Agbeyo Rhoda is the Founder, Chief Executive Officer and Creative Director of Rhoda Michael Fashion Academy. With a degree in Bio-Chemistry from the University of Lagos, and a Masters degree in Marketing, Rhoda decided to go into fashion. Now, she churns out students each year through her fashion school, Rhoda Michaels Fashion Institute.

She spoke to VIVIAN ONYEBUKWA on her journey to fashion business and other things.

Why did you go into fashion?

I love fashion. I enjoy creating things, not just fashion. I also love business and my mum was a fashion designer. So, it was just easy. She taught me everything. I also learnt from all her mistakes. I was literally born into it.

How would you describe your journey in the past 25 years?

It has been interesting. For me, maybe because I love challenges, I love to be positive and always look at things from the bright side. I don’t stay in negativity for too long because if you dwell there, then it will consume you. Sometimes, you have the mountain top and sometimes it’s the valley. It comes with the business and it’s not going to change.

What were the challenges you encountered at the beginning?

I don’t like focusing on the challenges; they would always come and go. The basic challenges include electricity, lack of infrastructure and lack of funds. But when you sit down and map out your strategies, you will overcome the challenges. You learn from it and you will be stronger.

You just had your annual end of the year event where you also churned out new graduates. What’s different in this year’s event?

Although every year we graduate students as entrepreneurs, this year, we were very intentional because of the situation in the country. It is not everybody that can japa. Japa is not that interesting anyway. The only reason people japa is because of the way Nigeria is, security and other things. But if things were good, nobody would japa. But now, how do we create this alternative for the young people coming up? How do we make the business atmosphere more profitable for the young person coming up? Because if you look at it, the economic instability is global. It is not really peculiar to our country, although we have issues that make it peculiar, and there are times that it might also get worse. So what do we do? We can’t all jump ship. So few of us that are left would have to figure out a way to make this work. So this year we were very intentional that we have to make entrepreneurship work. If you are not going to be an entrepreneur, we have to make you the best employee, because truly if you cannot serve, you cannot even lead. So we have to create a situation whereby first, we created employees from all our students before we turned them to budding entrepreneurs. So hence, we had to register their businesses, so they are standing as businesses this year. We also thought them diligence and time management which are necessary for their businesses. So we had to work from inside out.

Approximately, how many graduates do you churn out every year?

Each year we train an average of 20 to 50 students. It depends. You have to be certified and the process of being certified is important because most times you need to go abroad and they have to call us here for references, and we need to show that indeed this person was here. So that’s what makes the certificate special.  There are different steps and you have to handle them with care. So, you have to take them through the process of liaising with models, negotiating with tailors, understanding the rudiments of the fashion industry, take them on excursions and talk to other fashion designers. This year, what we even did was to take them to alumni’s fashion houses. This helps them to understand that this journey is a profitable one.

Did you or any of your students benefit from any of the government initiatives?

When it comes to loans, it is easy to collect. If you do not have an enabling environment, how can you repay a loan of 10 to 22 per cent interest? It is not realistic and so we do not train our students to go in that direction. What we teach you to do, you must actually make money from it. This is because a lot of things are involved when it comes to pushing a product. If you don’t get your marketing niche right, then there is a problem. That is why you see people getting in trouble. It is because those percentages are unrealistic.

How are you going to ensure that they have the necessary funding?

You don’t have to depend on loans. You shouldn’t even take loans, as far as we are concerned. You are just a budding entrepreneur. You don’t even know the pitfalls yet. So, what we teach them is to start from the scratch. There are some stages that if you skip you will meet it in front and you will meet it at a higher level. When you start from the scratch, you will understand the rudiments of the business. What you cannot solve without money, you cannot solve with money. If you pump a lot of money into fashion, it would take it but it won’t bring it out at the rate at which you pumped it. Fashion is ever evolving; it’s changing. So, we just taught them the pay-as-you-go syndrome. If you try this and it’s not working, then you can try something else. When you start with one machine, then two or three years later, you can get another machine. Then five years down the line, you can start saying you want to collect money, because now you know what you are doing.

