Chekwas Okafor’s E-Commerce Business ONYCHEK Puts The Spotlight On African Luxury Fashions
When most people think of luxury fashion, they tend to think of European and American brands, but if entrepreneur Chekwas Okafor has his way you will soon starting thinking of African brands as well. Okafor has started a luxury fashion e-commerce website called ONYCHEK.com where all the high-end fashions are solely African made, including clothing and accessories for men and women. And the designers come from all over the continent, and include such household names as Kenya’s Adele Dejak and South Africa’s MaXhosa by Laduma.
Okafor grew up in Aba, Nigeria, with his parents and three sisters. After completing high school at 16, he attended the University in Nigeria for two years. In 2009, he moved to the U.S. to continue his studies and received his BS in Biology at HBCU Voorhees College in South Carolina. Today, Chekwas, 26, lives in Upstate New York.
Okafor, who launched his site in September 2016, named the digital venture after his father ‘s textile company which once imported textiles from China to Nigeria. Okafor recently gave MadameNoire the inside scoop on the African luxury market and his plans for growth.
MadameNoire (MN): What made you want to start ONYCHEK.com?
Chekwas Okafor (CO): I started ONYCHEK.com to make luxury fashion made in Africa easily accessible to the world. I chose to focus on “made in Africa” because I believe by supporting those brands that are making their products in Africa, we can increase the demand for those products while creating jobs and preserving culture.
MN: What are the markets in Africa for luxury brands?
CO: The African luxury industry is still in its adolescence. Although luxury has been present in Africa, the modern form of it, as we know it, is relatively new. Not a lot of people associate Africa with luxury. This is also evident in the African market. So currently the relatively small African luxury market are the people who are well-traveled and have come to appreciate local brands more. These are people who believe that quality products can be made in Africa and they see themselves are pioneers in sharing this story.
CO: ONYCHEK.com is an e-commerce platform for luxury fashion made in Africa. We currently hold all of our products in New York, so all orders, no matter where the products are made, are shipped from New York. This means that our U.S. customers receive their products within 3-5 days of purchase.
MN: How did you fund the startup?
CO: I withdrew money from my retirement account and have been bootstrapping since then.
MN: What were you doing prior to this?
CO: I was a health and safety manager at a fortune 500 building material manufacturing company in the Upstate NY region.
MN: What were some startup challenges?
CO: Just like many other startups, I had my challenges.
One of the biggest challenges I had was that I knew nothing about the African fashion industry. I was a biology major and I was working in the health and safety industry–absolutely no correlation. I also didn’t know anything about e-commerce or even writing code. For me to build a long-term company that was aimed at tackling the African fashion industry, I had to be familiar with different aspects of the business. Therefore, I spent the next two years just learning. Though long and challenging, it was worthwhile.
Being new to an industry wasn’t helpful neither. This created a challenged when I was ready to reach out to designers I wanted to work with. I understood that people are particularly protective of their brands. Who wouldn’t be? They had worked hard to build their companies from the ground up. I just didn’t know that only a few brands would be willing to work with me. I started reaching out to brands to let them know of my idea and what problem I was out to solve for them. Let’s just say, a lot of brands weren’t that open to it, while some gave me a chance. This was much harder than I expected.
Having limited capital was also a challenge as I was bootstrapping. I had to learn to do a lot of things myself–writing code, photography, Photoshop–to keep cost low, so it made launching take a little longer than I expected. Although this proved to be challenging, it has forced me to learn different aspects of the business and thus, slightly advantageous.
This is a challenge that was clear to me before going into it. Most people don’t yet associate Africa will quality products. People tend to wonder why African-made products are expensive. I don’t blame them as they’ve probably heard otherwise for decades. This is why we are focused on educating people about these brands and how their products are made. How much craftsmanship that goes into making one of these, mostly handmade, products. This, I believe, in the long run, will change how people perceive African made products.
MN: I understand you a were a biology student at Voorhees College? Why did you choose to study at an HBCU? And what was the experience like?
CO: The main reason I went to attend Voorhees College was because they gave me the most money. But when I got there, it became more than just the free ride. I can almost credit most of my leadership experience to attending Voorhees College (VC). It is a small HBCU, where everybody knew everybody. This gave me access to professors who genuinely wanted my success. Not only that, at VC, I learned more about myself. Prior to coming to VC, I didn’t see myself as a leader. It was at VC that I was put in a position where I had no option but to lead and do it well. I ended up founding a Rotary Club in college to help serve people in the community and eventually becoming the SGA President. I learned valuable skills in those experiences. Skills that I still use today.
MN: How did you go from biology to fashion?
CO: Very early in life, my parents made it clear to me that, in this life, I would have to be of service to my community. I have grown up with that in my mind, so I was open to anything that I could do that will be of service to my community–Africa.
Going to biology, in the first place, was my attempt to stay away from fashion. I grew up in a household where dad imported textiles from China to Nigeria, so I was all around it. I didn’t want to do that because I couldn’t see how that could positively impact Africa. Moreover, dad wanted me to be a doctor–typical Nigerian.
I also sold clothes from my dorm room in college, but also stopped that because I couldn’t see a way that could, in the long run, create jobs in Africa.
After my several attempts to stay away from fashion, in 2014, I learned about Nigerian designers that were making beautiful clothing that nobody quite knew about. This was when I paid closer attention to the fashion industry. I figured out that fashion could be a vehicle of change. A vehicle to serve my community. Once I made that connection, I knew I would go into fashion. It was just left to me to bridge the knowledge gap. I did.
MN: So fashion runs in the family.
CO: Yes, although we didn’t see it that way growing up. Dad imported textiles for quite some time. To him, it was just a business–not necessarily a fashion business. He saw himself as just a middleman, serving customers’ needs. Looking back, it was actually a fashion business.
MN: What are some goals for this year?
CO: We started with limited brands, so one big goal is to add more designers to the platform, so our customers can experience a wider variety of brands of different African countries.