Interested in the furniture business. You’re about to learn how to start a furniture business that is very likely to succeed in Africa.
The furniture business continues to boom as the demand for home and office accommodation grows across Africa.
When people move into a new home, they need a bed to sleep on, wardrobes for their clothes, chairs, a dining table, sofas, kitchen cabinets and all kinds of furniture. Like households, offices also buy a lot of furniture too.
Africa’s growing economy and its large and rapidly growing urban population are some of the reasons why the furniture business is experiencing good times on our continent.
In this article, I shall share with you the inspiring stories of two entrepreneurs in two different African countries who started small in the furniture business and have now built hugely successful ventures.
This article also explores some of the reasons for the growth in the furniture business across Africa and shares a couple of tips to help aspiring entrepreneurs to start and succeed in the furniture business on the continent.
First, An Inspiring Furniture Business Success Story From Nigeria…
Ibukun Awosika used to work as a Showroom manager for Alibert, one of Nigeria’s well-established furniture companies.
She quit her job to start her own furniture business with a focus on high quality locally-manufactured office furniture.
She instantly faced two serious challenges. First, she had no technical experience in furniture making; she studied Chemistry at the university and had only worked at Alibert for a little less than three months before she quit the job.
Second, local furniture businesses faced stiff competition from furniture imported from USA and Europe which were very popular in Nigeria at that time. (photo credit: wimbiz.org)
Unlike most wannabe entrepreneurs who would have waited for ‘favourable’ conditions and ‘perfect’ timing to start their business, Ibukun went ahead with her idea in spite of her little experience and tough competition.
She started her small furniture business by hiring three carpenters, two tailors and two sprayers. Because she could not afford any of the big machines, her workers used their own basic tools. Work requiring larger machines were outsourced to bigger workshops for a fee.
To succeed in the business, Ibukun knew she had to match the quality of both the big and established furniture makers in Nigeria and the imported brands.
In time, her dedication to quality paid off and she started attracting some noteworthy customers.
Her first clients were some of the banks and multinational companies which used to be supplied by the big furniture companies. She established a reputation for high quality and the business grew through referrals by satisfied customers.
Ibukun grew the business by reinvesting her profits to purchase her own new machines and equipment.
In a bid to develop the local furniture industry and create jobs, the Nigerian government introduced a ban on imported furniture in 2004. This change presented a huge opportunity for local furniture businesses like Ibukun’s.
To exploit this advantage, her company, The Chair Centre Limited, formed a joint venture partnership with Sokoa SA, arguably the biggest office furniture maker in France. Under this partnership, a modern furniture manufacturing factory was built in Nigeria for the local production of world-class and international standard office furniture.
Today, Ibukun is the Managing Director of the Sokoa Chair Centre, a local company that sells several models and designs of office furniture and rakes in over two million dollars in sales every year.
Ibukun’s experience is an inspiring story of a visionary entrepreneur who in spite of her inexperience and little capital was able to transform her small furniture company into an amazing multi-million dollar enterprise. Truly inspiring!
Yes, Another Amazing Success Story!
One of the easiest ways to prove that a business idea is worthy of your attention is to learn from inspiring success stories. That’s why I decided to share another interesting furniture success story with you.
This time, our inspiring entrepreneur is from Uganda. And guess what? She’s also female!
It appears the ladies have found an interesting business opportunity in furniture, an enterprise that is perceived to be traditionally dominated by men. (photo credit: roseandfitzgerald.com)
Eve Zalwango owns and runs Awaka, a startup furniture business that produces custom-made furniture pieces from locally sourced wood in Uganda.
Located in Kampala, the capital city, Awaka (which means ‘hope’ in Uganda) makes and sells sofas, beds, dining tables, and many other custom-made furniture pieces.
Unlike traditional furniture businesses that sell the items they make to customers, Awaka is quite different. Customers specify the design they want (type of wood, colours, shape, size etc) and Awaka makes the furniture! Yes, completely custom-made!
A custom-made hardwood dining set by Awaka Limited, Uganda (Photo credit: yellow.ug)
In a market where most furniture items are poor quality and overpriced, Awaka has built a reputation for itself as a business that offers reasonably-priced furniture, art and décor by Ugandan craftsmen.
Locally sourced wood such as Mahogany, Mvule, Iron wood, Elgon Olive, Mugavu, Enkalati and Sudanese teak are some of the wood used to produce Awaka’s beautiful and durable furniture pieces.
In fact, her furniture pieces are so artful; no nails are used in making them. Awesome craftsmanship!
Due to the high artistic quality of her work, her biggest individual clients are high-income and elite consumers who can afford these furniture. In fact, more than 80 percent of her clients are foreigners (expatriates) who live in Uganda.
