For Nnena Okpaleke, passion was not enough. Neither was it her dream to become the typical dependent Naija youth who is too quick to cry wolf in readiness to blame Nigeria for any, and all the misfortunes that plagues her generation.
In this exclusive interview with LightRay Media, she takes us on her journey from a simple idea of cleanliness to what has become a successful environmentally friendly sanitation enterprise.
In Nigeria, the idea of sanitation often strikes many as a laborious and undignified activity. Hence the term ‘labourer’ that is easily used to describe anyone who is in the manual labour industriy from bricklayer, to plumber, painter, electrician, tiler, etc. It is however, often perceived with a demeaning connotation that equals suffering, rather than dignity in labour. As far back as 1983, WAI, the acronym for War Against Indiscipline was instilled in Nigerians to inspire social change behavior. Radio and TV stations regularly blared the public service anthem: “There is Dignity in Labour!” That generation of Nigerians now in their mid 40s and 80s who grew up reciting this slogan are known to be hard workers who took pride in their job. Chores such as daily environmental and weekend sanitation was the norm and lifestyle for them, not the exception. For them, the axiom: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”, was second nature.
However, the Gen X and Gen Z generation grew up with a different mindset from the generations before them. They grew up in the digital age, which Nigerians have come to dub the ‘Soft Work’ generation. They want it quick, and they want it now: money, fame, and influence within the shortest time possible. Attributes such as patience, persistence, consistency, hard work, and grit required to engage in activities that demands both brawn and brain, are not always their first choice. On the monthly environmental sanitation often imposed by the state and local governments, many youth would be found watching TV, slumbering away or engaged in sporting activities rather than join in the cleaning exercise.
In Imo State, however, a group of young enterprising youth between the ages of 18 and 27 who are secondary school leavers, under graduates and graduates are changing that narrative and Nnena Gabriela Okpaleke, the Executive Director of Beyond Concepts Services, is driving the push to have more young people join the environmental sanitation ecosystem. She explains: “I’m on a mission to change the narrative in the sanitation world. When you’re passionate about something, it’s easier for you to reflect about the best way to do said task and improve your efficiency. Cleaning is an art and I’m glad to be the artist.” She wears a t-shirt with the bold inscription: Your Favourite Cleaner.
For Nnena, the desire to do better keeps her hungry, even though as she explains, there are days she cries or wants to give up when a deal does not pull through. To stay on top her game, she attends several trainings and workshops with the industry to familiarize herself with the business, marketing strategies, proposal development, and pitching to clients has helped to not relent. In this special feature, we explore her journey.
How Did the Idea of Cleanliness Become a Business?
Before now, Cleaning is seen as a house chore that should be done by a family member and not necessarily outsourced. Acceptance into the society as a cleaner was hard, the first 3 years was more or less a planting season for me as we had few persons who patronized the brand but the case is different today. We are growing. I’d start my saying that we are doing because we consciously prepare us for the future. I have flair for neatness, I love to clean. Little wonder why I was the president of (School environmental health Club) from my primary school days to secondary school. During my secondary school days, I was the person in charge of cleaning the principals’ office. Little did I know, the cleaning profession was screaming my name. In this cleaning business, learning never ends, it’s an art, you keep learning just like I said at the beginning.
What Marketing Strategies is Most Effective for your Business?
I’d start by saying social media is a strategy I used and still using. I was shameless about marketing my passion to the World. I will not get tired of mentioning what acquiring the right knowledge did for me, passion plus right knowledge was a good mix. Social media is a huge tool that should not be neglected. It gave me a voice; I show up daily even on days I feel line giving up. It was Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Google and Tiktok that has helped grow my business and give it visibility.
How did you balance satisfying your clients’ needs with staying true to your artistic vision?
