Joanna Boer: The Trinidadian woman building an empire exporting Nigeria’s local culture globally.

“To enjoy a country, you have to get into it”

Moving to Nigeria as an expat or the partner of an expat in any of the multinational Oil and Gas companies automatically makes you an involuntary recluse of some sort. Life in Nigeria’s expat community is one of Isolation and total disconnect from the larger society, people, culture and nuances that should make for an exciting experience in a foreign country.

This hasn’t always been the case until Nigeria’s story of co-existence with expats changed almost overnight due to insecurity and hostility to foreigners usually termed ‘Oyinbo’, a local Nigerian lingo used to describe caucasians. Expats were kidnapped for ransom, as a bargaining chip with the government over environmental issues or as human shields against military invasion. This sad scenario caused the multinationals to organize their expat communities/residences to an almost military confinement style living. In cities like Port Harcourt, the nation’s Oil Capital in the South-South region of the country, most expats barely know more than a street or two from their camps. To experience a bit of culture and the local art scene, these multinationals would rather organize art events in their heavily guarded fortresses, local artists invited would have to go through several layers of security screening to have their works exhibited at these elite events, invitations and information about these events are usually well guarded, only a few elite Nigerians who work in multinationals and their friends receive such invitations. Unfortunately, these Nigerians with access to the expats are usually not the ones expats can have a thorough conversation about the local cultures with as they are seemingly more disconnected from the local culture than the foreigners.

Beyond these expat community high walls also lie another problem which is seemingly global in nature. In most Nigerian urban cities like Lagos, Port Harcourt and the nation’s capital city of Abuja, globalization is fast relegating local culture, art and lifestyle. This is not only as a result of exposure to western lifestyle as portrayed by Hollywood on cable TV but also by an almost conscious attempt by locals to replace local culture and lifestyle, leaning towards a more western orientation. An irony of sort, seeing that the westerners who come over to Nigeria are desperate to experience Nigeria’s colorful food and art scene. Nigerians and Africans in general, travel abroad for education and work, struggle hard to assimilate and integrate with the local cultures and communities abroad and upon return to Nigeria, fight hard to disconnect from the local culture in Nigeria. These returnees, termed IJGB ( I-Just-Got-Back) create their own exclusive lifestyle hubs, music hotspot and even professional networks. 

MEET THE OUTLIER.

Joanna Boer, the 36-year-old unassumingly daring Trinidadian entrepreneur is not just content with living a life of luxury behind high, gated expat walls, she saw opportunity in this situation and has spent the last 3 years cashing out gleefully to the bank. Her company Empire Jane turns everything from street craft, scenic photos, slangs, street lingo, buzz words and social media viral trends into custom crafted homeware and gift items. These items are produced and sold to members of the expat community across Nigeria, to locals (who are fascinated with seeing their local cultures properly packaged) and to a global travel market interested in African culture.

The streets of Lagos are one of the liveliest places on the African continent, the lingo, mannerisms and vibes of Lagos has a huge influence on Nigeria’s movie and music industry. The movie and music industry has become a huge cultural export, not only shaping life and living in Nigeria but in other African countries were it is consumed. Last year Nigeria’s music industry had an estimated total revenue of US$56 million, projected to grow to US$88 million in 2019 according to a report by PWC. Most of Nigeria’s current movie and music releases builds heavily on ideas from the street and viral internet sensations.

Joanna understands this and has her eye firmly set on the market.

Joana-Boer-Empire-Jane-products

Joanna is an unusual ‘Oyinbo’, who feels the pulse, heartbeat and experiences that make the everyday Lagos life interesting.Trying to compare her to the average expat I have met in different Nigerian cities, she says to me “To enjoy a country, you have to get into it”.

From the dirt filled roads of the local craft market in the Jakande-Lekki axis of Lagos to the over populated, nearly suffocating and sweat drenched Balogun market, Joanna can be seen navigating these places herself. Joanna buys the fabric herself; an opportunity to not only haggle prices but also to learn a thing or two from the local traders, or to use her own words, an opportunity to “get into it”

All of her staff and tailors are young Nigerian men who have been with her from the beginning. I noticed the tailoring, product finishing and quality was impeccable which prompted me to ask a few questions about her team.

Joanna and her team literally turned her home to her factory, her team of local tailors and assistants resume daily at her home. She says it was the best decision she had to make to get her passion off the ground due to exorbitant prices of real estate in Lagos.

Empire-Jane-Nigeria

Joanna isn’t particularly skilled with the sewing machine, her mother who is a seamstress had to travel down to Nigeria to help with recruiting skilled local tailors, what she has going for her is her uncanny ability to be creatively imaginative. All of the items produced are products of her imagination. She hears a Nigerian catch phrase and immediately thinks of what product best fits the phrase. I ask Joanna if she knows of the current trending catch phrase “Who you epp” popularized by Nigerian pop artist Olamide and she turns to her Nigerian staff to confirm, right there she draws out a note and a pen, not willing to let another idea fly by.

Empire-Jane-Joanna Boer

One of Joanna’s highest selling product is the ‘Oga At The Top‘ branded items. Oga At The Top was a viral sensation across Nigeria in 2013. The phrase My Oga At The Top is a Nigerian term for “a boss” used to show respect to someone in a position of authority.

The phrase became popular in this Channels TV video clip from an interview with Obafaiye Shem, the Lagos State Commandant of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps on the need to know the correct website of the corp to avoid misleading job seekers. He was asked, “What is the website of the NSCDC?” in response, he said, “I cannot categorically tell you one now.” He was asked again, “Do you mean the NSCDC has multiple websites?” He responded, “We can’t have multiple websites but I cannot tell you one now, and “My Oga At The Top” say is another one and the one we are going to make use of will be made known by “My Oga At The Top”. His response immediately became a viral hit across Nigeria inspiring several parody video skits like this and this by a group of diaspora Nigerians.

While writing this piece, I saw a blog post announcing a new music release titled ‘Sere’ by Olamide. Seems like another street hit, I’m sure Joanna will be working on a ‘sere’ branded item before she even realizes that an article about her has just hit the internet.

Joana is expanding her retail network locally with the signing up of local shops like Terra Kulture, Quintessence  and Avivar Centre all in Lagos.