New Brunswick

How a Saint John small business owner leaned on family, social good to keep going

If Christine Eruokwu had given up on her business and buckled to COVID-19 pressure, 300 girls in Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire would not have school uniforms.

Nigerian-born business owner persevered despite downturn caused by COVID-19

Christine Eruokwu says she does not regret keeping her business open when things got tough last year. (Submitted by Christine Eruokwu)

If Christine Eruokwu had given up on her business and buckled to COVID-19 pressure, 300 girls in Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire would not have school uniforms.

The Nigerian-born Saint John business owner said what kept her going were family, the motivational books she read as a teen and, simply, the girls.

"I just got the report back, and, like, tears of joy were just streaming down my face," she told Information Morning Saint John. "I think it was a great decision not to have sold the business at that time."

Eruokwu opened Kaima Designs five years ago, selling colourful, African-inspired clothing online.

She pledged to donate a school uniform to a girl for every $50 purchase made in her store. People who don't want to purchase anything can also donate to the cause, she said.

The money goes to an African non-profit, which pays local women a living wage to sew the uniforms.

The donations and a revamped product line have carried during the pandemic, after Eruokwu's business initially suffered.

Eruokwu was working with a seamstress in Nigeria, but it became difficult and expensive as the supply chain was disrupted. She also couldn't meet with clients to take measurements or work through their orders. 

Approximately 300 girls in Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire have school uniforms directly because of donations made through Kaima Designs. (Submitted by Christine Eruokwu)

Hers was not the only small business who struggled to stay open. David Duplisea, CEO at the Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber doesn't have exact numbers of how many businesses had to close or neared breaking, but he could safely say it was more than usual.

"We know there are some that are having difficulties," he said.

Saint John has lost a few small local businesses that opened slightly before, or after the pandemic, including Goods and Ethel & Mary's.

Duplisea said hospitality and tourism were hardest hit, but everyone struggled. Most pivoted, and were able to change their models to stay afloat

That's what Christine Eruokwu decided to do. The original model was that she would sell African-inspired clothing, produced outside Canada. Now she prints African designs on hoodies, T-shirts and masks, so she doesn't have to depend on African fabrics. 

"I wanted to do blended options," she said, hoping to source African fabric and patterns from inside Canada by connecting with African creators in the country.

Inspired by mother's story

Eruokwu said her mother was a child bride in Nigeria, married off when she was in elementary school. Her mother's story, and her work with nonprofit organizations in Nigeria before moving to Canada, instilled in her a desire to do anything she could to help girls go to school.

"I made up my mind to incorporate that into my business if I ever had one," she said.

She said that with girls' education not always prioritized by people in her home country, something as seemingly small as the price of a uniform could be the difference between that girl going to school or staying home.

"I tied my 'why' to that story," she said.

A model is wearing a piece by Christine Eruokwu, who started Kaima Designs, a Nigerian-inspired clothing line based in Saint John. (Mrinali Anchan/CBC)

So when she was faced with the possibility of having to shut down her business, she thought of them and thought back to the motivational books she read before opening her business.

"Very early, I always told myself that never give up until you're sure that you can absolutely do this anymore," she said.

She said 20 per cent of new business shut down from the first to second year, and 45 per cent shut down by the fifth year. She didn't want to be one of those statistics.

"I decided to give it one more shot," she said.

With files from Information Morning Saint John