SURU: An African Man’s Vision of Promoting Cultural Diversity


In the contemporary world, as many local settings are characterized by cultural diversity, we are pushed into “globality”. Cross-cultural connections are more likely than prior, and in many places, the dominant diverse circumstance can be unaffordable to ignore. Still, diversity is deployed differently taking on different meanings for different people. The significance of “the state of being diverse” may be acknowledged and defined in various ways.

In our modern societies, as migration is frequented, we find, not just in the African context but also generally, more formations of new identities in culture. While owning up to the integrity and richness of their indigenous culture(s), Africans, more than ever, are refusing to a fixed category, a narrow idea of an “African” identity. To a greater extent, more are claiming an identity relatable to their ways of living, shaped by their environment, belief and outlook.

Baba Afolabi, a Nigerian-born Oakland, California resident, is the founder of SuRu, a premium apparel brand. Through the SuRu brand he introduces a self-made identity. More than a brand, SuRu, in its origin is a (new) culture, a way of life or lifestyle. An idea that speaks to identity, personality and character, while breaking down self-imposed borders built around ideas of identity and community.


The word SuRu comes from the Yoruba proverb surulere, meaning, “patience is rewarding”. During the founding process of the brand while traveling through Japan, Baba discovered that the word SuRu signifying “patience” is also shared in the Japanese language, translated to mean, “to do”.  A different meaning though, in joining it with the Yoruba “patience” the act of “to-do-patience” became the impetus and birth of what is now SuRu –a premium apparel brand promoting cultural diversity.

The first time I came across the SuRu brand, in its appearance and branding, I experienced a fresh idea with a cosmopolitan flavor. An effortless sense of cultural diversity intermixed in an urbanized fashionable form. I was intrigued with the SuRu letters that formed the Japanese characters in an Arabic-like calligraphy style, with a Yoruba (Nigerian) idiom, all in one, blending aesthetically.

In Oakland, the popular buzz of SuRu can be felt, styled in its local setting. “A daily way of life”, doing SuRu and affirming it through hip garments seems to be the new cool of Oakland – a new movement.

Following the buzz, we recently caught-up with Baba, chatted about the emergence of SuRu, gathered what he means by “diversity” and got an idea of SuRu’s relationship with Africa. Our place of meeting was at their recent acquired pop-up shop, in uptown Oakland. A place full of vibration, made up of a young group of “diversity soldiers” recreating their own “new” cultural movement, inventing to adapt to their natural and social locality. A step into the store and azonto music is full on, bikes and skateboards parked to the side, burritos for lunch, colorful tees and sweatshirts with images of giraffe meets football meets the world cup, and much more, all with an Afro-Japanese appeal. There is even a (re)creation of the African continent, merged and sketched over the borders of Japan, dubbed “Japrican”.


Baba, since the early 2000 had an entrepreneur’s spirit, believing wholeheartedly in its power. Though the concept of a clothing line was tugging on him since 2002, little did he know that SuRu would be introduced to the world, in 2009. The concept of SuRu was born in 2007, during Baba’s visit to his longtime girlfriend in Japan. Where a personal necessity stemming from his relationship with a woman from another culture led him to practice the act of understanding and being patient. And so, the story of an African-man and a Japanese-woman and their practice of a shared culture delivered “Do-U-SuRu”. More so, during his visit, Baba was fascinated with a very warm and receptive Japan and its cultural similarity to his own culture, Yoruba. It become the language of a SuRu life-style, branded with an African identity and intermixed with a Japanese culture, which would do what it does with a strong diversity message:

“My sensibility and idea of pushing diversity is grounded within my Yoruba culture and living in the Bay Area. Nigeria is the most populace African country and rich in its diversity. And on the other hand, living in the Bay Area, you are part of a melting pot. Both are part of ‘my’ culture,” says Baba. “It made sense, it’s not forced, it’s who I am, and it’s part of my daily lifestyle. I comfortably live a diverse lifestyle. An authentic daily activity, from the music I listen to, to the food I eat, and the type of clothes I wear.”

The official shaping and business structure of what is now SuRu actually took place in 2009; it came out of an unfortunate circumstance, a knee injury that had led Baba on bed rest for about 7 months. It was during his time of immobility that SuRu became a business reality. Since, the development of SuRu has been a promising bright future leading more people “to-do-SuRu’. What started off with a design of a cab driver hat to selling t-shirts out of friend’s stores and trunk shows, is now, well on its way to becoming a full clothing line with a flagship store in Oakland, in the works. Growing with an upbeat enthusiasm, SuRu is backed by a diverse team– Ugandan, Sudanese, Haitian and American– investing their creative time in a brand and lifestyle they regard as their own.