Funny enough, in this generation, three to five years is another learning curve again. You are starting another stage. Fashion is actually something that can bankroll itself if you know what you are doing.

Do you always have fashion shows?

Related News

We have fashion shows every year. This has been the pattern and we have the graduation as well. This year was smaller because we considered the economy as well. It is usually about 80 per cent of the cost that is sponsored by the school.

What inspires you for the training that you do?

The only reason people are going away from the country is the way Nigeria is in terms of security. If things were good, nobody would japa. But how do we create this alternative? Personally, I don’t like living outside the country. If I travel, after two weeks, I have to come back home. Home is home. How do I make it more habitable for the young person coming up? How do we make the business atmosphere more profitable? The economic instability is not really peculiar to Nigeria, although it could be better. For the few of us that are left, we have to figure out how we can make it work.

So, this year we were very intentional. The reason is that we have to make entrepreneurship work. If you are not going to be the best entrepreneur, we have to make you the best employee. But truly, if you cannot serve, you cannot even lead. First, we created employees from all our students and then turned them to budding entrepreneurs.

Hence, we had to register their businesses and they are standing as businesses this year. Experience is the best teacher but it doesn’t have to be your experience. If you can climb the shoulders of those who have actually been there, then it makes it easier. So, that is what we give them. In as much as we are a school, we are also a surviving business in Nigeria. So it’s easy to impact the principles that we have learnt. We just teach them how to start with the barest minimum.

You don’t have to have it all because at the end of the day, you realise that it is not only the cutting and sewing. Anybody can cut and sew. What they lack is that entrepreneurial spirit. That ability to collaborate, communicate and network. So, those were the key principles this year. We also taught them diligence and time management. No matter how successful you are and you don’t have those skills, everything is just a waste.

How long have you been in the industry?

I have been in the sector for the past 25 years, even though I have been in it since I was eight years old. I quit designing 10 years ago because you cannot be competing with your students. Now, I do more of mentoring. My mum had a fashion school called Parent Care Fashion College then in Agege and Iyana Ipaja, Lagos and she just kept me there.

Do you have an area of specialisation?

We do everything from children, male, female wear and bridals. This year we have gone hybrid, which means that the school is both digital and physical. We got students from outside Nigeria and last year, all our students graduated from Accra Fashion school in Ghana. We took them all to Ghana. It can be anywhere next time. Ours is just to expose our students and to make sure that our certificate is really strong so that anywhere you go with it, they will know that it is credible.

How would you describe the impact of the economy on your business in the past one year?

I must say that it hasn’t been a very good year because of the fuel subsidy removal, not just the naira. Most designers rely on the generator; the fuel is already at par with diesel. The small designer is bearing that impact. I always advise that when there is no electricity, use the black head machine to sew. Also, get the smaller generator. You don’t have to use the bigger one. If you are not careful, the fuelling would consume your profit.

How can the government improve the industry?

Let them just create the enabling environment. If there is light, access to market, access to products. Make sure that the young designers in Nigeria are able to export their products.  So, that is what the government can do to make things easier for people.

Tell us about your mum

She is retired now. She does bridals sometimes.  For me, combining motherhood with designing was easy because I understood the seasons. I know the successes that I would have in ten years’ time and those that I would have in 20 years time. If you can understand that and do things according to your environment, then you would be fine. The truth is that a woman can’t have it all. No matter how you sweet talk it. So, if this business is taking 25 per cent, then I am giving it my all. That is what I have done and I have been able to balance it all.

Apart from your mum, do you have other mentors in the sector?

There are so many of them. You have the western designers and even the local ones in Nigeria. You have influences from right, left and centre. When you are an artistic person, you just have to pick from everybody. So, I can’t say that it is one specific person, that won’t be fair. One major thing that drives me is how to bring young people into the fashion industry.