Uniting Nigerians through unity dolls
Paul Orajiaka’s ability to grow a five thousand Naira start-up toy business to become the preferred toy brand in Nigeria coupled with a recent recognition by the Forbes Magazine fetched him an award of the Most Outstanding Entrepreneur by the Traders’ Right Protection Initiative in October 2013. The Chief Executive Officer of Auldon Limited, a wholly indigenous company popularly known for its African themed Unity Girl dolls was recently recognized by the Lagos State Government for his organization’s ‘Support our School’ initiative through the Unity dolls social impacts on schools rehabilitation. Orajiaka, a doctoral student with Henley Business School of the University of Reading UK with a research focus on Entrepreneurial Orientation and its impact on SMEs performance in Nigeria spoke on the Focus of a CEO in this interview with Nnamdi Nwokolo.
How did your entrepreneurial journey begin?
I believe that a good foundation is a precious asset for any organization; mine has all the trappings of a good an inspiring one. I grew up in Warri, and had my secondary school education in Benin. Fresh out of school and naïve, my sole ambition was to travel abroad and get the ‘supposed’ good life.
Interestingly, toy business was not the first choice for me, initially all I wanted to do, was leave Nigeria for greener pastures abroad, preferably the United States of America, where everything works. Young and determined at 18, with my mind set on my objectives, I alongside my friends set out to fulfill my dream, which saw me make countless unfruitful trips to the American embassy. Dejected, pained, ashamed and clueless not knowing, what next to do, I stayed back in Lagos. I did not want to go back to Warri to meet my friends for obvious reasons, so I thought to myself, the only way out for me was to stay back in Lagos and work with my in-law at Idumota market and that is how that reluctant step taken out of frustration ended up becoming my glorious journey to success and fulfillment.
How challenging was it working in a business saturated hub like Idumota, Lagos?
At first, 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 but eventually I had no choice but to get used to it. Not long after settling down, the lid on my eyes were taken off and I delved into trading after I came across young boys who were doing extremely well in the market.
I then realized that being refused an opportunity of going to America was actually a blessing in disguise. But more importantly, I knew it was also 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), and upon graduation, I enrolled for a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from Lagos Business School of the Pan-African University (PAN). Expectedly, after graduating from school, I became better equipped for the challenges ahead, which saw me take the management and administration of my business to a greater degree.
Considering the economic situation of the country, what gave you the drive amidst challenges you must have encountered, especially funding?
You are right, at one point I almost gave up because it was difficult building this business especially without funding from banks. It was near impossible to continue, but my frustration and anger with the banking system coupled with lack of support only made me to further persevere, more passionate and determined to ensure that the business grows. These virtues I adopted gave me the needed drive and energy sufficient to get Auldon Toys going and keep going. No doubt, it is almost an uphill task, succeeding as an entrepreneur in this clime, so it would be unfair to blame some Nigerian entrepreneurs who fail to surmount the numerous challenges, which stifle their growth. Having said that, I have come to realize that despite the myriad of challenges bedeviling Nigerian entrepreneurs including power, lack of funds, wickedly high interest rates and lack of infrastructure, an entrepreneur can still attain success, if he/she can recapture the passion and emotions of the beginning and then galvanize all stakeholders to achieve success.
What is the rationale behind the Unity Doll Project?
You will agree with me that in recent times, our cultural values have been eroded as parents shy away from teaching their children about their culture, but allow them to imbibe foreign cultures which rob them of their identity and existence as Nigerians. It was saddening 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 pertinent 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 want to be sure that children play with toys that have social and cultural relevance and not ones that teach violence, which 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 feature as 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.
What is the acceptance level of the Unity Dolls and how strong are your distribution channels?
Acceptance of these dolls and our other toys all over the country has been massive because of a handful of reasons including affordability, premium quality, availability, uniqueness and most importantly the educative value the dolls offer. So, it is safe to say that we are a market leader with strong prospect for increased growth. Currently, we distribute to all leading retail outlets and supermarkets across the country including Game, Shoprite, Spar, Next, Park n Shop, Sahad Stores, Ebeano 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 age 1-10 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 the Unity girl Facebook page.
What are your projections in the next couple of years?
We are currently brainstorming on a number of ideas on how to ensure that Unity Dolls are present in every home in the country in the next two years. Auldon is also 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 being 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 globally. 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. We are also 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 our plan is to get Completely Knocked Down Toys (CKD’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 CKD’s in the country.
Are you involved in any CSR as a way of giving back to the society?
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 set in motion plans that will see it renovate some schools in dire need of refurbishing. Already we are in talks with Lagos State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB), to renovate a totally dilapidated school in Ikorodu. I also take it upon myself to lecture students in all Technical colleges across Lagos State on business skills that would see them become independent and self sustaining.