Besides, beyond promoting SuRu, Baba understands the value in investing back in the community. In their near future, though current production of SuRu is in China, for reasons that it’s “unaffordable for an emerging brand to sustain production locally, in America”, there are plans to undertake printing and embroidery work, locally. Supporting their future plan of employing inner-city kids to train, not only in printing processes, but by offering a full-internship-to-hire opportunity, training on all aspects of the business: marketing, retail management, and production.


The plan sounded admirable, I respected the initiative. At the same time, I was curious: why was SuRu‘s grand plan not in Nigeria or somewhere in Africa? African entrepreneurship and innovative business ideas is what Africa needs; so, what is holding business-minded people like Baba, Africans in the diaspora, from taking their talent and business ideas back to the continent and claiming theirs? Likewise, I started to wonder, would SuRu’s diversity concept translate to its actual meaning in Africa

In fact, Baba does have ambitious plans to establish a manufacturing plant and open storefronts in Africa. Though Lagos seems realistic in its familiarity, he is unrestricted; anywhere in Africa with favorable business opportunities seems proper to him. At present, in Lagos, they are test producing, on a very small scale, short collar men’s dress shirts, inspired by the Nigerian Muslim men’s dress culture. Having said that, Baba gives justification for why SuRu is currently not fully in Africa:

“To have our production somewhere in Africa makes sense. The idea of having production in Lagos is great but, there are infrastructure challenges, electricity is a problem, generators are costly. We can’t afford it. The infrastructure has to support the production. At our level, because we’re so small, economically, it does not make sense. The skill level is there, Africans are very creative-talented people but the infrastructure fails us. Having said that, if there is an established company willing to house our production, we’ll absolutely take our production to Africa.”

suruedit20Albeit the infrastructure challenges, we find a massive influx of African returnees, believing “now is the time” to claim their own part and contribute to Africa’s rising economy. Despite that, Baba has a slightly different view:

“Five years ago they said ‘now is the time’. Don’t get me wrong, people are moving, they’ve always been moving. But, there has to be a system that supports our business ideas. To get a business license in Nigeria is a big headache. The problem is in the leadership. Doing business is not possible on a shoestring. African leaders have to do their due diligence so someone like me can move back and use the skill-sets I’ve acquired to contribute and be part of the developing economy. We need a smooth operational system that gives first rights to the indigenous people, provide us with resources and empower us.”

Against the many challenges, there is great benefit from doing business in Africa and for Africans. It is predicted that by 2020 Africa will comprise 17% of the world’s population, with Nigeria leading the pack. And, an increasing consumer population, mostly young and brand conscious, following the latest trend. It would make sense for SuRu, a line with an African identity, catering to the young and freshly urbane society to align its mission with the young African population in mind. And appropriately so, Baba tells us that SuRu has its vision set on young Africans:


“SuRu will definitely be part of this movement. Young Africans will benefit from the brand and its message. Our future goal is to set-up print and embroidery shops on the continent, train locals to work on that part of the production process. SuRu in Lagos would be a big hit. Nigerians love foreign brands, it makes us feel hip and global. We like to be trendsetters. It would be embraced without a question,” confidently he remarks. “We have plans to open a pop-store in the near future. Ultimately, I would like SuRu to be the “Ralph Lauren” of Nigeria. I have my eye on a retail store in one of the premier malls in Lagos, the Eko mall. “

SuRu’s message is respectable in its civility booster in a multicultural society. Not to mention the promotion of inclusivity on racial and cultural identity, alongside its rebel nature towards self-imposed borders. An idea, that probably translates fluidly with Africans in the disapora, as they form new identities in their new environment(s). But would this concept be rendered in the African scene, can one assume it takes on the same meaning, amidst its diverse populations? While keeping in mind that diversity has different meanings to different people, in different places, Baba is still determinate that the SuRu idea will translate completely in Africa:

“With the rich African diversity, I believe SuRu can be applicable and help capitalize on it. Africa’s diversity can be its strength, while respecting the religious diversity and cultural integrity. Maintaining and balancing the indigenous culture with that which is imported by colonial culture can create opposition. It has for many years. This is where SuRu, the act of exercising patience, and making it part of a lifestyle, wearing it on you, can perform its part in promoting a new culture. Rather than judging and interpreting the other in one’s own terms, recreate a self-made, patient lifestyle/culture. We ought to admit, culture is in flux.”


The story of SuRu can be relatable to many Africans, in the diaspora and on the continent. Young-Africans forming new identities as they break down the self-imposed borders built around ideas of identity.

In the near future, expect SuRu’s large-scale expansion as they open their flagship store in Oakland and grow their product reach to 5 stores in the California area. Concurrently, there are plans to open pop-up stores in Lagos, London and Tokyo, with long-term business ideas set to happen in Lagos, Nigeria and other parts of Africa.

In the meantime, Baba leaves you with these words: “Keep asking yourself, ‘Do-U-SuRu’? Do you have patience to understand one another; patience with our inherit differences?”

Learn more about SuRu.

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