While many businesses shut down with the Covid lockdown in 2020, businesses like Kasai were born— And like its name, it still burns bright.

On this episode of MoneyRise, Nonye tells us about starting Kasai Clothing at the peak of the pandemic, some of the challenges the business faces, dealing with irate customers and her advice for young and growing entrepreneurs. This is her story.

Tell us a little about yourself

My name is Nonye, and I’m a lawyer and entrepreneur. The name of my business is Kasai Clothing. We sell men’s clothing— urban and vintage wear. When I’m not practising law, I’m running my business. I think I practise law before my business in that order. Professionally, I’m a lawyer, then there’s my business on the side. I juggle both really. And do my absolute best to stay on top of it. I have staff to take off most of the day to day activities of running the business. So less of me is required daily.

How has that been for you, juggling both?

Well, for the longest time, I’ve always juggled my business with something else because I started my business in my final year in university. My university was in Benin and my business was Lagos-based, so I was shuffling both cities at that time. It continued even after school because I went to law school in another state. So I think for the most part, my business is used to me not being in the centre of it, but also still being there. I’ve been doing that for a while, and I think I almost have that balance now. Unfortunately, we’re in Nigeria. Some days, balance is not there at all.

Let’s talk about your business. What inspired Kasai Clothing? Have you always loved business?

I didn’t even have entrepreneurship in any of my plans. I never did. But I started my business in October 2020 when we had all been at home. After the lockdown had been lifted, ASUU said they were continuing their strike, and so for the whole of 2020, I didn’t go to school at all and I was just miserable. Back then, I used to go to Pinterest to create mood boards to see on other people. And randomly, I thought, “Okay, let me even source these styles. Assuming I was styling somebody, where would I get these shirts from?” And that’s how I started Kasai. I took it seriously and sourced for suppliers outside Nigeria. I think I started with 30 shirts. The first time I got the shirts to try out, I had already started tweeting about it on Twitter. I was running ideas; I would post and ask people what they thought about particular styles of shirts just to give me an idea of what people wanted to buy. And I bought my first 30 shirts and started.

Kasai with Rise

What has the experience been like?

Honestly, not producing in Nigeria is a big thing because the dollar rate is a very important factor in the business we do. There’s no time that something I bought last month and this month will ever be the same. So you always have to be like 10 steps ahead of what rate you’re selling at because if you’re restocking, it won’t be at that same price and it would be ridiculous to customers to be changing price every month. That would not make sense. It would seem like you’re not sustainable. So it has been hard, especially with the dollar rate itself, but we’re finding balance.

How do you tackle some of these challenges you face with the business?

For the most part, we have logistic challenges. Logistic challenge in the sense that our goods are made outside Nigeria. There are days that cargo is missing. There are days that customs will not clear on time and there are days that suppliers will send you a whole batch of nonsense. For the most part, I just take a deep breath and tackle the ones I can. The one I cannot do is above me; it will figure itself out. But I try my best to limit our exposure to things like this before it even happens. 

What is the business space like in Nigeria? Are there challenges you face, particularly in the business space in Nigeria?

As a business based in Nigeria that pays for our products in foreign currency, it’s so hard. The payment structure is really horrible. It’s absolutely hard to pay our suppliers because there’s a card limit. A supplier may quote $2000, but what card would you use to pay $2000 at once? If you go to the bank, you’ll have to deal with that mess at the bank. So the payment part is really hard. I’ve also tried production here in Nigeria to limit expenses, but I just incurred losses and I don’t think it’s something I want to try again. At least, not any time soon. I mean, maybe I’ll look into it another time but I incurred so much loss that I just know that I’m going to continue doing the one I’m doing that I have more control over because I feel like expertise-wise, suppliers outside Nigeria work in big factories. Sometimes, you may not be exactly sure about what you want, but they cover so many details that you would not have thought about. Whereas, in a way, in Nigeria, you as the client, would have to direct every single thing, regardless of how much you’re paying. There’s almost zero input from the person. Everything has to be regulated by you, otherwise it would be a big mess. I haven’t found the type of expertise I get from outside Nigeria here in Nigeria just yet to make me move production here. But I’m still looking for one. Hopefully we’ll be able to build that.

