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When Japanese culture and African entrepreneurs collide

TURNING PASSION TO PROFITS: Nigel Twumasi, right, with business partner Lao Karunwi

WHEN NIGEL Twumasi announced he would leave his job in software development to pursue his dream of turning his love of Japanese culture into a viable business, his parents were understandably nervous.

As traditional Ghanaians, seeing their son in ‘steady employment’ was a dream realised, so naturally, it took some explaining when he announced he would launch Mayamada – a brand creating “stylised casual clothes, comics and uniquely flavoured chocolate bars”.

“My brother is self-employed so it wasn’t a completely alien concept to the family,” he explains. “My parents know that I’ve always had the focus and determination to follow through with my ideas. “Because of that, they were able to support my decision to leave a steady engineering job to go and start a business based on my own cartoon characters.”

Nigel launched Mayamada in 2011 with business partner Lao Karunwi out of their shared love of Japanese culture.

“It actually started among a group of five friends. We wanted to start a business making T-shirts that would showcase our appreciation of Japanese culture. That didn’t work out and the group of five became a group of two,” Nigel recalls.

The fearsome duo came up with the concept of a television network and the idea, inspired by “Western cartoons and anime shows like Dragon Ball Z”, to create characters to live in that universe.

The characters, they decided, would also be reproduced on clothing too, but they hit a stumbling block almost immediately.

“We both worked in IT so didn’t know much about design or fashion,” he laughs. “We brought on an artist who had the talent to turn our stories and designs into products that look good enough for people to buy them. The Mayamada brand was born.”

Initially, Mayamada, the name, an amalgamation of the two anime characters they created – Mayazuki and Yamada, was self-funded and the boys used money from their respective jobs to get the first lines of T-shirts designed and printed.

And when they launched their first comic - The Samurai Chef - in 2013, they also managed to raise the funds to pay the exhibition fee at their first comic convention, which allowed them to test the market. But help came in the form of funding from the Prince’s Trust.

“We didn’t have any external funding until 2014 when the business made it on to the Prince’s Trust Enterprise programme,” he explains.

“As well as access to business workshops and a mentor, they provided a loan, which gave us a great boost at the time.”

Since then, the brand has gone from strength to strength. Items from the Maymada clothing range have been featured in Vogue and GQ, while their debut comic was praised by an artist who has worked for the likes of Marvel, Disney and Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

“He loved it and told us it was the best manga outside of Japan he had seen in the last decade. That was an honour.”

Another highlight, Nigel says, aside from attending their first convention outside of the UK (which was a Japan Expo in Paris), is “when regular people, customers and fans, continue to tell us that they love the comics we write or a particular character or T-shirt we’ve created. That means the most.”

T-shirts and sweatshirts from the clothing range retail between £25-£35 – beanie and snapback hats sell for £10 and £20 respectively – while The Samurai Chef is sold for £8.

“We also have exclusive items like posters, badges or chocolate,” Nigel adds.

And who does he see investing in the above?

“My ideal customer is a creative at heart and that’s whether they are in a creative field themselves or just have an appreciation of creativity.”

In regards to his own creativity, the 30-year-old credits his Tottenham hometown, a north London district responsible for birthing stars such as singer Adele and rappers Chip and Wretch 32, as his muse.

“Growing up in such a culturally diverse area has instilled a knowledge that creativity can come from anywhere. I’ve met people from all walks of life who have fantastic talent.

“Coming from an area where good news has to fight against the backdrop of stories about crime and unemployment, has motivated me to produce something worth talking about.”

Nigel says low expectations of young people in similar boroughs such as Newham and “so-called deprived areas” has motivated him to work to help change negative stereotypes.

“Negative views of young people need to change,” he says. “I was in Tottenham during the riots and while there were plenty of bad acts involved, it’s all too easy to paint all young people with the same brush.

“There is talent here, lots of it,” he says. “It’s not about lack of ability, but the lack of proper guidance, role models and opportunity to develop that talent in a positive way.”

Together, Nigel and business partner Lao, who grew up in Newham, deliver inspirational talks, drawing competitions and design workshops at schools within their community. They have even managed to educate teachers on the finer points of anime and manga.

“Young people will rise to expectations. We want to show people that you can achieve big things and that you don’t have to settle for the low expectations placed on you.

“The idea [of talking in schools] is to play even a small role in helping young people to use their imaginations, to think critically and believe they can do good things in life,” he says.

And his advice to aspiring entrepreneurs follows in the same vein.

“Set clear goals from the start,” he says. “Your goals can change along the way and that’s ok, but knowing what you’re working towards at any given moment is crucial to ensure you’re not wasting time.

“The key is to have good people you can rely on who actually add value to your business and to you as a person. This will allow you to concentrate on the most important things in your business.”

He adds: “Starting something doesn’t guarantee success, but not starting will guarantee failure.”

For more information, visit www.mayamada.com or follow @mayamada on Twitter

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