Funmilayo Olayemi Olakonu is a woman of many parts and dreams. Unlike the popular adage, she is a Jack of all her trades and master of them all. A seasoned caterer, fashion designer, bead maker, artiste, producer of coco craftworks, Funmi is also into shoe repair and she plays the talking drum. Her dream, she told BISI ALABI WILLIAMS, is to become a big-time entrepreneur, who adds values to peoples’ lives through her world of creativity.
AS a caterer, Funmi has a way with soups. She has become adept and creative at cooking tantalising soups from different tribes in Nigeria. She also cooks African and continental dishes for all events, as well as undertaking home service deliveries. As an incentive for interested women, she has packaged most of her customised Nigerian spices in CDs to enable them develop interest while trying their hands on the preparation of various Nigerian and intercontinental dishes and soups. Her clientele spreads across Nigeria and overseas.
Her cooking adventure started at the age of five when she would ‘cook’ special soups with leaves in tins of milk placed on three stones. This she tagged: “obe mi nso oyinbo” meaning my soup is speaking English.
As a little girl, Funmi was very inquisitive. She recalls locking herself up in her room with the sole purpose of composing and singing melodious tunes. But this was not all. She also enjoyed cooking and trading. She was highly curious about everything, always eager to discover and find logical solutions to things.
“I was also very daring. I asked a lot of questions and talked a lot. I had a very inquisitive mind, which wanted to know everything to the extent that I wanted to know how water got into the coconut before it was opened. I simply loved adventure. I also loved my family and enjoyed making friends. I became the multi–talented person I am by developing my God-given talents. My dad was also a major inspiration,” she says.
Her family lived in Ibadan, Oyo State, when she was growing up. And she must have inherited her creative and inquisitive traits from her father. “Dad was a man with the capacity to do so many things without having undergone any form of training. That was God’s gift to him. And this is exactly how my husband is—multi-talented.”
Funmi grew up in a large family of three girls, seven boys, uncles, aunties and house helps. Her family house was a very interesting place. Everyone felt loved and had loads of fun. The family had a tradition of singing. Every member would sing and dance with the exception of one person and each had an area of specialisation and specific assignments. Her dad had a daily roster with which he prepared everyone’s daily responsibilities.
Schooling for her was also fun. She had attended good schools for her nursery to secondary education and didn’t have any problem until she faced the challenge of choosing a career. “My dad and my brothers wanted me to study medicine, but I wanted to study catering or business administration. It was difficult convincing my family and teachers, except for my mum who believed in my dreams. But in the end I got to study Catering.”
Her services and products are largely patronised by the elite and this cuts across race and colour. Seeing the impact of her products on clients inspires her to do more and even dream bigger.
“A lot of people are overwhelmed by my abilities. They love my works. Many more are amazed to see a female so rarely gifted. I feel humbled and encouraged. My greatest desire is to come out of my little corner for the world to see. I believe it’s only a matter of time before my brands become a household name,” she says.
Her greatest achievement so far, she says, is her vision and courage to go for personal development. “I don’t work for anyone or for salaries. I have consciously empowered myself to do a lot of things, which will enable me attract whatever I need from wherever it is. Also, I have been able to add value to a lot of young people’s lives. In addition, I am happily married to a man that inspires me so much and has helped to crystallise my thoughts. He is contributing a whole lot to the fulfilment of my dreams and vision”.
Funmi readily acknowledges that her first inspiration is the Almighty, through Whom she has been able to achieve everything. As a gospel artiste, she is a praise worship leader and has featured in countless musical concerts. She works very closely with her husband, who is a seasoned and highly respected musician, instrumentalist and producer in the Christian circles.
This probably explains why she loves chanting and praising the Lord’s name in the Yoruba traditional Christian way. “I usually chant about the Almighty’s omnipotence and greatness. This is well captured in the last chapter of the book of Revelation, which talks about God having all power in the heavens and the earth. So, unlike the limited power of humans, which is constrained by time, space, and force, God’s capabilities are limited only by His own character,” she says.
