos, just like a light bulb, the thought about my carpentry training flashed and considering that I had been asking God for clarity, I knew that was the answer I had been yearning for. I had no option than to go after it with a renewed determination. I didn’t bother looking for someone to train me anymore; I went online to download free ebooks on furniture making and committed myself to watching furniture making videos on Youtube. I knew I didn’t have the money for big machines or a workshop, so I had to make do with what I had which was N21,000. I bought the essential tools needed and started training myself.
Did your friends and family frown on the choice you made?
My parents weren’t too keen on the idea initially; considering it is the dream of most Nigerian parents to have their children work in a corporate environment. But seeing how convinced I was, they had no other option than to support me. My friends are one of the greatest gifts God has blessed me with.These are people who have taken my dream upon themselves as though it’s theirs. Their shoulders are readily available to lean on. Theygo the extra mile for me just as I would for them.I am indeed blessed to call them friends.
What was your first carpentry experience like?
Frightening, interesting, disorienting and enlightening. My first experience was all of these and more. I hadn’t done such before, so there were a lot of mistakes, confusion and fear. I would be in the sun for hours working and sometimes not even make much headway. At some point, I was so overwhelmed and I thought to quit but the desire and hunger for success soon drowned all of my fears.
How do you source for clients?
Through word of mouth and social media.Konga (online mall) has been good to me as well.
How profitable is the carpentry business in Nigeria?
There is the need for furniture in every home, so it is considered a major purchase for most people. This leads to high turnover but not necessarily profit. When the cost of doing business is factored into turnover, the profit margin can be low but if the business is scaled and structured properly, it is possible to record high profit. So the furniture business being profitable in Nigeria is relative.
What challenges do you currently encounter in your business and how are you coping with them?
I am constrained by the non-availability of space and lack of funds to buy machines for easy and fast production of items. As a result of this, I don’t take in more than my current space can accommodate and I fulfill my technical needs at the plank market in Mushin for a fee. This is however usually stressful and time consuming.
When did the business first experience its major breakthrough?
I have experienced some great wins. I remember one sunny afternoon in August when I made my very first perfect piece which was a side table. I had been training for over a month and the progress seemed slow (looking back it wasn’t). I was already frustrated and was reaching my tipping point. But on this day, I had marked my drilling points and was a bit nervous to drill in the screws, I eventually did and was surprised when the first screw held tight. Then I proceeded to finish the work I had started and was very surprised that the table did not wobble. A satisfaction that had so long escaped me saturated the experience. That was and still is a proof that consistency is the key to achieving anything. And this is why I am so excited about this and the days ahead -with each piece I have created from then on, I am certain that if I keep at it- and I have no doubt I will- My big breakthrough is as sure as dawn.
What motivates you on the job?
My motivation comes from within. I am motivated by the fact that I am doing what I enjoy. I derive pleasure in joining boards and creating furniture pieces. The feeling that comes from finishing each piece is one I have never felt before. To look upon something built to last, to know it exists because you put in the effort is a powerful motivation and addiction. The sheer joy and happiness I see on the faces of those I have worked for motivates me to keep going and getting better. Knowing that I have the ability to create things that didn’t exist before I touched them is just beyond fulfilling. Knowing that I just have to wake up, fulfill someone’s need and put a smile on their face by doing what I enjoy. I give them their item(s), I get paid for it, everyone is happy.
Do you feel intimidated by your male counterparts?
I don’t feel intimidated. I do what I do and I do it well. I hone my skills daily and keep looking for ways to be better at it, so all I feel is pride, joy and happiness. No intimidation.
Have you ever been looked down upon as a female carpenter?
I get questioned a lot by male carpenters at the plank market and they mostly suggest I look for a man to work for me as this is not a profession for women. But I won’t call that being looked down upon, I see it as their way of dealing with the ceiling that has been crashed.
If you weren’t a carpenter, what other profession would you have considered and why?
Maybe a chef. I love creating stuff and I like food.
How do you unwind?
Watching movies, listening to music and dancing.
What advice do you have for females who intend to go into carpentry?
For females who genuinely seek to follow this path, I’d say the time to make that move is now. If you do this, become the absolute best you can. It’s a field where there is positive correlation between effort and reward – the more you take on, the more you make. Know that nothing is impossible and nothing is out of reach. Whatever idea your mind can conceive, you have the ability to make it happen so far you’re willing to put in the work. It is my sincere wish that you fulfill the highest expression of yourself.