Sonia Mugabo: Emerging markets, like Rwanda, are centers of innovation

@soniamugabo is setting the standard for Rwandan fashion in global and local markets Click To Tweet
Sonia Mugabo is the founder of Sonia Mugabo (“SM”), a Rwandan-based fashion brand offering an eclectic mix of African trends and contemporary style. SM offers both bespoke as well as ready to wear designs.

A pioneer of Rwanda’s fashion industry, Sonia is setting the standard for Rwandan fashion in global and local markets. Since its start three years ago, SM has cultivated a loyal following of customers who value the brand’s innovative and high-quality designs.

Rwanda’s fashion industry is nascent. What impact has that had on Sonia Mugabo and other fashion businesses in Rwanda?

Most people in Rwanda wear second-hand clothes imported from Western countries, which basically means Rwanda’s local talent is largely ignored. Luckily, with the aim to encourage consumption of local products, the Rwandan government is putting a stop to the importation of second clothes.

As such, local designers are seizing the opportunity to build brands with a strong Rwandan heritage as well as creating jobs and inspiring young talent to pursue fashion careers. I believe emerging markets, like Rwanda, are centres of innovation since they’re compelled to innovate to solve unique challenges.

You interned at Teen Vogue in New York. What are some of the things you learned there that helped you navigate the Rwandan fashion scene and those you’ve had to discard?

Teen Vogue New York was a fast moving and fashionable environment. The behind-the-scenes of the fashion world intrigued me. I learned about clothing brands while observing talented fashion editors define the next season’s trends. I got a sense of how the business of fashion functions and the hard work involved to remain at the top in a highly competitive industry.

In Rwanda, I’ve had to follow my gut, work hard and just do everything possible to make my brand stand out. Also, since we’re in an age where we can market freely on social media, I’ve leveraged that platform to create brand awareness and reach a diverse audience.

Sonia Mugabo
Sonia Mugabo

You said your best work is created in New York, a city that’s been branded a fashion haven by fashion aficionados. Why did you choose to move to Rwanda to open Sonia Mugabo?

When I realized I wanted to pursue a fashion designer career, I discovered starting in New York was almost impossible without having gone to fashion school.

However, in Rwanda, there’s a lot of incentives by the Rwanda Business Development (RDB) for companies and individuals wishing to do business in the country. That encouraged me to return home after I graduated college to launch my brand, Sonia Mugabo.

Sonia Mugabo
Sonia Mugabo

What’s your advice to women considering a career in fashion but can’t access a fashion magazine internship or fashion school?

I’d say educate yourself as much as possible about the industry. Research how your favourite brands became fashion powerhouses.

Most importantly, if you want to start your own brand know that there is a whole other aspect of just making beautiful clothes. There’s the business side of fashion, so make sure you understand the 5 Ps of marketing [product, price, place, people and promotion].

Another key to note is, though the fashion industry might appear glamorous from the outside, a lot of work takes place behind the scenes. It isn’t an overnight success story so don’t expect to bear fruits right away. Sometimes, you even have to plant fresh seeds.

Lastly, I’d say set up a 5 to 10 year plan for yourself, set milestones and try to achieve them one step at a time.

If there was something you could change about the Rwandan fashion industry, what would it be?

I would encourage people to support local businesses as much as they support foreign ones.

I’d change the mindset that “Made in Rwanda” is of lower quality than something sold in Nordstorm. Support your own.

Opportunities in Rwanda encouraged Sonia Mugabo to return home and launch her brand @soniamugabo Click To Tweet

What’s next for Sonia Mugabo the brand and the person?

We’re excited about launching our second store at Kigali Marriott in Kigali, which will carry our up-scale collection inspired by timeless fashion.

We plan to continue creating strong fashion pieces that celebrate and capture the essence of global trends with an edge that is purely African, and will be distributing SM products around Africa, North America and Europe through e-commerce, retail stores, stockists and stores across major fashion cities in 2017. We also hope to present seasonal collections in New York, London, Paris and Milan fashion weeks.

Personally, since I’m self-taught, I would like to take fashion courses to enhance my craftsmanship. I’m excited about the future.

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here

Laurie Frempong: Why I self-manage my modeling career

When it comes to the modelling industry, Ghanaian model and fashion blogger Laurie Frempong is her own boss. She manages her career, finds her own jobs, negotiates payments and acts as her own PR. This model has been self–managing since she was discovered at a casting for Project Walkway Ghana nearly four years ago.

