Essentially Ankara: A Family Affair

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Next in our #OurOwnStories blog series is Essentially Ankara. Sisters Bernadette, Julie, Dee and other family members started Essentially Ankara. They sell ankara handbags and accessories from the African continent. Check out part one of our interview with them below.

How did the idea of Essentially Anakra come to be?

Dee: It started with Ankara products. I was going through a phase buying of Ankara handbags, accessories and really enjoying them. I started buying them for my other sisters and relatives and we enjoyed it among ourselves. I love Ankara because there are so many amazing products you can get - so why not start our own business? I mentioned it to my sisters and they liked it.

Julie: We had an idea a few years ago before we started [this] to the point that when we went to Nigeria, we went to a factory and we did get some bags. But I can’t even explain why we didn’t get it off the ground, we just didn’t. I don’t know, maybe it just wasn’t the right timing. But when Dee started talking about setting up an Ankara business, (because Dee has her passion for handbags and it can be infectious!) I felt the same. The bags are really great and other people would ask when we travelled if we could get them a bag or bring something back. The bags we brought back from Nigeria were complimented by people we knew and strangers. So we thought why don't we see what we can do and just go for it?

Dee: And start a business to sell them! We officially registered as a business last September. But our first actual event was the end of November, so we are very new to the game!

Why Ankara fabrics and why now?

Julie: It was a mixture of passion but also a sense in that we were investing quite a lot of time and energy in our jobs. We were thinking if we devote the same amount of energy into something we really feel passionate about then hopefully we can make it [the business] something we do full time. Also there’s so much negativity attached to Africa. And we thought no - let’s promote, let people see the beauty. It’s not like we didn’t think that people didn’t have any ideas of it in the first place but let’s showcase the good things that come from Africa and the products that are made. For me, that was a lot of it. I was really fed up with the negativity. It was that culmination of what we enjoy and showcasing it.

Dee: I think also seeing it slightly more mainstream as well. This is our heritage, our roots - we’re from Nigerian backgrounds so why not show it?

Julie: It was also a way to connect with suppliers. We weren’t sure how this was all going to work in terms of who was going to source our stuff. But it was important that we could source our stuff locally. It would be kind of showcasing other people’s products as well because we are not making the products ourselves.

Dee: [It’s] showing the talent, the skills and the craftsmanship of things being made back home.

How do you source your products?

Julie: I have to say that Dee is the driving force of our contacts!

Dee: They’ve mostly been through Instagram. I just made some connections, I had seen some products and contacted people directly. And that’s how it has been. We have suppliers based here [in the UK] but they source their products from mainly Nigeria. Then we have a couple now that are direct from Nigeria. Thanks to the power of Instagram!

Julie: The first stuff we got though was down to mum actually. Mum had a friend, he was really really great. He went to a few factories for us and he was checking their products. We thought this looked good, how are they making them, because we were curious to know about that side as well. It wasn’t just about getting the products. Who is making them?

Dee: Yeah that’s true we have to credit mum for our first suppliers because she got her friends to source the suppliers.

Julie: That was really really good. The other benefits with mum is that we’re UK born and raised. And I think that differs in how people are going to connect with you. So the power of mother, the conversations she had have been very helpful.

Dee: Very helpful. Because they respect mum as an elder as well.

Julie: Definitely mum has been…

Dee: Instrumental. And she gives us advice as well on good prices.

Julie: We have an older sister as well. She's done a few events. She is also part of the business. She’s sourcing products directly from Ghana because her husband is from Ghana. When they went back she managed to get products as well.

How has it been starting a family business?

Julie: What we’ve tried to do is focus on the strengths. I would say Dee is the one with contacts. She’s the one that’s more of the ambassador and drives it. I think I try and focus on the financial side - to keep on top of that and manage it. And my other sister does quality control. She focuses on that. When we get our products, she’s really going through and checking. She also kind of like a bit of everything - less on the social media side, but she’s been part of a business before. I think she knows a lot of what to think about in terms of our business.

Dee: We also have our nieces and nephews that have been very helpful. So certain products we ask would you wear this, is this fashionable? They give their advice on what’s hot and what’s not!

Julie: We’re still trying to determine who our audience is. We’re getting feedback from people when we post, people who come to us asking “Do you sell this, or would you sell that?” Even though bags have been the main focus, [with] the accessories, we want to do more homeware. We know people like the homeware and we like the homeware. We’re trying to diversify but not doing things too quickly because there is no rush in a sense. We need to give time for our products to be known and accept that things won’t always move how we want them to. So it’s having that patience in just saying that we may have ideas and may think this is great. However, what do people think? It’s really a lot more taking feedback.

Dee: Yeah feedback has been instrumental. That’s helped us determine the new product launches that we’re going to be doing shortly. We’re starting to focus on men’s accessory too due to some feedback from our customers.

What makes your business unique?

Dee: We do have some unique products that people have commented on such as tissue boxes. I personally haven’t seen them. I think when we focus more on the homeware we’ll have some really nice ranges that you might not always see.

Julie: That’s true, people have said they haven’t seen certain products before. Because you do want to provide something different to them [our customers] you do want to say there is a reason to come to us. And I think it’s our willingness to adapt. In terms of our brand name, it would be good for us going forward.

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