When four years ago, Ugo Udezue left his happy job as an agent for the National Basketball Association (NBA) in one of the most important firms in the United States, he never imagined that he would be the pioneer of the first and only company African sportswoman who officially wore a team to this year’s Japan Olympics.
At least that wasn’t the initial plan.
It would certainly have been easier to stay in California with a client list that included Golden State Warriors players in the Brooklyn Nets. After all, Udezue had been in the United States since the mid-1990s, when a basketball scholarship drew him from his native Nigeria.
But after arriving in America, his homeland attracted new opportunities.
“I came back to Africa with the idea of starting a continental league that matched the NBA,” the former agent-turned-agent told Al Jazeera. “All the best sporting talent comes from Africa, even people from LeBron James can trace their lineage to the homeland (sic).”
Udezue, who describes himself as pan-African, is passionate about unifying the continent through business and sport.
“It is important that Africans show opportunity on the continent, that Africa is viable for business and that Africans spend money on a product if it is good,” the 43-year-old said.
Udezue was about to establish the Continental Basketball League in 2017, when his next company emerged. At the time it was simply to meet the demands for surplus equipment and equipment from the league, which had been expanded to 10 teams from six African countries.
“When we started the league, I realized that basketballs were very slippery because they were made for air-conditioned gyms and we all know there aren’t too many in Africa,” Udezue said accurately. in China and I developed a ball that absorbed sweat and we immediately witnessed fewer rotations in the game ”.
The self-described disruptor did not stop here.
“From my experience as a player, I realized that most Africans have flat feet, so we also developed the ‘Breeze’ shoe that fits this to lessen the need for separate insoles.”
This was the premise of AFA Sports, which means “Africa for Africa” and has become one of the hottest sportswear and merchandising companies on the continent.
“Our slogan is ‘This is ours,'” Udezue said, referring to the continent’s traditional communal culture. “We try to build something that is not individualistic.”
In fact, the name “LIV (54)” was even inscribed on one of the front lines of the AFA, with 54 flags representing the number of countries on the African continent.
Well positioned in case of a pandemic
Udezue’s view was more than merely idealistic. It was also strategic.
When the COVID-19 pandemic stopped world trade last year, many companies found themselves struggling to stay afloat. But AFA Sports was well positioned to take advantage of the sudden change in consumer tastes as it launched new lines of training and salon clothing in 2019.
“When the pandemic broke out everyone wanted to stay home and exercise,” Udezue said.
Exclusively for the continent, AFA Sports also built its own factories in Lagos as part of Udezue’s stated mission to reduce Nigeria’s staggering unemployment rate, which officially exceeds 32%, but it is still worse when you consider the vast informal sector of the country.
“When the Nigerian national [football] the team went to the 2018 World Cup with the famous designed t-shirt, they made a lot of money with its sale all over the world, but there was no production in Nigeria, ”he laments.“ This is a great opportunity. lost to a country with such high unemployment. “
The decision to produce locally rather than outsource abroad paid off when global supply chains stopped last year.
“With most international airspace closed at the time, imports were stalled, so we were very popular because we were the only ones producing and selling affordable sportswear locally,” Udezue said.
And Udezue plans to continue to take advantage of that momentum.
While many companies continue to operate with shutters, AFA Sports, which exports to 20 countries and now has two stores in Lagos and one in Abuja, plans to expand production.
“We currently do about 90 percent of our production in Africa and expect to do 100 percent in 2022 when we officially open our shoe factory,” he said, adding that the company has set up around 800 jobs since its launch and is scheduled to have a total of 2,000 tailors by the end of this year.
New products are also being prepared, including the afrileisure brand of the AFA Sports brand, which will Africanize leisure clothing.
“We wanted to modernize something that already existed and make Africans proud, so we worked on traditional African clothing, like kaftan and jalamia,” AFA creative director Sam Otigba told Al Jazeera.
For Udezue, who liquidated his savings and sold some of his assets to raise seed capital for AFA Sports, the rewards for taking risks are sweeter. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t found his obstacles.
Specific case: the lack of distribution channels on the continent to facilitate cross-border trade.
“It’s easier to ship from Lagos to London than from Lagos to Nairobi, Kenya,” he explained.
There are also other infrastructure challenges. The manufacture of shoe soles requires a lot of reliable electricity. Nigeria’s power is sporadic and the country as a whole produces only as much electricity as the US state of North Carolina, even though its population (about 200 million people) is 20 times larger.
But Udezue has other advantages. Some of Africa’s top entertainment stars, from Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie to Nigerian singer-songwriter Patoranking, support AFA Sports.
“In fact, I stopped wearing other brands,” Nigerian singer-songwriter Paul Okoye, also known as Rudeboy, told Al Jazeera. “The nature of my work is sporty because it moves me a lot, so I wear AFA for my concerts because it’s perfect for the weather here.”
Okoye, now a solo artist with more than 12 million followers across social media platforms, was half of Africa’s largest music duo, P-Square.
In addition to sponsoring the Nigerian national basketball team with an Olympic destination, AFA Sports equips teams from more than five African countries and sponsors different football leagues as well as sports camps and academies.
“Sports can become a real economic force for the whole continent,” says Udezue, who has recently been named president of the Anambra Basketball Association in Nigeria’s eighth most populous state.
“We have everything we need here: resources, people,” he said. “And we hope we can light a fire that resonates across Africa.”