For many founders, starting a business often comes with identifying a need which is exactly what happened with Wunmi Akinsola. After working on the fashion scene in London and then with Jumia, she craved a certain kind of job where e-commerce, fashion, and tech intersected as those were the three industries in which she had first-hand experience. However, as she embarked on the journey of discovery, it became obvious that no such role existed. Essentially, if she was going to fulfill that objective, she would have to create it. From there, Fashtracker was born. Talking via Zoom, she walks me through her lightbulb moment saying, “I worked at Jumia in the fashion category and that was so much fun. Then, I wanted to work in e-commerce, but like more niche, still wanted to work in tech, but more niche like fashion. But there was nowhere to do that in Nigeria. I realized that this company that I want to work for in Nigeria doesn’t actually exist. So I started realizing that it’s actually a problem that needs to be solved for a lot of people, brands, and end-users. That’s sort of what led me to start Fashtracker.”
With the idea ready to go, Akinsola went to work in 2020. Utilizing the skills she had garnered throughout her impressive career she built the first edition of the website herself. From co-founding a fashion brand called Virgos Lounge with her siblings in 2008 then interning at a couple of consulting firms in the UK to working as a project manager for the 2018 Bridal Fashion Week in Lagos and leading Jumia’s Women’s Fashion Category, she had unwittingly acquired everything she needed to create a digital fashion marketplace for the African audience. It also helped that she had the right foundational knowledge base with a degree in Fashion and Textiles from the University of Kent, and a master’s in Innovation, Entrepreneur, and Finance from Loughborough University. I point out the remarkable connection between the jobs she has had and how they all explain, in part her current journey. She agrees saying, “I think that every single thing I’ve done has been super relevant to what I’m doing today. There is not one wasted period of time, work experience, or job. I know a lot of people say they wasted a certain year or that a certain job was not useful but the truth is that it usually always sort of helps or balances itself out in the end. And you find you’re using business skills you picked up from here or here, but mine is really scary accurate, like how much every single thing I’ve done has come into play with what I’m doing now.”
In the first months of its lifespan, Fashtracker was a one-woman business with Akinsola serving as CEO, CTO, and any role the company required her to take on. For Fashtracker to fulfill its potential, brands had to get on the platform in order for the buyers to find them. The fashion designers and retailers had to be trustworthy brands while the customers had to have easy access to keep them coming back. Fortunately, her reputation in the fashion space meant that she was able to overcome this initial challenge of getting brands on the platform despite a lean marketing budget. With one challenge behind her, she shifted her focus to user acquisition for buyers and driving traffic to the platform so the brands had a reason to keep putting their clothes on Fashtracker.
“Fashion is a really sensitive industry, there’s branding, marketing, imagery, and brand perceptions,” she explains. “That’s why fashion brands or owners don’t usually want to just put their stuff on any marketplace or on any website because that damages their brand. So they can be very conscious. I found that they want more dedicated niche platforms to be able to sell their product, to be able to tell their stories as well, you know, just, that more dedicated experience to being a fashion brand. On the end-user, obviously, I think just all of us as women, we are always looking forward to buying stuff, whether it’s everyday stuff or occasion wear and it’s nice to shop in Nigeria. You don’t always want to go on an international site from Nigeria every time you need something because that takes a while. So, we are solving that issue for people here so they can have a platform to turn to if they’re looking for a pair of jeans or a nice dress. They know that there’s somewhere to go to search for nice, trusted, high-quality cool stuff and that didn’t really exist. This is something that we are really trying to be for the end-user.”
While some of the initial challenges have been dealt with, others remain as Akinsola works hard to ensure that the business is well served to excel against the backdrop of a fashion e-commerce market which is notoriously difficult to crack. On the problems she now faces, she says, “Every week, something new comes up. But something I am starting to realize is that for the success of any sort of technology-related business in Africa, you are usually probably having to fix other structural things that might exist in other geographies. In the fashion industry, for example, you would find that there are a lot of issues with standardization and logistics. You find that a lot of eCommerce companies are fixing issues with logistics because they need that infrastructure for their technology solution; their eCommerce platforms to work. I’m finding that there are other aspects of the value chain I have to be involved in, to a certain degree anyway, from logistics, manufacturing to content creation, just so that that eCommerce platform can be successful. Concerning logistics, it’s going well, it’s not bad at all. I mean we are still at the point where we are trying and testing out different ideas, different companies, and different partners, but I think generally, it’s not bad.”
