When Ugo Udezue left his plush job as a Nationwide Basketball Affiliation (NBA) agent at one of many prime companies in the USA 4 years in the past, he by no means imagined he would go on to pioneer the primary and solely African sports activities attire firm to formally outfit a group on the Olympic Video games in Japan this yr.
A minimum of, that wasn’t the preliminary plan.
It actually would have been simpler to remain in California with a consumer roster that included gamers from the Golden State Warriors to the Brooklyn Nets. In any case, Udezue had been within the US for the reason that mid-Nineties, when a basketball scholarship lured him from his native Nigeria.
However after he made it in America, his homeland beckoned with new alternatives.
“I got here again to Africa with the concept of beginning a continental league that may match the NBA,” the previous player-turned-agent informed Al Jazeera. “All the most effective sports activities expertise comes from Africa, even the likes of LeBron James can hint their lineage again to the motherland (sic).”
Udezue, who describes himself as Pan-African, is obsessed with unifying the continent by means of enterprise and sport.
“It’s necessary for Africans to indicate the chance within the continent, that Africa is viable for enterprise and that Africans will spend cash on a product if it’s good,” the 43-year-old mentioned.
Udezue was within the throes of creating the Continental Basketball League in 2017 when his subsequent enterprise enterprise sprouted. On the time it was merely to satisfy the excess package and tools calls for of the league, which had expanded to 10 groups in six African nations.
“After we began the league I observed that the basketballs have been very slippery as a result of they have been made for air-conditioned gyms and everyone knows that there aren’t too a lot of these in Africa,” Udezue mentioned matter-of-factly, ”so I went to China and developed a ball that absorbs sweat and instantly we witnessed much less turnovers within the recreation in consequence.”
The self-described disruptor didn’t cease there.
“From my expertise as a participant, I realised that almost all of Africans have flat toes, so we additionally developed the ‘Breeze’ shoe that accommodates that to reduce the necessity for separate insoles.”
That fashioned the premise of AFA Sports activities, which implies “Africa for Africa” and which has grown to grow to be one of many continent’s hottest sports activities merchandising and attire firms.
“Our tagline is ‘This Is Ours,’” Udezue mentioned, in reference to the normal communal tradition inside the continent. “We’re making an attempt to construct one thing that’s not individualistic.”
Certainly, the title “LIV (54)” was even inscribed on considered one of AFA’s first strains, with 54 flags to symbolize the variety of nations on the African continent.
Properly-positioned for pandemic
Udezue’s imaginative and prescient proved greater than merely idealistic. It was additionally strategic.
When the COVID-19 pandemic introduced international commerce to a standstill final yr, many companies discovered themselves struggling to remain afloat. However AFA Sports activities was well-positioned to capitalise on the sudden shift in client tastes, having launched new exercise and loungewear strains in 2019.
“When the pandemic broke out everybody wished to remain house and train,” Udezue mentioned.
Uniquely for the continent, AFA Sports activities additionally constructed its personal factories in Lagos as a part of Udezue’s acknowledged mission to decrease Nigeria’s staggering unemployment price, which formally runs above 32 p.c however is even worse while you issue within the nation’s huge casual sector.
“When the Nigerian nationwide [football] group went to the 2018 World Cup with the famously designed jersey, some huge cash was comprised of its sale worldwide however there was no manufacturing in Nigeria,” he laments. “That’s an enormous alternative misplaced for a rustic with such excessive unemployment.”
The choice to provide domestically slightly than outsource overseas paid off when international provide chains floor to a halt final yr.
“With the vast majority of worldwide airspaces closed on the time, importation was at a standstill so we obtained extremely popular as a result of we have been the one ones producing and promoting reasonably priced sports activities attire domestically,” Udezue mentioned.
And Udezue plans to proceed to capitalise on that momentum.
Whereas many companies proceed to shutter operations, AFA Sports activities – which exports to twenty nations and now has two retailers in Lagos and one in Abuja – is planning to broaden manufacturing.
“We at the moment do about 90 p.c of our manufacturing in Africa and we hope to make it one hundred pc by 2022 once we formally open our shoe manufacturing unit,” he mentioned, including that the corporate has created round 800 jobs since its launch in November 2016, and plans to have a complete of two,000 tailors by the top of this yr.
New merchandise are additionally within the pipeline, together with AFA Sports activities’ personal trademarked afrileisure model, which can Africanise leisurewear.
“We wished to modernise one thing already in existence that Africans shall be proud about, so we labored on conventional African clothes such because the kaftan and jalamia,” Sam Otigba, AFA’s inventive director, informed Al Jazeera.
For Udezue, who liquidated his financial savings and offered a few of his property to lift seed capital for AFA Sports activities, the rewards for risk-taking are all of the sweeter. However that’s to not say he hasn’t encountered his justifiable share of obstacles.
Working example: the shortage of distribution channels on the continent to facilitate cross-border commerce.
“It’s simpler to ship from Lagos to London than it’s from Lagos to Nairobi, Kenya,” he defined.
There are different infrastructure challenges as nicely. Manufacturing shoe soles takes an abundance of dependable electrical energy. Nigeria’s energy is sporadic and the nation as a complete produces solely as a lot electrical energy because the US state of North Carolina, though its inhabitants – some 200 million individuals – is 20 occasions bigger.
However Udezue has different benefits. A few of Africa’s largest leisure stars – from Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie to Nigerian singer-songwriter Patoranking – endorse AFA Sports activities.
“I truly stopped sporting different manufacturers,” Nigerian singer-songwriter Paul Okoye, also referred to as Rudeboy, informed Al Jazeera. “The character of my work is sports-like as a result of I transfer round so much so I put on AFA for my concert events as a result of it’s excellent for the climate right here.”
Okoye, now a solo artist with over 12 million followers throughout social media platforms, was one half of Africa’s arguably largest music duo, P-Sq..
Along with sponsoring the Olympic-bound Nigerian nationwide basketball group, AFA Sports activities kits groups in additional than 5 African nations, and sponsors totally different soccer leagues as nicely sports activities camps and academies.
“Sports activities can grow to be an actual financial drive for the complete continent,” says Udezue, who has just lately been appointed chairman of the Anambra Basketball Affiliation in Nigeria’s eighth-most-populous state.
“We have now the whole lot we want right here: the assets, the individuals,” he mentioned. “And hopefully, we will gentle a fireplace that may resonate throughout Africa.”