Speaking of production, let’s talk about your branding and packaging. What makes it stand out from the others? What inspired the name?

Kasai is Japanese for Fire. Originally, Kasai was named after a river that borders Congo and Angola. Its nickname is Trade river— a river that connects traders to other countries to do their business. And I wanted it to stand for something; fire and trading. Basically, I’m a trader in the local sense of this and you need to have the passion and fire for something to keep giving it your shot. As I finished selling the first batch I sold in October of 2020 and went back to school, I could have just closed that up. It would have been like a side hobby, but I still found it in me to introduce shorts, cargo pants and all of that. So the fire and the trade river are where Kasai’s name came from basically.

Kasai with Rise

This is very interesting.

Yes. Originally, Kasai was supposed to be Verde clothing. Verde is green in French, and I really love the colour green. At the time I was registering it with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), they did not approve of Verde, so Kasai was my second option, and it stuck and that became our name.

It’s good they didn’t give in. So how is Kasai different from the other clothing brands? What are you seeking to solve with your brand?

At Kasai, we cater to people that want something stylish to wear with minimal effort on their part. Like someone who has an event tomorrow but doesn’t know what to wear, and also wants to look good. They just want to appear put together with minimal effort. That’s what we go for. If you had an occasion today and you hit us up, “Oh I just want a plain shirt or a striped shirt to wear to the beach later” we can deliver. We also prioritise same-day delivery. We’re like that brand that if you come to, we could get it done today, except if you’re not here in Lagos, then obviously we won’t be able to. But we prioritise being able to deliver to our customers instantly at their own comfort zone. You could be at work, the shirt will meet you at your office before you leave to go to Rock.

How has social media impacted your business? Good ways, bad ways.

I started my business on Twitter to be honest so for the longest time, I think my business has been tied to my personal self in a way. I’m always fighting so hard to separate my business from myself, so that the day there’s a problem, I can address the problem independently without having to also worry about how it affects my business. On that note, I advise people to outsource; let somebody else handle social media, posting, and communications. You need somebody else to do that kind of work for you because you might find yourself trying to defend something that’s not that serious. And next thing you are exchanging words with someone that has paid money for your service. It’s a really touchy thing. So if you can afford it, outsource that part. And if you’re known or have a social media presence, you need to separate your business from it. Yes, there’s nothing bad with people knowing that it’s your business. But you need to always separate whatever you are doing.

Speaking of social media, how do you handle really terrible customers?

I have a customer service staff so I don’t personally deal with customer issues until it gets escalated to me. Our most common problems are sizing issues especially with interstate orders. These are usually tricky to deal with because it involves incurring some level of loss on our end to resolve the issue.

To limit that, we ensure that customers are sure of their sizes before we send our orders and to protect ourselves, we have a timeline to complain to us after receiving your orders. Once this timeline is exceeded, there’s nothing we can do about it. We try to offer store credit in dire situations.

As a business owner, satisfying your customer is your number one priority and responsibility. But it’s also your duty to protect your business and yourself from unnecessary expenses and losses..

Absolutely! Let’s talk about Rise. One of the issues you mentioned that the business faces is the dollar. How has Rise, as a dollar-denominated company, helped with that?

At the time I first started using Rise for my business, I was using it as a saving mechanism for us in the sense that our profits are invested somewhere else pending when we needed it to go back into the business. Because at the time, I was worried about just having naira sitting in the bank account, not growing. I even lose money because they keep charging for different things. So Rise was serving that purpose because the money could be somewhere else, pending when we needed it. Then the wallet feature came. Not only does it allow us to keep our money in dollars, it also allows it to accumulate. I call it a little more flesh. And honestly, the wallet feature is like the best for us because sometimes even though we’ve invested the money, we might need to restock something sooner than we scheduled for. But with the wallet feature, we can withdraw at any time. I can put a specific amount and feel like, oh, in another three or six weeks, I would need to get this money out. And it will still do the same work— it’s saving in dollars and at the same time I’m getting interest from the money that is in there. So I really love the wallet feature. I feel like that’s the best innovation I’ve seen. I absolutely love it.

Things we love to hear. So, aside from the wallet feature, what’s your other favourite feature on Rise?