When beating the talking drum, Funmi is a sight to behold. She may not exactly be as spectacular as the trail- blazing ARA, who is the first celebrated Nigerian woman to beat the talking drum, but she has no doubt carved a niche for herself in this area. What she does basically with the talking drum is to eulogise the omnipotence of the Lord, which she loves to refer to as doing the ‘God chant’. “I just love to sing His praise. He is preeminent for many and obvious reasons. This is something dad passed on to me and I can’t do otherwise. My brother has also been a source of encouragement just as my pastor Revd. John Ayodele, my husband, Mr. Abiodun Olakonu and of course our lovely children.”
Funmi easily traces her love and enthusiasm for music to her family. She was born and raised by parents that loved music. “Dad especially loved singing, writing songs and dancing. In fact, he used to dance a lot.”
To her, Arts is a veritable means of expressing self. And she strongly believes that individuals should have the freedom to bring out their innate abilities, which are bound to add value to humanity.
Her unique selling point is her love to create things that are very rare. Since childhood, she has come to regard finished products as potential raw materials for making other finished products.
She had grown her business from the scratch until it attains its present status. And what was started with small beginnings has gradually grown large. Everyday, she makes new friends and customers. Her best businesses have come mainly from one-on-one or group-to-group referrals, which have worked like magic for her.
“I don’t lose customers and so, I used to find it hard coping with very large demands. Later on, I started training people. And although I don’t see myself as having arrived fully, still I feel fulfilled that my works, products and services are being sold home and abroad.
“For instance, my coconut bags are special creations. So also my range of customised purses, coco jewelries, Ankara shoes/bags, slip on slippers, clogs, casual bags and aso oke mafia jackets. They have helped put Nigeria in a class of her own. These products are all parts of my special collection that have helped to place Nigeria in an enviable position abroad. Nigerians abroad are proud of them and love to identify with them. To them, it is a thing of joy that it is a fellow Nigerian, one of their own that is the creator of such traditional, creative products.
‘‘What greater joy can one ask for? I see my brands as a contribution to nation building. I see myself as Nigeria’s ambassador of arts, culture and the rich heritage. And I am a proud ambassador, too. I salute this great country that has produced such a rare gem. Kudos to Nigeria!’’
Having succeeded in providing a platform for training and empowering younger Nigerians, Funmi would also like to see it as an avenue to celebrate and project Nigeria’s local content home and abroad. On a typical day in her factory when carving images, sharpening ornaments or beading, the sight that greets the visitor is that of a hardworking woman giving her all to earn a decent living while developing other people’s talents in the process.
That is her way of adding value, building small businesses and contributing to the national development. Her customised trendy wedge shoes, chunky and block-heeled shoes for corporate ladies compete quite well with the imported ones.
She regularly organises seminars, trainings, competitions, and talk shows as a way of mentoring and passing on her skills.
In her view, the best way government can help practitioners in the industry to maximise profit and move to the next level is by putting in place laws that can reduce piracy to the barest minimum. “If the value of every intellectual property the individual produces goes to him/her, that individual cannot lack for the rest of his/her life. But we have a country where people survive on the sweat of others. This is not helping matters at all.
“I strongly believe in mentoring others, as it helps to guide them. Essentially, it helps to collapse time and reduce mistakes. You can be sure someone has already achieved what you are trying to achieve. So, you can save resources by learning from that person, especially if the person has a wealth of experience in that area. You don’t have to waste time and resources banging your head on a rock again and again”.
While believing that mentoring is paramount for the country to advance, she is saddened by the fact that young Nigerians don’t reckon with it. “Rather than emulate those who have gone ahead of them, who are mentors in their own right, the youths tend to regard them as ‘old school’ or people bereft of ideas. It’s sometimes a challenge to get them to sit down and talk with them. Most time it’s when they are finding it hard making headway or after having made the same mistakes that they begin to listen or ask questions. It is then that a mentor has the opportunity to drive home the point and show the way.