Four years after Miami business training trip, Nigerian entrepreneurs face challenges in their home country

Sola Babatunde founded her fashion school in a sweltering outdoor tent, armed only with her mother’s vintage sewing machine.

But it was a business education exchange trip to Miami four years ago that she credits for elevating the school into a success.

Today, Babatunde employs 19 teachers, tailors and assistants in an air-conditioned building, rare for most small businesses in this country’s bustling economic commerce center.

More than 1,500 students have walked through the doors of One Stop Celebration’s doors in the past few years, beginners learning to sew using manual machines before graduating to modern industrial electric equipment.

But students don’t stop there. They learn how to craft their clothes to international standards, how to market their wares and how to establish business models and plans.

“Most of the designers in Nigeria are so creative, but when it comes to business, they have no clue,” Babatunde said. “We don’t say our students are fashion designers — we say they are fashion entrepreneurs.”

The Miami Herald recently visited with several students like Babatunde who visited South Florida in December 2010 as part of a U.S. State Department-funded entrepreneurial training trip. In all, 22 students from Nigeria took part in the program hosted by Barry University’s Andreas School of Business and the Miami-based nonprofit Africa-Diaspora Partnership for Empowerment and Development, or ADPED.

While they were in South Florida, the students toured local businesses while taking classes to improve operating practices, shore up customer service and learn American-style concepts of responsibility and leadership.

Babatunde, a new mother and banker by training, strives to pattern her school on American business practices. In Nigeria’s cash economy, businesses often pay their workers notoriously late — but she says she pays on time, and always to bank accounts set up for the employees.

Upon their return from Miami, each of the students received loans from Nigeria’s National Economic Reconstruction Fund to help them expand. Babatunde used her loan of about $12,500 to buy new sewing machines and contract out a technician to service them.

But the training and the loan money has not guaranteed smooth success, particularly in Nigeria, where small businesses face problems rarely seen in the United States. Getting bank loans in Nigeria is exceedingly difficult. Babatunde has not even bothered.

The power supply in Nigeria is notoriously unstable, so most businesses like hers have to supply their own generators — and that eats into the bottom line.

Said Adewale Alonge, the head of Miami’s ADPED, himself a Nigeria native: “They’re making the best of a very difficult environment.”

The ride has been rocky for Falohun “Joseph” Adegbenro, 29, who runs the Royal Graphix print shop in Lagos, printing banners, advertisements and logos on promotional items. He came away from his visit to Miami with one major lesson: Differentiate yourself from the competition.

So he used his loan money to invest in a premium printing press few nobody has in Mushin, a teeming old colonial neighborhood flooded with print shops. For two months, the sharpness and quality of the printing spurred new orders — until the press broke down.

Because Nigeria has few qualified technicians and scant parts for newer presses, the machine sat dormant awaiting repairs. Business has lagged, but Adegbenro remains undaunted, continuing to print on an older press while moving into a newer office space.

“I remain focused because I know we’re going to succeed,” Adegbenro said.

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