A personal need for interestingly stylish, practical and affordable swimsuits led Kambili Ngozi Ofili-Okonkwo to startKAMOKINI. The Nigeria-based brand, which officially launched in September 2014, merges fancy designs with an understanding of the average woman’s body consciousness and sensuality to create swimwear that makes women feel and look good.
Prior to taking the leap into KAMOKINI full time, Ofili-Okonkwo worked in the oil industry and in the fast-moving consumer goods industry. She has a Bachelors and Masters degree in Engineering from Imperial College London, as well as a Masters in Supply Chain and Logistics Management from Cranfield University. I spoke with the swimwear designer about her entrepreneurial experience.
In 2012, Ofili-Okonkwo found herself struggling to find appropriate swimsuits for herself. “I don’t consider myself to be a model size,” she said. “I was looking for something that was not too exposing but made me feel fashionable and wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg.” Unable to find a swimsuit that met this standard, she decided to design what she had in mind for herself. She then reached out to manufacturers in China. Her first order of business was to send them a detailed list of specifications and criteria for the swim suits. Included in the list was a question about whether any of the factories were willing to sign a confidentiality agreement with her. “I found one that was happy to sign and work with me,” said Ofili-Okonkwo. “I started sharing my designs with them.”
Her friends loved the swimsuits that she made for herself. She ended up making a small batch of swimsuits in similar styles for them. Upon wearing the swimsuits, they received overwhelmingly positive feedback from people. Ofili-Okonkwo herself started getting a lot of questions from individuals who saw her in the swimsuits. “It made me think, ‘OK, I can do this commercially. Why don’t I try to make these kinds of swimsuits available?’” she said. Using her savings and investment from family and friends, Ofili-Okonkwo embarked on her entrepreneurial journey. “From the get-go, I was working with an experienced production facility so it was easy to move from making sample sizes to making larger quantities,” she said.
Ofili-Okonkwo’s spending priority with this initial capital has been on the quality and costing of the product. “I want it to be as close to perfect as possible and also affordable,” she said. She wants to ensure that her clients don’t have to break the bank in order to access her products and that they enjoy their KAMOKINI experience. “I feel like if it’s not adding value to my customers then I don’t spend money on it,” she added. “If I can find a way to do it without spending money then I do.” Ofili-Okonkwo has realized that prioritizing her money spending in this way has enabled her to be creative in finding ways to achieve certain results. “Because I can’t spend money when I feel like it,” she said.
From design to delivery
Drawings and sketches of the swimwear are done by Ofili-Okonkwo. These are then turned into computer-aided designs. She writes down specifications for the print or color that she wants to use for each item, and the material and textures that will be put together to produce it. “We have the standard elastane fabric for swimwear but I may want to play with textures,” Ofili-Okonkwo said. “For example, you might see that some of our swimsuits have lace on them.” “I like playing with textures, maybe it is the engineer in me,” she added. The manufacturers she works with do the dying and printing of the fabric.
The product sample making is a 3-step process. First, Ofili-Okonkwo receives swatches so that she can choose the exact color of fabric that she wants. The sample is then made and pictures of it are taken from different angles. After this, it is washed to make sure that it doesn’t run or fray, the elastic remains taut and that the zippers, if any, work well. This testing is carried out by the technicians in the factory. Once they are satisfied with the test results, they deliver the samples to Ofili-Okonkwo.
At this stage, Ofili-Okonkwo analyzes the samples. She works with models who try them on to see if they fit well, the bust sizes that can fit into each, and if any adjustments are needed. Upon completion of the analysis, she either sends the samples back for amendment, in which case the 3-step process is repeated, or she confirms for production, and the factory manufactures and labels the products to be sold. Ofili-Okonkwo and her team, which comprises of a photographer, graphics designer, accounts manager and models, also use the samples for creating campaign marketing material and promotional content. An added advantage of doing this is that it allows them to see how the colors look on film.
The key element for KAMOKINI in this entire design and production process is the desire to create stylish swimsuits that are practical for average people. “We are listening to what our target customers want,” Ofili-Okonkwo said. “They want things that are pretty and can hide aspects that they don’t want to show.” For example, the company has swimsuits that have short sleeves for people who are uncomfortable with the stretch marks on their shoulders being exposed. It also has swimsuits with inserts for padding for people with smaller busts who may want a little bit of enhancement. “That’s what sets us apart,” she said. “We want to ensure that the average person looks as good as she wants while physically exposed.” “It is really about meeting people’s desires,” she added.
Challenges and opportunities
Like every entrepreneur who is starting out, Ofili-Okonkwo has dealt with her fair share of challenges. For one, people in Nigeria are relatively conservative when it comes to exposing themselves. As such, they don’t take advantage of the numerous beaches and pools in the country. They are also not used to decent, well-designed swimwear being sold next door. Additionally, KAMOKINI is a luxury brand that also creates awareness. “There is a real threat to spend more money than you intended educating people and creating that experience so that they want to buy swimsuits,” said Ofili-Okonkwo.
To tackle this, she has established business partnerships with alcoholic beverage brands that host beach and pool events. “We are working with them to create that world-class experience that you find in places like Miami or Cannes – places with developed beach and pool activations,” Ofili-Okonkwo said. “This will be an avenue for the target market to interact with the brand directly.” In addition, the company has invested in marketing. It has an active presence on social media, particularly Instagram. Spice TV recently did a documentary about KAMOKINI which has helped the business reach some of its target market. The brand has participated in fashion shows such as Runway Fiesta and Copa Lagos. Ofili-Okonkwo’s products have also been featured in music videos and been endorsed by celebrities and media personalities.
Manufacturing KAMOKINI products in China as opposed to Nigeria or somewhere else in Africa has also come with its own set of challenges. There have been several timing-related delays. In addition, the minimum order quantities required by the factory are very high. “I would rather spend that money on a variety of styles as opposed to producing one style in bulk,” she said. She is hoping to be able to have her own factory in the future. “It would be nice to have a vertically integrated supply network,” said Ofili-Okonkwo. “It helps in making quicker decisions from idea to production.”
Staying the course
As much as the challenges are tough to deal with, she sees the opportunities they provide and is determined to explore them. Her resolve is further strengthened by the support she gets from her family, partner, friends and customers. “I am grateful and blessed to be surrounded by people who encourage me and understand my vision,” she said. Her customers encourage her every time they send her pictures enjoying themselves in KAMOKINI products. “It is the most amazing feeling,” Ofili-Okonkwo said. “It means that we are adding value to people’s lives.” “It’s not world peace but we take it for granted that to wear a swimsuit you are literally going out in your underwear,” she added. “It takes a lot of confidence to do that.”
Ofili-Okonkwo, who is a 2015 SLA Pitch Competition finalist, plans on expanding her product line should she win the competition. So far, the brand has only released eight pieces and it is looking to launch a full collection. “I want to produce an extensive range of samples for current and potential wholesalers to order from,” she said. “I want to give them a good range to choose from depending on their clientele.”
Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “Understand what money you have.” It doesn’t matter how small you are starting, if finance and accounting is not your speciality get an expert to help you. “You need to know how much money you have to play with and how to plan it,” said Ofili-Okonkwo. “As much as you want to make a difference, it all comes down to money.”
By: Patricia Egessa