Thursday, November 12, 2015 12:14 pm
By Eromosele Ebhomele
The soft music, especially from albums considered the oldies, welcomes every customer to Quintessence, a popular shop on Parkview, the Victoria Island area of Lagos. At 40, the shop’s prosperity has not whittled even when it had to relocate from the Falomo area of the state due to the demolition of the building that housed it. And behind its success is a Swedish Nigerian, Chief (Mrs) Aino Oni-Okpaku, born in Sweden, 2nd January 1939. Now Quintessence is 40 years old. The anniversary celebrations will start with an opening ceremony at Quintessence Tent, Parkview Estate, Ikoyi at noon on Friday 20 November 2015. By 7 pm, the same day, there will be a concert at Bogobiri, Raymond Njoku Street, Ikoyi. On Saturday, 21 November, there will be a book discussion at 2 pm and charity dinner at Quintessence Tent by 7 pm. There will also be PM Drama and film screening at the Tent.
The success story of Quintessence was not spontaneous. In 1962, Oni-Okpaku got her first degree, majoring in textiles arts from the School of Arts and Crafts, Goteborg, Sweden. That same year, she opened her own studio in Stockholm, practised for nine years before proceeding to the united States of America for her Masters degree in Fine Arts, also majoring in Textile Arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1971.
For performing excellently, she got a grant from the Association of Swedish Arts and crafts for travels and studies in England in 1967 and further got a Fellowship from the American-Scandinavian Association and a Fullbright grant for travels and studies at the University of California. She also got a scholarship from California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, California and a grant for research from World Crafts Council, New York and King Gustaf VI Adolf’s Foundation for Swedish Culture, Stockholm also in 1971.
With a fine touch from this woman, Quintessence has beat the odds to become one of the best in its categories. But how did the journey into the Nigerian market begin? Chief Aino met Gabriel, her late husband, in California in her school days and in 1973 they came to Nigeria. “he (her husband) felt he didn’t want to live in another man’s country again. So he wanted to come home. So he came and was promised a job by the Public Service Commission but that job was not up to his expectation. So he worked as a teacher, he did some work with the government trying to find his feet. His dream was to set up a shop where he could sell state-of-the-art studio equipment,” she recalls.
After a two-year stint with Godwin and Hopwood Architectural firm, Quintessence was born in 1975 in Falomo Shopping Centre, Ikoyi, Lagos as a shop for high quality audio, television and hi-fi equipment, accessories and furniture. It also had a maintenance department for after sales services. It was run by the couple. Two years after its inception the company lost Gabriel in an accident thus leaving the burden on Aino, who then assumed the position of Managing Director.
A branch of the company was set up in Kaduna in 1979 and the company enjoyed a lot of patronage. But in 1993, the branch was closed down majorly because of the crisis in the state then. Chief Mrs Oni-Okpaku, the guiding force successfully, changed the business from the sale of imported Hi-fi and furniture to the sale of Nigerian arts and crafts gifts and other products in the early 1980s. This, according to her, was because there was a change in government policies to discourage importation of foreign made goods. “I continued but I did not have the same burning for music. I couldn’t really keep up the quality because what it meant was that you have to travel to places and be up to date with the latest. And on top of that came the ban on what was called then luxury items,” Aino, who holds a Nigerian citizenship, explains.
Quintessence is known to be the first private company to organise an exhibition of Nigerian arts and crafts in Nigeria. The company has also organised international exhibitions of Nigerian arts and crafts in Sweden, England, Germany, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Burkina Faso, France and at the UNESCO building. The company has also played supervisory role in upgrading the standard of Nigerian artisans to enable them meet international standard. Quintessence boasts of having some companies like Nike Arts Centre, Colours of Africa and Out of Africa as offshoot of its efforts since these companies started working as suppliers to the shop.
Aino recalls with a smile each time her mind flashes to how she became a Nigerian traditional chief in Ogotun-Ekiti in the late 1990s. “Mariam Babangida had a programme called the Better Life for Rural Women. And the wife of the then governor, Mrs. Feyi George, loved what we did. So she called me in to help with this big trade fair in Lagos where all states in the country had representatives who brought things to TBS. Diana and Prince Charles also came. That programme did not stop there. They did exhibition in Abuja. So I was used as the artistic coordinator and was rewarded. They felt I had done a lot,” she reveals.
Every business venture has its challenges and Quintessence is not left out. The patronage cannot be compared with when the shop was located at a busy spot in Falomo. But the goodwill enjoyed by the company eases most of the challenges. She has friends who assist and put her through on areas she finds challenging.
Aside Quintessence, Aino spends a huge part of her life taking care of children with special needs. “We have been there since 1997 taking care of special needs and abandoned children. We now have a very good matron. We are now sending some of the children to the university because they are old enough, while the other ones have been trained to do whatever they can do in the areas of their capabilities. We have second-hand shops where goods are donated and sold and the proceeds go straight into the up-keep of the children,” she tells our correspondent.
Aino loves Nigeria with passion. She thinks Nigerians are amazing people. However, she is not happy that the country’s drifting education. She says: “I am not directly involved in education, but you see it from the products that come out. Unfortunately, people don’t train anymore.”
Another issue that bothers her is what becomes of Quintessence after her. She does not know if her daughter, currently living in Sweden, would like to continue the business because even though she loves Nigeria, she might find it difficult to live in this part of the world.