When you think carpentry in Nigeria, the image of an uneducated man working on small carpentry jobs in his roadside workshop immediately jumps at you. And so you might wonder why a highly paid investment banker would decide to quit her job and start a business in this seemingly unattractive craft.
Francisca Agho’s journey into the furniture industry began with a lot of research which led her to learn the intricacies of the furniture business as an apprentice in a wood market in Port Harcourt for three years.
She now runs My Lady Carpenter, a kitchen designs outfit based in Port Harcourt. She leads me into the world of carpentry in Nigeria in this interview.
Titilola Oludimu from Techpoint (TO): You don’t see a lot of women in carpentry, so how was starting like for you?
Francisca Agho (FA): It was very exciting. I started with going around different wood markets from Lagos, Benin, Uyo to Port Harcourt. After my tour, I decided that it was time to settle down and learn the craft.
In Port Harcourt where I had just moved to after getting married, I remember going to the wood market and people’s first impressions of my interest in being an apprentice was confusion, I got questions like “Madam, you come work abi you wan learn work?" meaning “Madam, did you come to work or learn?”. It took them a while to grasp that I was actually there to learn and I had to roll up my sleeves and understand what the business is all about.
Carpentry is a technical field. It’s not a field that I could just dabble into and start doing a lot marketing campaigns around. It was something I needed to have a grasp of. Thankfully, in the space of time that I’ve been in this field, we’ve not disappointed. I enjoy the thrill and the attention I get particularly being in a space that is male-dominated.
TO: How long did you serve as an apprentice before branching out on your own?
FA: Basically, I still consider myself an apprentice because I’m still learning but I apprenticed from 2012 to 2015. I spent all that time being in the workshop and the wood market in Aba. In the process, I learnt the nitty-gritty of the business, I also learnt to identify quality wood and components, costing and quotations among other things.
I wanted to carve a niche for myself in the furniture industry, to bridge the huge gap created by furniture importation. At the same time, I wanted to grow my expertise in the business, to deliver in terms of quality finishing that we have in the luxury goods imported into the country. I started with upholstery and then to all forms of woodwork over time. I then later decided to focus specifically on kitchen designing.
TO: How receptive was the market when you decided to focus on kitchen designs?
FA: The truth is once you’re into this field, you get job orders across all furniture works. Even till now, when I tell people we do strictly kitchen designs, they still call us for other furniture jobs. From time to time, I weigh it and depending on its cost effectiveness, I break the rules but the focus is still kitchen designs.
Essentially, reception has been good. I have not explored using social media or an online platform to get clients so for now, all the jobs we get are from referrals and word of mouth.
TO: What challenges did you encounter during and after your apprenticeship and are there any unique challenges you’re facing now as a lady carpenter?
FA: During my apprenticeship, I initially encountered some challenges working with skilled craftsmen. When they saw that I was not well grounded in the craft, they tried to play on my intelligence. This challenge actually motivated me to further get my hands dirty and learn the craft.
TO: Do you think it had anything with you being a woman?
FA: There are men in the industry who are in the value chain; they are not carpenters, they get carpentry contracts and bring them to carpenters. They experience these challenges as well, so being a woman is maybe an added side to it but the fact that you cannot technically do the work is a challenge. Over time, after being able to demonstrate capacity in the field and gain trust and respect from the craftsmen I work with, I’ve been able to outgrow that challenge.
Another challenge was setting up a factory. During my apprenticeship, I had the opportunity of training in well-run factories with massive machinery. I realised that power is one major challenge that factories face. On one hand, there is the issue of power generation and on the other hand, there’s the issue of the maintenance of machinery, having the right technician around to operate, maintain and repair them when the need arises.
Most times, these technicians are freelancers who are sort after from all parts of the country and so are not readily available when you need them. And so when your machines crash, clients' jobs are delayed.
From an investment banking perspective, I decided that running a factory was not an option for me. Instead, I needed to explore ways to reduce cost and manage efficiency and the best way to achieve these was to outsource factory work. I have about three factories I outsource to and so if there’s a challenge with one factory in terms of power or machinery, I can easily switch to another so that my job is not delayed.
I use a software called MaxCut to automate the creation of cutting and material lists. I simply send my MaxCut template with the number of materials, components, specifications and dimensions to the factory for cutting, edging and delivery to my installation site.
In addition, there’s the challenge of finishing. You see, when a furniture is cut and edged with machines, you can clearly tell the difference from one that was done manually. At a point, I couldn’t afford to outsource because of the cost of factory retainership. It was a huge challenge for me but thankfully, we can now afford to outsource. Now, no matter how big the order is, we can handle it.
TO: How did you combine your apprenticeship and wood market tours with being a wife and how do you manage running your business with being a mum?
FA: Firstly, I’ll say I have a very supportive husband. My husband being a technically oriented person was one of the inspirations I had early on. He encouraged me to start as an apprentice and the business has grown to this extent because of his support. Every client we started with that has grown into the number we have now, started from him.
He takes care of our son when I have to take care of business. It has not been easy but we find a way to work around it.
TO: For someone who has been in the furniture space for over five years, what’s your general view of the Nigerian furniture industry?
FA: When you say woodwork in Nigeria, the first place is you think of is Benin. Viewing from an outside position, I didn’t quite understand why it had to be but in the space of time I have been in the industry, going there and doing my own research, Benin has carved a niche for itself in wood carving and it is unrivaled in that regard. However, when it comes to upholstery work, I have seen better finishing.
I like to compare whatever we are doing with the global market and I see a huge difference in the finishing and coupling quality between imported furniture and those made in Nigeria. So in terms of finishing, I don’t think we’re there yet. We still have a long way to go in taking the industry to a global standard.
I don’t think it’s because our local carpenters do not know what to do but it’s because they take it for granted. They prefer to use poor quality components so as to keep collecting money from clients for maintenance and repair.
TO: The carpentry space does not appear attractive to men, let alone women. Are you doing anything to bring more women into the space?
FA: There’s a reason why we’re called My Lady Carpenter, it’s not just about me. The idea is to be able to raise a generation of women in the space. These days, there’s a dearth in the quality and quantity of skilled craftsmen in the industry and older carpenters are worried that even young men do not want to learn carpentry anymore. Which was why it seemed strange that I indicated interest.
They’d have young men go to their workshop for a 2-year training and end up leaving after the third month or train for only six months and end up being shabby carpenters. Here in Port Harcourt, a lot of women do not contribute to society asides taking care of their homes. I’m not undermining taking care of a home, it’s a lot of work. I just feel that a woman should be able to contribute something not just for herself but to leave a legacy for generations to come.
I want to be able to build a system where we groom craftsmen and women especially in the field of carpentry. That is something that’s in the pipeline; it’s still far away because we need to build a base that will handle that.
TO: What advice do you have for womenpreneurs out there?
FA: Don’t lose faith, you’re not alone. There are a lot of women who are making progress not without challenges but in spite of challenges. Whatever the challenges you may be going through, don’t let that become your story. Change the narrative, rise above it as much as possible and be able to develop yourself to add value and leave a legacy. Not just for yourself, but for generations to come.