I love this question. This brand has given me a lot of sweet bitter memories but I’d focus on the sweet memories. There was this commercial project we handled, the client had a lot of proposals from other cleaning brands but we became the preferred brand. His words “I don’t know why I’m giving you this contract amongst many others, I just have this conviction that you’d deliver, your presentation was topnotch, Nnenna, I trust you deliver”. Trust was given to us on a platter of gold, it was a huge win for us and he keeps singing our praises till date.
How did you develop grit and emotional intelligence, and how have those qualities helped you succeed?
Can experience be said to be the best teacher? Well, having worked for different personalities of humans (clients), I’ve met some who are quite difficult to handle but I still have to find a way and deliver the job excellently, regardless of the personality of my client. In the course of handling such daisy situation and more, I’ve been able to develop grit and as the lead cleaner, developing emotional intelligence has come in handy most times to salvage some situations among my team members, clients and many more. I’m still growing at it
Can you discuss a time when you had to navigate a difficult situation or setback in your career, and how you overcame it?
I started the brand as an undergraduate and finding a balance between the two wasn’t easy. There was a time I needed to take off a particular stain at the site of a project we were working on. but it wasn’t working, while asleep, God showed me how to do it (an epiphany, a visualization). Knowing I have God, makes the journey easier. However, Business in general is war o. Sometimes you’ll even cry. The cleaning business is a broad field but you need passion to stay in it. I learnt that if you want to start up, don’t be casual about it – give it your best shot, never get tired of learning, don’t ever assume you know. Ask questions. I love John Maxwell’s book “Why ask Why”. If you know the right questions, you’d get the right answers and above all have a long term vision and a strong WHY.
How did you go about creating and growing your network, and what role has it played in your success?
We work with people that fundamentally align with the core values of the brand. Our brand is big on excellence, passion and dedication and these core values and traits can be seen in our team members too. Young persons who are not just working for the pay but have bought into the vision of the brand and grown to understand what the brand requires and always prepared to deliver excellently when needed. So, having people who aligns with the values of the brand have brought nothing but tremendous success to the brand. Through our excellent delivery services, we’ve been able to connect with premium clients here in Nigeria and outside the shores of Nigeria.
Why Do You Think Clients Reach Out to You for the Kind of Services You Provide?
Since our inception, we’ve maintained a track record of Excellence in service delivery and customer service. Another thing is trust. Trust is one currency we’re running with and we strive to uphold it. We don’t just clean, we’re so passionate about it about what we do. Cleaning is in us! Every tiniest dirt matter, we pay attention to detail.
What advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs who are trying to build their own brand or business?
My Mentor, Mrs Mary Rooseya, in this field of cleaning would always say: “Do not start any business because you need money. Instead, start every business because you have some measure of passion for it, it will help you to navigate the realities of that business.” That gave me some perspective too as I came to find out that cleaning is a broad field. It is not something just jump in. Make sure you’ve got a level of passion for this field. Passion has kept me here amidst the challenges in the field. You have to stay focused and remain hungry, there’s more to achieve. Possibilities abound and above all, have a spiritual back up. My Pastor will always say, it’s either you’re in the secret place or secret cult – just make sure you belong somewhere. For me, I’ll forever cling to God.
How did your family respond to your earlier days of cleaning other peoples’ home in a society that looks down on duty and dignity in labour?
I started off the business when I was a 100-level student and after the 1st semester exam, I went home for holiday and also to discuss with my family that I’ll start a cleaning business. At first, my mum wasn’t okay with that the kind of business, considering the risk involve and with regards to how cleaners are being perceived. So I just blurted out: I’m here to change the narrative in the Sanitation world. It wasn’t easy to convince them but along the line, I had their support, prayers and even referrals.
Where do you see yourself in the next 3 to 5 years?
In three years to come, we should have gone international, launched more products in the cleaning field, and inspire more testimonials from people who didn’t give up on their dreams because they followed the story of at Beyond Concept Services. Our goal is to bring innovative innovations into the field and business of cleaning within and beyond Nigeria.
Written by ERU.