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The brain behind Nigeria's multimillion dollar toy empire

(Forbes Africa) There is a rowdy crowd at one of Lagos’ busiest commercial centres – the Idumota market on Lagos Island. High pitched hawkers shove their goods at customers, motorists struggle for space on the narrow roads, and hundreds of stalls, with music blaring, lay out their merchandise. Today’s hustle is no different from any other and no one knows this better than Paul Orajiaka, the entrepreneur who has spent years in this hub.

From running a little store out of a dilapidated building in the market, to owning a colossal outlet within its vicinity, Orajiaka is no stranger to the nooks and crannies of his business address.

Orajiaka’s company, Auldon Limited, manufactures African-themed toys which promote the continent’s cultural heritage to children. The company recently launched the Unity Girl Dolls Project, with multi-cultural dolls in different Nigerian traditional attire. The dolls can be found in countries including Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and some parts of Europe.

Auldon Limited was founded 17 years ago with less than $100. As a determined young man, Orajiaka’s dreams were shattered when he was repeatedly denied an American visa after finishing high school in Benin City. He wanted to study business management in the United States to market his father’s business. Orajiaka’s father was a renowned African carver and staunch entrepreneur in Warri. Orajiaka, and his siblings, helped with the carving work but Orajiaka wanted to take his father’s craft to a more structured market.

“I was about 16 years old. I was denied a visa at my umpteenth attempt primarily because of my age. I had frequented Lagos to follow up with the American embassy at each application stage. I decided to remain in Lagos, where my sister also lived, after my ambitions to go to the States didn’t work out. I didn’t want to be mocked by my friends back in my hometown. I had no idea what my next move was going to be,” says Orajiaka.  

He decided to work at the Idumota market.

His brother-in-law was an importer who traded in a large variety of merchandise. Orajiaka helped his in-law and was impressed by the large amount of money the business made.

“I was learning a lot about the business environment and couldn’t believe the volumes of goods we were pushing into the market. The returns were fascinating and I soon began to get excited about my new activity.”

Orajiaka proved a valuable resource to his in-law’s business and was generously rewarded. The money he was earning made up for his previous disappointments, but Orajiaka was soon advised to return to school.

“While working for my in-law, I enrolled as an accounting student at the University of Lagos after which I proceeded to get a Masters in Business Administration from Lagos Business School. This reinforced my gusto for the business world now that I had my professional qualifications. I decided to start thinking of my business seriously.”

While seeking new markets to supply merchandise to, in highbrow areas of Lagos, he visited a new store. He admired the toy section and was fascinated by the range and variety on the shelves.

On his next visit, he noticed that the section was almost empty and immediately asked the store manager if they needed new supplies. After getting the green light from the manager, Orajiaka scouted the length and breadth of the Idumota market for a toy stockist. The toys he found were a lot cheaper than those in the fancier stores.

“I was going to make huge margins on this product if I succeeded in getting the manager to place an order. I delivered the samples at a 300 percent markup price. The store manager ordered a few dozen immediately. I never expected this. I approached my in-law… to purchase a bigger order from the supplier for the required number of samples. This is where it all started. Today, a humble beginning which started as a small venture is a leading company, importing and supplying a diverse range of educational toys to both retailers and wholesalers in Nigeria,” he says.

“We started out with a capital base of about $30 now have a turnover of well over $7 million as at last year.”

The dolls’ visibility has grown in leaps and bounds over the years. Social responsibility is an area the company has also focused on with the Unity Girl Doll Project.

“I was not happy that most of the toys sold in Nigeria didn’t promote any cultural relevance. I wanted to promote the dark-skinned and African-featured girls and women as beautiful and their culture as diverse and admirable.”

One of the challenges Orajiaka faced was a lack of support from financial institutions in Nigeria. A school renovation programme was part of the tasks that accompanied the project.

The Unity Girl Doll Project is a collection of 14-inch dolls that represent Nigeria’s three major tribes – Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba – with the aim of promoting the country’s cultural diversity and relevance to the younger generation. The dolls also have booklets outlining details of the culture, languages and backgrounds of the three main tribes.

With the dolls available in leading retail outlets across Nigeria, Orajiaka has proved that business can be child’s play.

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