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Nigeria’s First Lady of Nails

by Staff Writer | December 1, 1995

The Colorful

Orange, khaki, and white technicians’ uniforms add a warm yet professional touch to the recently redecorated salon. The security man in the parking lot cheerfully opens car doors and starts engines so customers won’t smudge their nails. The latest beauty and fashion magazines from Europe and the United States adorn the tables in the reception area. You could say The Nail Studio in Lagos, Nigeria, pays attention to detail.

And it’s watching those details that has made The Nail Studio so popular, says owner Adetokunbo Awogboro. “Lagos is a very cosmopolitan city, and we have clients of all nationalities who travel far and wide,” she says, noting that many of her customers are used to being pampered at the finest nail salons in Europe. “Therefore, we have to offer a wide range of services.”

In fact, it was the search for such nail care services for herself that led Awogboro to open The Nail Studio in 1987. The Nigerian-born owner, who also has a home in London, had become accustomed to having her nails done regularly when she stayed in England. But there was no similar service available in Nigeria. “I opened the salon out of frustration,” she says, noting that she trained under some of England’s top nail artists before opening her own shop.

 

A Ready-Made Clientele

Once open, word of The Nail Studio spread quickly. “The average Nigerian woman, irrespective of income level, places beauty and outward appearance high on her priority list,” says Awogboro. “Most of our clients are working-class women, but even low-income clients come in,” she adds. “For Nigerian women, beauty and personal appearance are often a higher priority than even shelter or food. It’s amazing.”

While personal income in Nigeria is relatively low (averaging about $1,875 per year in U.S. dollars, according to Awogboro), “in the typical Nigerian family, everyone pitches in,” she says. “We have no social security or welfare here.” In African society, she explains, resources are pooled and less personal income is required for each individual. Because personal appearance is so important to Nigerian women, clients at The Nail Studio are happy to pay $8 for a full set of acrylic nails, Awogboro says.

The local community greeted The Nail Studio warmly as soon as it opened, in part because it was the first (and remains the only) nails-only salon in the country. “There are probably about 50 hair salons in Nigeria that have one or two tables for nails, but that is about it,” says Awogboro. Before her salon opened, she says, Nigerian women who could afford international travel were the only ones who could seek out a top-notch salon manicure at a nails-only salon.

But Nigerian women aren’t the only customers who keep The Nail Studio’s seven nail technicians and six natural nail manicurists busy all day long. “We have a large following of non-Nigerians, too; they are mainly Americans, Lebanese, Indians, Germans, and French,” Awogboro adds.

 

Beyond the Basics

At The Nail Studio, the nail technicians and manicurists provide all the basics: manicures, pedicures, acrylics, fiberglass, gels, hot paraffin treatments, even reflexology. But it’s the little extras – like staying open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays to accommodate working women and offering clients scented flannel towels straight from the steamer as an after-manicure luxury – that keep customers returning to the salon.

To make her clients feel extra special, Awogboro and her staff do more than just recommend the same “special of the week” to everyone who walks through the door. “Knowing our clients’ particular needs is important to our success,” she says. “Since most Africans have very dry skin, the paraffin dip works wonders for our clients’ dry hands and feet.”

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Timesavers

Awogboro is also proud of the way she has streamlined communication between the technicians and the front desk. Each technician’s station is equipped with an intercom, which enables the technician to talk to the receptionist without leaving her work area.

Another timesaver (and a fun treat for clients) is the salon’s mobile trolley, which contains 80 different colors of polish. “The client doesn’t have to get out of her seat to choose a color,” Awogboro says. “The technician pushes the trolley to the client, which saves time and makes the client feel pampered.”

 

Nails in Nigeria

Bringing The Nail Studio to its current level of success has been an eight-year labor of love – some of it tough love, Awogboro admits. A major challenge has been, and continues to be, the fact that the nail industry is almost nonexistent in Nigeria, she says. There are no nails-only licensing requirements for technicians, and no nails-only local or regional competitions where Nigerian nail technicians can show off their skills and learn new techniques. “Nigeria is quite a distance from Europe and the United States, where most of the competitions are held,” she says. “Mobilizing the staff to travel to a competition is quite an ordeal!” Not to mention a considerable expense.

In spite of the fact that the nail business in Nigeria is still in its infancy, Awogboro says the goal of The Nail Studio is “to put Nigeria on the world map in the nail care industry and to create an awareness in Nigeria about the importance of nail care.”

Easier said than done? “It won’t he easy,” she admits. “The first thing we have to concentrate on is education. Right now, there are no nails-only schools in Nigeria that teach nail care.” Awogboro, who received all her training in Europe and the United States, has had to train her entire staff herself. She hopes that nails-only schools will soon become commonplace in her country.