Eve’s business has also attracted some big corporate clients in Uganda like MTN, Umeme, Total E&P and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). And business is really booming for this promising startup. Awaka makes between 10 and 15 deliveries every week and makes up to $200,000 in sales every year.
Eve was featured on CNN’s African Start-Up programme early this year.
In the short (3-minute) video below, she shares the story about how she grew a small furniture business with less than 10 employees into a successful venture with over 30 permanent staff and trains hundreds of youths every year in its elite carpentry and joinery course.
As part of her dream to do business sustainably in Africa, Awaka partners with Uganda’s forestry authorities to plant over 10,000 hardwood and softwood trees every year to ensure a sustainable supply of raw materials – today and in the future.
Why Is The Furniture Business Booming In Africa?
The furniture business is not just booming in Nigeria and Uganda; it’s booming across Africa. As is my usual practice on Smallstarter, let’s look at four strong factors responsible for the huge growth in the furniture business on our continent. Here they are…
#1 – Africa’s Real Estate Boom Is Rubbing Off On The Furniture Business.
From Lagos in West Africa to Nairobi in East Africa, it is very difficult to not notice the vast amount of construction work in many of Africa’s cities and towns.
Residential estates and complexes, office buildings, guest house lodgings, three and five-star hotels, new schools and campuses are rising up everywhere. The demand for all kinds of accommodation is rising very fast on the continent and there is a growing investment in real estate to satisfy this demand.
As more people move into new homes and open new business offices, furniture will be required. When new schools are built, desks and chairs will be needed. New hotels will often require tastefully designed beds, wardrobes and several other fixtures and fittings.
I guess you see the connection here; higher demand for home and office accommodation is leading to a high demand for furniture pieces!
Nobody builds, buys or rents an apartment in order to live in an empty space.
What is a home or office without furniture? It’s too difficult to imagine!
Just remember this simple rule: Wherever the real estate business grows, the furniture business grows, and vice versa. Wherever people are looking for accommodation, they will soon be looking for furniture too!
#2 – The Growth Of Africa’s Cities Favours The Furniture Business
Cities and other urban areas are the major source of demand for furniture products around the world.
The demand for furniture is much higher in the urban than in rural areas. How come?
Because there are more offices, modern accommodation, hotels and schools in the cities and these are the biggest buyers and users of furniture.
As a result of sustained migration from the rural areas, more than 40 percent of Africa’s one billion people now live in urban areas (cities and towns).
At the current rate of growth, more than 500 million Africans will live in cities by 2030. As the population of Africa’s cities and towns increases, this will naturally increase the demand for real estate; residential accommodation, office space, hotels and schools.
At the moment, just a little over 50 African cities have a population equal to or more than one million people. At the current rate of migration, the number of cities in Africa with over one million people is expected to reach 65 by the year 2030.
Because more people are flocking to cities and towns in search of jobs and a better life, they are helping to increase the demand for accommodation.
Don’t forget, when the demand for accommodation rises, the demand for furniture is never far behind. (photo credit: awaka.ug)
#3 – Fast Growing Economies And Rising Income Levels
While the global economy is predicted to grow by 2 to 3 percent between 2011 and 2020, Africa is expected to grow by nearly 6 percent, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing regions.
This positive trend will usher nearly 300 million Africans into the middle class and will lead to huge spending on real estate and construction for housing and office accommodation.
Of course, whenever and wherever there is an investment in a real estate or construction project, there is always an opportunity for furniture businesses.
Africans in this economic ‘middle class’ are usually urban dwellers who hold salaried jobs or own and operate a small business. Many of them are young, educated, and more aware of modern consumer tastes and trends in furniture and interior decoration.
This segment of consumers are willing to spend more on furniture and fittings that suit their higher tastes.
#4 – Favourable Government Policies In Some African Countries
For many years, imported furniture from North America and Europe dominated African markets and made it very difficult for local furniture businesses to thrive. This is still the case in many countries on the continent.
However, in countries like Nigeria,, imported furniture has been banned since 2004. This has allowed several local furniture companies to grow and become very successful. A classic example of such a success is the Sokoa Chair Centre, a partnership between a major French furniture maker and a local Nigerian company.
In Kenya, the Public Procurement Oversight Authority (PPOA) has released regulations that restrict government offices and public entities from buying imported furniture. All government spending on furniture will now go to local Kenyan furniture businesses.
This is huge because the government is arguably the biggest spender in Kenya and local furniture businesses will get a huge boost from this initiative.
Banning imported furniture is a good way for African governments to develop and support local furniture businesses. As more countries on the continent impose bans on imported furniture, smart entrepreneurs can seize such opportunities to tap into a very lucrative market.
