Ugo Udezue: From NBA agent to unifying Africa by way of sport

When Ugo Udezue left his plush job as a National Basketball Association (NBA) agent at one of many prime corporations within the United States 4 years in the past, he by no means imagined he would go on to pioneer the primary and solely African sports activities attire firm to formally outfit a staff on the Olympic Games in Japan this 12 months.

At least, that wasn’t the preliminary plan.

It definitely would have been simpler to remain in California with a shopper roster that included gamers from the Golden State Warriors to the Brooklyn Nets. After all, Udezue had been within the US because the mid-1990s, when a basketball scholarship lured him from his native Nigeria.

But after he made it in America, his homeland beckoned with new alternatives.

“I came back to Africa with the idea of starting a continental league that would match the NBA,” the previous player-turned-agent informed Al Jazeera. “All the best sports talent comes from Africa, even the likes of LeBron James can trace their lineage back to the motherland (sic).”

Udezue, who describes himself as Pan-African, is captivated with unifying the continent by way of enterprise and sport.

The Tokyo-bound Nigerian Olympic basketball staff is kitted by AFA Sports [Courtesy of AFA Sports]

“It’s important for Africans to show the opportunity in the continent, that Africa is viable for business and that Africans will spend money on a product if it’s good,” the 43-year-old mentioned.

Udezue was within the throes of creating the Continental Basketball League in 2017 when his subsequent enterprise enterprise sprouted. At the time it was merely to satisfy the excess equipment and gear calls for of the league, which had expanded to 10 groups in six African international locations.

“When we started the league I noticed that the basketballs were very slippery because they were made for air-conditioned gyms and we all know that there aren’t too many of those in Africa,” Udezue mentioned matter-of-factly, ”so I went to China and developed a ball that absorbs sweat and instantly we witnessed much less turnovers within the recreation in consequence.”

The self-described disruptor didn’t cease there.

“From my experience as a player, I realised that the majority of Africans have flat feet, so we also developed the ‘Breeze’ shoe that accommodates that to lessen the need for separate insoles.”

That fashioned the premise of AFA Sports, which implies “Africa for Africa” and which has grown to turn into one of many continent’s hottest sports activities merchandising and attire firms.

“Our tagline is ‘This Is Ours,’” Udezue mentioned, in reference to the normal communal tradition inside the continent. “We’re trying to build something that is not individualistic.”

Indeed, the title “LIV (54)” was even inscribed on one among AFA’s first strains, with 54 flags to characterize the variety of international locations on the African continent.

‘LIV (54)’ was inscribed on one among AFA Sports’ first strains, with 54 flags to characterize the variety of international locations on the African continent [Courtesy of AFA Sports]

Well-positioned for pandemic

Udezue’s imaginative and prescient proved greater than merely idealistic. It was additionally strategic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic introduced world commerce to a standstill final 12 months, many companies discovered themselves struggling to remain afloat. But AFA Sports was well-positioned to capitalise on the sudden shift in shopper tastes, having launched new exercise and loungewear strains in 2019.

“When the pandemic broke out everyone wanted to stay home and exercise,” Udezue mentioned.

Uniquely for the continent, AFA Sports additionally constructed its personal factories in Lagos as a part of Udezue’s said mission to decrease Nigeria’s staggering unemployment fee, which formally runs above 32 % however is even worse once you issue within the nation’s huge casual sector.

“When the Nigerian national [football] team went to the 2018 World Cup with the famously designed jersey, a lot of money was made from its sale worldwide but there was no production in Nigeria,” he laments. “That’s a huge opportunity lost for a country with such high unemployment.”

The choice to provide regionally slightly than outsource overseas paid off when world provide chains floor to a halt final 12 months.

“With the majority of international airspaces closed at the time, importation was at a standstill so we got very popular because we were the only ones producing and selling affordable sports apparel locally,” Udezue mentioned.

And Udezue plans to proceed to capitalise on that momentum.

While many corporations proceed to shutter operations, AFA Sports – which exports to 20 international locations and now has two outlets in Lagos and one in Abuja – is planning to increase manufacturing.

AFA Sports plans to open an athletic shoe manufacturing facility on the continent subsequent 12 months, bringing its manufacturing in Africa to 100 % [Courtesy of AFA Sports]

“We currently do about 90 percent of our production in Africa and we hope to make it 100 percent by 2022 when we officially open our shoe factory,” he mentioned, including that the corporate has created round 800 jobs since its launch and plans to have a complete of two,000 tailors by the top of this 12 months.

New merchandise are additionally within the pipeline, together with AFA Sports’ personal trademarked afrileisure model, which is able to Africanise leisurewear.

“We wanted to modernise something already in existence that Africans will be proud about, so we worked on traditional African clothing such as the kaftan and jalamia,” Sam Otigba, AFA’s inventive director, informed Al Jazeera.

For Udezue, who liquidated his financial savings and offered a few of his belongings to lift seed capital for AFA Sports, the rewards for risk-taking are all of the sweeter. But that’s to not say he hasn’t encountered his fair proportion of obstacles.

Case in level: the shortage of distribution channels on the continent to facilitate cross-border commerce.

“It’s easier to ship from Lagos to London than it is from Lagos to Nairobi, Kenya,” he defined.

There are different infrastructure challenges as effectively. Manufacturing shoe soles takes an abundance of dependable electrical energy. Nigeria’s energy is sporadic and the nation as a complete produces solely as a lot electrical energy because the US state of North Carolina, regardless that its inhabitants – some 200 million individuals – is 20 instances bigger.

Celebrity assist

But Udezue has different benefits. Some of Africa’s greatest leisure stars – from Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie to Nigerian singer-songwriter Patoranking – endorse AFA Sports.

“I actually stopped wearing other brands,” Nigerian singer-songwriter Paul Okoye, often known as Rudeboy, informed Al Jazeera. “The nature of my work is sports-like because I move around a lot so I wear AFA for my concerts because it’s perfect for the weather here.”

Nigerian singer-songwriter Paul Okoye, often known as Rudeboy, endorses AFA Sports [Courtesy of AFA Sports]

Okoye, now a solo artist with over 12 million followers throughout social media platforms, was one half of Africa’s arguably greatest music duo, P-Square.

In addition to sponsoring the Olympic-bound Nigerian nationwide basketball staff, AFA Sports kits groups in additional than 5 African international locations, and sponsors completely different soccer leagues as effectively sports activities camps and academies.

“Sports can become a real economic force for the entire continent,” says Udezue, who has not too long ago been appointed chairman of the Anambra Basketball Association in Nigeria’s eighth-most-populous state.

“We have everything we need here: the resources, the people,” he mentioned. “And hopefully, we can light a fire that will resonate across Africa.”

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