Awogboro herself plans to get the training ball rolling. She recently extended her salons floor space and in October 1995, she opened Nigeria’s first school for nail technicians. “I take four students at a time and the class lasts for two weeks,” she explains, noting that she places students in classes based on their previous nail experience. “If someone has been doing nails for a year or two, I try to place her with others at a similar level,” she says. Awogboro also offers one-day advanced classes that teach working manicurists and nail technicians how to master sophisticated techniques. Word of the classes is spreading fast, Awogboro says, and interest is high. “We’re booked a full month ahead of time,” she says.

 

Competing for Technicians

Education is crucial to raising the level of professionalism in the Nigerian nail industry, Awogboro says. But cooperation is equally important, she adds, noting that salon owners in Nigeria need to work together, not in competition. She admits she often sees just the opposite. “The life of a salon owner in Nigeria is quite stressful,” she says. “It brings more fame than fortune!” Competition for the top nail talent in Nigeria is fierce, Awogboro explains, making it an excellent environment for the estimated 100 nail technicians in the country and a tough one for salon owners. Having well-trained nail technicians and manicurists makes The Nail Studio a target for other salons, who try to lure away her staff, she says, so keeping her staff happy and satisfied with their work is a big priority.

While Awogboro declined to give the average salary for a technician at The Nail Studio, she pointed out that, compared with the average yearly income in Nigeria, her employees are well-paid. The salon offers other employee perks, too, such as a staff bus that picks up employees in the morning and drives them home after work. Awogboro also offers her employees no-interest loans, with payments deducted from their paychecks to help them buy land or build a house. “I also help them get their kids into good schools,” she adds.

So even though other salon owners try to lure away her most talented technicians, Awogboro has found her staff to be loyal, indeed. “I still have my first two technicians,” she says.

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Getting Supplies

In addition to keeping her technicians happy, Awogboro must also face the constant challenge of keeping them well-supplied. Getting the right polishes, buffers, and oils for The Nail Studio is one of her biggest challenges, she says. “Our laws in Nigeria regarding the acquisition of foreign currency change almost every year,” she complains, noting that before she can shop for supplies in other countries, she first has to be able to exchange the local currency for the other country’s currency.

And the frustration doesn’t stop there. “Upon acquisition of the required dollars, one then has to contend with the customs officials in Nigeria when the goods arrive,” she says. It takes about two months from the time a product is purchased (usually from Europe or the U.S.) until it is received in Nigeria. Awogboro then mentally adds another week to the schedule – time to get the product cleared at the port. “It all makes things a bit stressful,” she says.

But Awogboro has found a way around some of the challenges of doing business in a developing country. A certain amount of local fame has helped smooth the path when she travels to other countries for nail shows or to learn new techniques to bring back to her salon. “When traveling out of the international airport, security is very tight and you are put through so many checkpoints,” she explains. “All kinds of questions are asked.” But Awogboro’s reputation as “Mrs. Nail Studio” has helped her speed up the process. “Since we have quite a few female immigration officers and customs officials, they immediately recognize me and vouch for me so I don’t have to go through all the unnecessary aggravation!”

Awogboro’s frustration over getting  supplies may lead to a very positive step for the nail industry in Nigeria, however. “I’m looking into becoming a distributor,” she says. “After going through all the hassle required to bring in products, we might as well distribute them.” She explains that the procedure is the same no matter how large the quantity of the shipment.

 

That International Touch

All that experience dealing with immigration and customs hasn’t gone to waste, Awogboro admits. In fact, she attributes much of The Nail Studio’s success to her willingness to tackle such hassles and to travel around the world where she attends nail shows, researches new products, and furthers her education. But it’s not easy, even with a little customs help from her “fans.” To attend a nail show in the U.S., for instance, “I have to fly 14 hours, with a stopover in Europe,” she says.

But her exposure to new ideas has paid off. “In Nigeria, the name ‘The Nail Studio’ is synonymous with excellence. Every woman seems to know me, and most of them compliment me on a job well done,” says Awogboro. “And when the compliment comes from a non-Nigerian woman who has traveled far and wide, yet rates us the best, it puts in perspective all the traveling time, adjustments to changing weather, and hassle from customs officials.”

“I look back to when I started more than eight years ago,” she says. “I had a very tiny shop with only two manicurists. Today I have a whole ground floor with six manicurists and seven technicians.” Despite the hassles, challenges, and frustrations inherent in starting a new trend in her homeland, Awogboro says, “It has been worth it.”

 

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