Want To Start Your Own Furniture Business? Here Are Four Success Tips!
You may have always had an eye for the furniture business or maybe you have been inspired by this article and would like to start or invest in a furniture business. Afterall, if these amazing entrepreneurs from Nigeria and Uganda could pull it off in the business, you too can surely give it a go.
Here are a couple of tips you should have in mind as you consider this promising business idea.
#1 – Skill Is Not A Mandatory Requirement!
Did you notice something common in the experiences of the successful entrepreneurs I shared with you earlier in this article?
Yes, you’re right; none of them are skilled craftsmen or artisans in the furniture business.
When they started, they knew nothing about joining pieces of wood together or the technical details of carpentry, finishing and furniture making.
How come? How is it possible that these amazing entrepreneurs were able to build successful furniture-making businesses without having any technical skill in furniture making?
Well, you shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not always our job as entrepreneurs to make stuff. Instead, we ‘organize the making of stuff.’ Why do you need to make the furniture yourself when you can hire experienced and talented craftsmen who are well versed in the art of furniture making?
Many of these guys can produce very beautiful and durable furniture but often lack the exposure to sell their work for a good price. That’s where you, the entrepreneur, come in. You identify the needs of the market and use your hired craftsmen to produce the furniture that the market wants. (photo credit: meanderingsinthread.com)
Don’t get me wrong, skill is always important. You, the entrepreneur, may not need skill to start this business, but you need a lot of skilled labour to produce the kind of quality and beautiful furniture that customers will want to pay for.
The better skilled your workers, furniture makers and craftsmen are, the better your products will be!
#2 – Start Small But Dream Big
Starting small is our most favourite advice on smallstarter.com. Ibukun started her multi-million dollar furniture business in Nigeria by hiring machines she couldn’t afford to own. She didn’t even have an equipped workshop when she started the business!
Today, she runs one of Africa’s largest indigenous furniture businesses.
The furniture business is one of those few flexible types that you can start on a small scale. Starting small allows you to take action while you learn the business and grow. Waiting until you have all the capital to buy all the equipment you need and hire all the talented craftsmen you want is a futile strategy.
Waiting to ‘start big’ is one of the common excuses we covered in our popular article – Sad But True; 5 Reasons You May Never Start A Business In Your Lifetime.
#3 – Find A Unique Spot In The Market And Fill It!
It’s very likely that you will not be the first furniture business in your area. You need to find something extra that will make you stand out from the other furniture businesses out there.
Like Awaka, the successful Ugandan furniture business that builds only custom-made furniture, you have to find a niche for yourself. Focus on building a brand that will be remembered for quality, beauty, convenience and eye-catching designs.
Don’t forget that any business that is easy to start usually attracts a lot of competitors in due course.
Finding a niche for yourself will protect you from the copycats who will definitely flood the market when they find out there’s money to be made. As long as your products stay unique and you keep your customers loyal, success will definitely be yours.
Photo credit: meanderingsinthread.com
#4 – Local Or Imported Furniture? Which Is Best?
Should you start a business in local or imported furniture? Is local furniture more preferable to imported varieties, or vice versa?
The simple answer is: it depends.
It depends on the taste, preferences and demand of the people in your market.
Some consumers (like hotels, offices and rich people) prefer foreign furniture for reasons of brand appeal or because they ‘perceive’ the locally produced items as poor quality. Some other people cannot afford imported furniture because they can be very expensive.
Whichever type of furniture (local or imported) you decide to deal in should be based on the needs and demand of the customers you plan to target.
Some buyers are more concerned about beauty, quality and durability, and will pay high prices to get furniture that meets these requirements. Some other buyers are highly influenced by cost and their choices are limited to the price of the furniture. They will love to have beautiful and high quality furniture only if it can fit into their budget.
The bottom line is: you need to know what your target customer wants and then you give it to them!
In all of this, you should not forget that some African countries (like Nigeria) forbid imported furniture. The only option in such markets is to use the available resources to make furniture that suits the different types of customers in the market.
Now you know how to start a furniture business in Africa…
The furniture business never runs out of fashion. People buy new furniture all the time either as first time buyers or because they can afford bigger and better designs/models.
Everyday people like you and I buy furniture. New offices open across our cities and both small and big hotels are always looking for interesting and beautiful furniture.
Especially in a fast-emerging economic region like Africa, the demand for furniture will continue to grow in leaps and bounds!
We believe that the opportunity and information I have shared with you in this article can be taken further by your creativity and energy.
You could also look at many more interesting and lucrative business ideas in the Business ideas section of this website. (photo credit: adirondackalmanack.com)
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To your success!