An African Fashion Startup To Watch: ONYCHEK.com
Nigerian entrepreneur Chekwas Okafor is the founder and CEO of ONYCHEK.com, an e-commerce platform for luxury fashion from Africa.
The creation of ONYCHEK.com was inspired by a simple, yet magnificent idea: To showcase and promote the luxury African fashion to the rest of the world. ONYCHEK aims to be the leading retail portal for African fashion and is building a reputation for stocking only the best of African couture from some of the continent’s most celebrated designers.
Chekwas Okafor recently spoke to me about how ONYCHEK plans to export African luxury to the world.
Tell us about your personal and professional background.
My name is Chekwas Okafor, founder and CEO of ONYCHEK.com, an ecommerce platform for luxury fashion from Africa. In 2009, I moved to the US to study at Voorhees College, a HBCU located in Denmark, South Carolina, where I completed my BS degree in Biology/ Environmental Science. Upon graduation, I worked in a building material manufacturing company in the environmental, health and safety function for ~4 years. I then launched ONYCHEK.com in September of 2016.
You seem to have bounced around disciplines before getting into fashion. How did that happen?
Prior to college and pretty much anything substantial I was going to do with my life, it was clear to me that I was going to spend most of my time creating value in Africa. Although I was working in corporate America, I always knew that was temporary. I was just waiting for the right idea.
In 2014, a friend showed me some Nigerian made clothing that were phenomenal and I questioned why the mainstream didn’t know about this. Once I made the connection of how much value can be created by making fashion locally, it was evident that I would be doing this for a long time. Two years later, I launched ONYCHEK.com to make African luxury fashion easily accessible to the world.
How did you come about starting a fashion company, considering the fact that you had no background in fashion?
I didn’t have any background in the fashion industry in general, but I had grown up in family where my dad imported textiles, so I was sort of familiar with that. I also had sold clothes out of my dorm room in college. For a brief period I also modeled. These experiences were helpful.
Regarding the African fashion industry, I had no clue. To bridge this gap, I simply learned by reading books, listening to podcasts, reading a lot of blogs. This made it possible for me to gain a good foundation before I launched the company. I am still learning as we go through this interview.
You said you were searching for the right idea. What made you choose African fashion?
I didn’t just choose African fashion. I chose luxury fashion from Africa. I chose this for a lot of reasons. I will summarize a couple:
Also, African fashion preserves culture. African designers are doing an incredible job of weaving culture into their designs. We are moving from Africa being a mere source of inspiration to African designers wholeheartedly bringing African culture to the forefront of the fashion “conversation” in a way the world hasn’t seen before. Think of Maxhosa by Laduma, a South African designer that is makes beautiful knitwear inspired by his Xhosa heritage. These designs scream culture and at the same time can be worn to work. This is what the African luxury industry is doing. Bringing the African culture to the forefront of their designs. We need this.
Finally, African fashion changes how people view Africa. With the quality of products being made in Africa, somehow a lot of people still associate mediocrity to locally made products. Therefore, by us focusing on telling the actual story and highlighting the amazing job being done by these designers, we can shift how the world perceives Africa. Let’s take ENZI, an Ethiopian based sneaker company that is making amazing leather sneakers by hand. Their products are one of the most solid sneakers that I have purchased, but people won’t know this unless they are educated. This is another big reason we focused on brands making their products in Africa.
Starting a company can be difficult, especially funding the company. So who did you get to raise money for the company?
I withdrew from my retirement for the initial startup capital and have been bootstrapping since then.
African luxury is relatively new. Are you facing challenges with this?
Of course we are, but we knew of it before going into the business. People still don’t associate Africa with Luxury. They find it difficult to understand why products made in Africa should be expensive. This is why we are focused on creating content that will help re-educate people about the quality and culture imbued in our products and what to expect from African brands. Making this common knowledge will take time just like anything new. We know this. That is why we are in for the long haul.
What are your future plans for ONYCHEK.com?
Our mission as a company is to make luxury fashion from Africa easily accessible to the world. This means that we will do whatever it takes to reduce any friction customers might experience. We are building a company that is customer centric and making it easy for them to shop the newest Okun Beachwear collection or TAIBOBACAR collection. We want to be the #1 destination for customers to experience all African luxury fashion brands.
Who are your target customers so far?
Our customers have comprised mostly Africans in the diaspora who are eager to support local brands, African Americans who are excited about connecting with the African continent, and conscious consumers who make sure that their products are made in good working conditions.
How does your supply chain work?
We actually hold inventory. This means that whatever products that is purchased on ONYCHEK.com ships from New York. For our US customers, this means they receive their products in 3-5 business days. For our international customers, it might take slightly longer depending on location.
What sets ONYCHEK apart from other online retailers?
At ONYCHEK.com, you can be sure that all the products on our site are made in Africa. We consciously made this decision as it in line with why we exist as a company- to create jobs and preserve culture through fashion. This was a challenging decision as there are many African owned brands based in the diaspora that we would love to work with, but can’t. We also see that focusing on local brands also gives us an advantage in enhancing discovery. Let’s say a customer visits ONYCHEK.com to shop Maxhosa by Laduma, they will be able to discover LaurenceAirline as well. These discoveries overall helps the entire African fashion ecosystem.
Another is that we focus on educating people on African luxury fashion through our blog, THEINSIGHT. Therefore a potential customer can shop these amazing products or simply stop by to learn more about different African brands.
ONYCHEK seems to focus on the US market. Do you have plans to expand?
Absolutely. We are focused on making it easy for customers to access these products, so we will eventually be wherever the customer is.
How can Africa derive more value from the fashion industry?
Just like any complex organization, a lot of systems and solutions have to come together for us to realize more value in the industry. We have to do a better job with marketing our high end products in order to change the perception of locally made products. This by itself will help generate demand. Just like anything new, people have to know that it exists before they even get interested in participating. We have to also develop better infrastructure to support that demand. Designers still have jump through hoops to manufacture their products locally. This has to change.
The exciting thing is that a lot of these solutions are being created at the moment. That by itself is encouraging.
What advice do you give other young people trying to start a business?
Something that has worked for me is focusing on execution. Also reaching out to people in the industry, even though they didn’t know me, has proven to be valuable.
By Mfonobong Nsehe for Forbes.