Benson… Maker of Ooni of Ife’s shoes dreams big

Benson• To Train 100 youths in Footwear free
• Turn Ikorodu To City Of Footwear
Adesola Omotayo-Benson, 44, a shoe designer and a native of Ikorodu, Lagos State studied Footwear at the University College of Footwear in Britain in 2000. Before then, he had graduated from the Federal College of Chemical and Leather Technology, Zaria in 1993; he also studied at AS Astoria in Milan, Italy in 2014. In this chat with KABIR ALABI GARBA and MARGARET MWANTOK, he underscored his desire to turn Ikorodu into a city of Footwear by conducting free training programmes for the youths and his satisfaction seeing Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi wearing the shoes he specifically made for him to different occasions including during the monarch’s wedding ceremony recently. Excerpts:

How did you come about designing shoes for the Ooni?
I just took a bold step when I found out that he is a young guy, and most of the things he talks about have to do with the youths, I seized the opportunity to try and reach him. It was difficult getting to him from the beginning, but I imagined that he is tall and his shoe size should be 45 or 46. I also know that in Ife, their most cherished costume is in white colour, that was how I designed the white shoes for him and sent it to him with a proposal through someone. I sent the shoes with a proposal on how to empower the youths through footwear. He loved the shoes and the proposal I sent, and he asked to see me, he has worn the pair to most of his recent functions.

How many pairs have you made for him?
So far, I have made just a pair for him but I have two in progress. He has asked me to come back. He wants to see a video footage of where I manufacture the shoes in Ikorodu.

When did you meet the Ooni?
As soon as he was installed as Ooni of Ife on January 7, I started making enquiries on how to reach him. In the process, I met someone who discouraged me that the Ooni does not wear locally made shoes, but I said my shoes are also of international standard. I finally got the opportunity to see him on a Tuesday, there were so many people waiting to see him too.

What was your impression of Ooni when you eventually met him?
There were so many people who wanted to see him as well. When I finally met him, Ooni was very jovial, and we related well. Personally, I have passion for the youths, so it was like meeting someone of like-mind. He said my idea was wonderful, but I should bring to him a documentary of my factory.

Was your encounter with Ooni a breakthrough?
My meeting the Ooni was more than a breakthrough because he is interested in home- made products. I was more satisfied when he used my pair of shoes. Most people spend huge amount of money in buying imported shoes, and if Ooni of all people could use my own shoes, then I think my job is well done.

When did you establish the factory?
In 2011, and my factory is called, Sola Benson Exclusive Shoes Company.

When did you relocate to Nigeria?
I have been shuttling between Nigeria and Ireland in the last two years. My family lives in Ireland.

What has been your experience since establishing the company in Nigeria?
I have been doing this job for the past 30 years. I was producing shoes in Nigeria for 10 years before travelling out to further my studies. I already knew the problems in Nigeria. For more than 15 years, I would come to Nigeria once in awhile to get familiarized with how the business works here. Eventually, I got tired of Ireland’s system and decided to return home, because I found out that most Nigerian youths are not empowered, and footwear is the only business that we don’t have the correct expatriates in Nigeria. I thought it was better to relocate my business to Nigeria.

Do you still have a business abroad?
When I was leaving, I sold all my machines. Though while abroad, I was only a shoe designer, but here, I get to do the practicals as well. Thank God the government is talking about youth empowerment, and I want to contribute my own quota.

Apart from Ooni, who are your other clients?
My past customers include former Governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu, current Commissioner, Ministry of Works, Ganiyu Johnson. I have made shoes for several people in government.

Why do you target only the high-class and government people?
My aim is to make affordable shoes for everyone. When I first returned to the country, I needed to interact with the government, and so I started with government officials on what the shoes look like. But at the moment, I make shoes for virtually everybody.

What is your view on fake labeling?
I don’t do such! You see, it’s a sure sign that these people didn’t study footwear, they only came across it, but I have been doing it since my second year in secondary school. There is no need for me to put any fake labels because I have seen while in Italy the respect they have for Nigerian products.

How do you source your raw materials?
We have leather in Nigeria; we are one of the biggest countries in leather exportation. We export about 98 per cent of our leather. We have different styles in Kano. I get my materials from Mushin when they arrive from Kano. I don’t import my raw materials.

Do you see prosperity in footwear business in the country?
I am actually satisfied and fulfilled here. Most footwear companies collapse due to the owners’ shallow knowledge about the business. We don’t export shoes in Nigeria; we are a fashion conscious people. So I see a lot of prospects for the business. In Italy, shoes are made in almost every area; my hope is that one-day, Nigeria would be on that same level.
Tell us more about your programme to empower the youths

I live and work in Ikorodu, and I found out that most people are jobless, and my only contribution would be to teach them the art of shoe-making free of charge, but all they need to do is to buy the materials to be used during the training. This programme would last for two and a half years; I want to turn Ikorodu into a shoe-making city.

What do you think was responsible for the collapse of Bata Shoe Company?
Bata was functioning very well under Thomas Bata, the Canadian, but as soon as it was handed over to Nigerians, it became bad. The management knew nothing about footwear, all they knew was how to buy shares, and they squandered the money. In this business every worker’s opinion matters a lot, not just the board.

Where can people find your shoes?
My shoes are not yet in the market because I like to do things properly. I still have one or two things to put in order. Because of the standard I am starting with, some of the things I need are not in Nigeria, which is why I am not in a hurry to deliver.

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