I can’t lie, I don’t do a lot of the investing available there just because I’m an Igbo babe and I like my money for hand. But I do like that there are options for different investments. I like the fact that it’s categorised into low-risk for those who don’t like taking risks. There’s intermediate, and then there is the option for people who don’t mind putting all their money into stocks. It could never be me. At least, not with my own money. Maybe with a man’s money, yes.

But I really like the categories because not everybody is interested in investing. Some of us only invest because it’s been talked into our heads, and not because we really want to. So categorising it is great. I mean, you could start with the low level and then you want to try out intermediate next and you just build your confidence through it. 

That’s right. It has different asset classes for different types of investors

Kasai with Rise

Yes. I also like the ease and accessibility it offers. I like the way each thing is explained. The stocks are properly explained, which makes you aware of the contingencies involved. There’s a lot of transparency in that sense. It isn’t to scare you off, but to make you a lot more aware. And even as a layman, just being able to read and understand what you’re looking at, helps with your decision making. “Oh, what am I going to invest in?” “Ok, let me try this amount.” The explanations are very good and user-friendly. I also like the fact that your CS is very responsive. When I started, I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to do, and I remember reaching out to support a long time ago and the person gave me a breakdown of everything. I like the fact that if you ask, there’s some sort of guide on how to go about any issue. 

Will relay this to our CS team. So as a businessperson, what feature do you think Rise could introduce that would help your business?

For me, I wish there was a card payment option that instead of me having to withdraw, I could automate the payment with a card to my supplier directly. I wish there was a way the money didn’t have to leave my own personal bank account, and I could just automate payments from my Rise account to my suppliers. That would be awesome.

Where do you see Kasai clothing in 5-10 years?

In 5-10 years, I see us being a global vintage and urban wear brand, whose main focus is supplying fashion essentials to Africa and other parts of the world at large but Africa fundamentally.

Oh, our dollar card is in the works. Don’t worry, we’ve got you! What advice do you have for people looking to start a business in Nigeria?

I would say, first of all, you can’t wait for everything to come together before you start. You have to start somewhere. Then the more you grow, the more you add all the things you want. I think the first thing is to make a list of what you want from your business. Then you can start with the tools you have. Everything cannot come together at once honestly. So just start. If you wanted to do branded packaging, which is quite expensive, you could start with plain coloured bags and stickers. The next time you make profits, you then add your branded bags and branded stickers. You go up from there; switch up the colour of the packaging. You have to just do things one by one. If you try to do everything at once when you don’t have the resources for it, you can frustrate yourself. Everything cannot come together at once, especially if you’re a small scale business owner funding your business yourself. You need to take it easy. 

I absolutely agree

That’s one. I would also say more people need to explore having virtual stores. You don’t always need to have a physical outlet. You need to partner with the companies that already provide virtual store features. There’s Flutterwave, amongst others. You also need to be wise with money— business money. If you are dying, it’s better you die, but leave that money alone. You need to have a structure, especially as a small scale business. You may not have a corporate account for it, but you need to separate your money. Your business money should not come into your personal account. At least, for more than the first three months, you should have different places where it’s going to. And that’s where Rise comes in. If you’re sending your money to Rise, that should be your business money. If you’re looking for it, it’s inside your Rise; don’t take out of it, don’t touch it. Business money is business money. The moment you start dipping your hand into that business money, your self control is going out of the window. That’s just the truth. So always separate business and your personal money. It is very important.

To avoid stories that touch. Do you have any more?

Yes, the third and final one. Be open to criticisms. Honestly, it’s hard, especially after you have tried your best and people make bad comments, but it’s really important to be open to it. Try to implement the ones you can. The ones you cannot implement yet, make sure your customers are aware that you know these things. Ask for feedback. If you’re a small scale business, you want to show enthusiasm. “Did you like my product?” “What do you think would be better?” Make customers feel like you want to know what they like, and what can be better. And if you manage to implement that, you can text that customer another time, “Hey, would you like to try this out again? We were able to fix that thing you complained about.” Or if you can afford to offer to send them a revised version of whatever it was that they complained about, it helps to build customer retention in that sense. Only if you can afford it, it’s not compulsory. You can just let them know that you have improved and it’s back in stock.