With the “What I Ordered Vs What I Got” memes constantly flying around online, it is understandable that some people are distrustful of online shopping. Broaching the subject, Akinsola contextualizes this by noting that she’s also a latter-day convert to online shopping. “I had just moved to England and I was shopping on ASOS,” she says. “I think I bought a pair of sandals or something because that was how much risk I’m willing to take with online shopping. It actually came and I thought, “wow, this is a game-changer.” How I felt then is probably how a lot of people here are feeling right now.” It is in response to this that she’s inspired to work harder to ensure that Fashtracker is accessible to local and foreign customers as the demand for African fashion continues to grow. To battle the mistrust, she says, it’s about “First of all, educating and making people more aware of what e-commerce is and how it actually makes their life easier. Making them aware that it is safe and secure. I think the brunt of the work is actually in awareness. And then improving the quality of the service and the technology of the platform; improving ways that people can have a better experience, find more innovative technology solutions for people to try stuff virtually before they can get it. Ways to get their measurements taken because African sizes are not the same as the average global standard size. Being aware of that and trying to find solutions that cater to Africans and even those in the diaspora.”
Over a year later since its inception, Fashtracker has evolved into a team of six with about 30 brands on the platform, completed thousands of dollars worth of transactions, and grown by 50% quarter on quarter. The company won TechCabal’s Future of Commerce pitch contest in 2021 and recently a grant from Standard Chartered. The company has also launched a new vertical called Skinntracker to ‘Fashtrack’ skincare. With everything going smoothly for her, Akinsola is in no rush to scale up quickly. She explains why: “I think a lot of platforms in the past have overreached before it was time. I really believe in slow growth and sustainable growth. I really believe in finding what works first before expanding or scaling. I really believe that I should be able to find a lot of success on a smaller scale first because Africans and Nigerians are just different in the way that we absorb fashion. It’s just not the same as other parts of the world. So, to just bring those ideas and try and replicate them to the T is just not going to work. I’m guessing that’s what happened to a lot of brands. So I’m really trying to be able to balance out caring about the right things at the right time and just not being in too much of a rush to get there. It’s a very dicey market. So I am just trying to be careful.”
Back in 2017, a Statista report predicted that revenue in Africa’s e-commerce sector would rise to $47 billion by 2024. Now Euromonitor says African fashion is estimated to be worth $31 million with AfDB saying that Africa’s textile industry could generate $15.5 billion in revenue within the next five years with the ongoing mass adoption of eCommerce. “I definitely think the industry has so much potential,” she says when we discuss the future of the local industry. “I think that there’s a lot more that can be done. I don’t even think we’ve scratched the surface, to be honest. I think it’s still super early stages. I can think of a million things we are still yet to do in the industry. Then there are offline aspects of that field like manufacturing and improving the supply. But I think the supply and the eCommerce demand are growing side by side.”
With her head in the right place, Akinsola’s next steps involve building the infrastructure and improving the overall service. She plans to bring in more skilled people, focus on the technology of the web-based platform and the app. Her other plans include working a little bit harder on vendor acquisition and customer acquisition as well as marketing.
We end our delightful conversation with some advice for young female entrepreneurs. In her words, “I think just deciding what part of the statistic you’re going to be on and doing everything you can not to be on the failed side. You hear 70% of women don’t do this, but there are 30% that do, how do you get yourself into that 30%? Most of the successful women I know, or aspire to be like don’t let statistics define them and they don’t use them as excuses. I find that a lot of young women do that. They say, “We can’t find funding. We can’t do this.” And it’s true. It’s not a lie. They’re very right. Those issues do exist. But think about yourself and how to avoid being in the statistics that don’t get those opportunities. I think that’s all I can really say to anyone because that’s the way I try to think recently. It’s only a recent thing I’ve discovered. You cant complain forever. How you approach situations is what you usually get out of them. So if you go into it focusing on the difficulties, then it probably will be difficult. But if you go into thinking, “there’s nothing that can stop me and there’s no amount of nos or failures that is going to stop me from being successful.” Most of the people who think like this usually tend to end up being successful even though it’s not as quickly as men but you will get there.”