When Ugo Udezue quit his position as a National Basketball Association (NBA) agent at one of America’s top companies four years ago, he never imagined he would pioneer the first and the only African sportswear company to officially equip a team at the Olympic Games in Japan this year.
At least that wasn’t the original plan.
It certainly would have been easier to stay in California with a client list that included players from the Golden State Warriors to 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 beckoned to new opportunities.
“I came back to Africa with the idea of creating a continental league that would match the NBA,” the former player-turned-agent told Al Jazeera. “All the best athletic talent comes from Africa, even people like LeBron James can trace their lineage back to the homeland (sic).”
Udezue, who describes himself as Pan-African, is passionate about unifying the continent through business and sport.
“It is important for Africans to show the opportunity on the continent, that Africa is viable for business and that Africans will spend money on a product if it is good,” the man said. 43 years.
Udezue was in the process of forming the Continental Basketball League in 2017 when his next business venture sprouted. At the time, it was simply a matter of meeting demands for surplus kits and equipment from the league, which had expanded to 10 teams in six African countries.
“When we started the league I noticed the basketballs were very slippery because they were designed for air-conditioned gyms and we all know there aren’t many in Africa,” said Udezue in a neutral tone. I went to China and developed a sweat-absorbing ball and we immediately saw fewer turnovers in the game.
The self-proclaimed disruptor didn’t stop there.
“From my experience as a player, I realized that the majority of Africans have flat feet, so we also developed the ‘Breeze’ shoe which adapts to that to reduce the need for separate soles.”
This formed the premise of AFA Sports, which stands for ‘Africa for Africa’ and has grown into one of the continent’s most prominent sportswear and merchandising companies.
“Our slogan is ‘This Is Ours’,” Udezue said, referring to the mainland’s traditional community culture. “We are trying to build something that is not individualistic.”
Indeed, the name “LIV (54)” was even inscribed on one of the first lines of the AFA, with 54 flags to represent the number of countries on the African continent.
Well positioned for the pandemic
Udezue’s vision turned out to be more than idealistic. It was also strategic.
When the COVID-19 pandemic crippled global commerce last year, many companies struggled to stay afloat. But AFA Sports was well positioned to capitalize on the sudden change in consumer tastes, having launched new training and loungewear lines in 2019.
“When the pandemic broke, everyone wanted to stay home and exercise,” Udezue said.
Unique to the continent, AFA Sports has also built its own factories in Lagos as part of Udezue’s declared mission to reduce Nigeria’s staggering unemployment rate, which officially exceeds 32% but is even worse when you factor in. the country’s large informal sector.
“When the Nigerian national [football] team went to the 2018 World Cup with the famous jersey, a lot of money was made thanks to its sale all over the world but there was no production in Nigeria, ”he laments. “This is a huge lost opportunity for a country with such a high unemployment rate.”
The decision to produce locally rather than outsource overseas paid off when global supply chains shut down last year.
“With the majority of international airspaces closed at the time, importation was at a standstill, so we became very popular as we were the only ones producing and selling affordable sportswear locally,” Udezue said.
And Udezue plans to continue to capitalize on that momentum.
As many companies continue to shut down, AFA Sports – which exports to 20 countries and now has two stores in Lagos and one in Abuja – is considering expanding production.
“We currently do around 90 percent of our production in Africa and we hope to reach 100 percent by 2022 when we officially open our shoe factory,” he said, adding that the company has created around 800 jobs. since its launch and plans to have a total of 2,000 tailors by the end of this year.
New products are also in the works, including AFA Sports’ afrileisure brand, which will Africanize leisure wear.
“We wanted to modernize something that already existed and that Africans will be proud of, so we worked on traditional African clothing such as the caftan and the jalamia,” Sam Otigba, AFA’s creative director, told Al Jazeera.
For Udezue, which has liquidated its savings and sold part of its assets to raise seed money for AFA Sports, the rewards for taking risk are all the sweeter. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t encountered its fair share of obstacles.
Concrete example: 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 other infrastructure issues as well. Making shoe soles requires an abundance of reliable electricity. Nigeria’s energy is sporadic, and the country as a whole only produces as much electricity as the US state of North Carolina, even though its population – some 200 million people – is 20 times the size.
But Udezue has other advantages. Some of Africa’s biggest entertainment stars – from Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie to Nigerian singer-songwriter Patoranking – are supporting AFA Sports.
“I actually stopped wearing other brands,” Nigerian singer-songwriter Paul Okoye, also known as Rudeboy, told Al Jazeera. “The nature of my job is sporty because I move around a lot so I wear AFA for my concerts because it’s perfect for the weather here.”
Okoye, now a solo artist with over 12 million followers on social media platforms, was arguably one half of Africa’s biggest music duo, P-Square.
In addition to sponsoring the Nigerian National Basketball Team linked to the Olympics, AFA Sports equips teams in more than five African countries and sponsors various football leagues as well as sports camps and academies.
“Sport can become a real economic force for the whole continent,” says Udezue, who was recently appointed president of the Anambra Basketball Association in Nigeria’s eighth most populous state.
“We have everything we need here: the resources, the people,” he said. “And I hope we can start a fire that will resonate across Africa.”