Over the years, Laurie has secured editorial, swimwear, print, runway and commercial modelling contracts without a manager or an agency. She would be first to admit that balancing self-management and a modelling can be very tough but with determination, one can achieve anything.

What led you to self-manage your modelling career?

After being discovered and gaining exposure at the Project Walkway Ghana, I went into full-time modelling but in Ghana, there are no real modelling agencies and models signed under agencies had to go out and search for jobs.

There was no need having a manager who would not assist me in anyway, yet expect to be paid. So I chose to manage my own career. This was not easy especially since I had to combine management with modelling. Both jobs are full-time so there are days my management skills would be lacking and there are days my modelling skills would be lacking. This was at the very beginning though, now I have developed a skill to balance both jobs so as to not lack in both areas.

As a self-managed model, how do you find work? What jobs have you done over the years?

Well in order to find work, I had to build a brand and that was what I did. I am identified with my natural hair and my colourfulness. After this, I found work through recommendations; attending castings —which are very few in the country, and via social media. I take my work very seriously and always give my best on the job so people contact me for a job knowing they are getting nothing but the best.

I have worked many brands and shows like Afua Biney, Kiki Clothing, Woodin, Lema Press, Ernest Chemist, Zedi & Cross Alikoto Clothing, Nallem Clothing, Papa Oppong, Steve French, Wusuwa’s Diary, RIP Runway, Legon Fashion week, Catwalk for Orphans among others.


What are the challenges you face as a self-managing model in the industry? How do you overcome these challenges?

When I chose this path, I knew it was not going to be easy. Given the fact that Ghanaians are still warming up to modelling as a career, I knew I would face challenges. But I was still hopeful and determined to go through with my choices no matter what.

Challenges I face include;
Non-payment for jobs well done.
Getting paid less than what was negotiated.
Missing out on castings because these opportunities are communicated directly to modelling agencies.

For the payment challenges, I have rectified it by using a rate card. The rate card has details of how much a model charges depending on the type of job wanted. This card takes into consideration the number of hours involved, etc. This way when I am approached by a client, they know exactly what to expect.

With t
he issue about the castings, there is nothing I can do about it other than investing in myself, updating my portfolio and branding myself so well that I will not depend on these castings.

Would you say self-management is better than having another person manage you?

Well, there is nothing like being your own boss but to some extent I will say having a manager has its pros.

For instance, if I had a manager, I will have more time to focus on becoming the best model since I would not have to worry about the negotiating of contracts and payments.


Are there many self-managing models in the industry? What advice would you give to a self-managing model?

There are as many freelance models as there those who are under management in the industry.

The advice I would give to a self-managing model like me is – self-management is not easy but nothing good comes easy. So stay focused; build your brand and portfolio, set goals and work towards them and most importantly learn to use social media to market your brand.

Also when starting out, many people would try to take advantage of you so build your negotiation skills and be firm at all times.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

Every single thing. This career allows me to express myself in so many ways and be true to myself.

I also love seeing the product of my hard work. After all the stress, when I see the final work and it looks amazing, I am happy.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done as a model?

Recently, I had to do a runway for a fashion graduate, Steve French. The concept was to act like a mad person on the runway. It was one of the most creative shows ever.


Which international brand would you like to model for and which concept would it be?

Vlisco. An editorial spread and a fashion film. The fashion film will tell a story about the history of African Prints. And I would be the model styled in some iconic Vlisco designs since its inception.

I also dream of being a Victoria’s Secret model. That will be a dream come true for me.

Want to see women you know featured on SLA? Tell us what amazing things women are doing in your communities here.

I started Cartik with less than $3 to my name

I started Cartik, an ethical fashion and social entrepreneurship brand in 2013 while studying abroad in Ghana. A significant part of my program as an International Relations major at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul, Minneapolis, was to study abroad for a semester or a year. So, I spent a semester in Paris, France on a scholarship sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of educational and cultural affairs. After my time in France, I planned to go to Ghana to study the culture, the people, and their political system.

My scholarship to Ghana was declined but I was already enrolled in the program that summer. So, I worked every job I could find and saved enough money to purchase a ticket to Ghana.  My tuition covered the fees and the only issue left was my survival for the rest of the semester. Struggling to go to Ghana made me realize how much I needed to make extra income back in USA.

My Ghanaian experience

While in Ghana, my aunt in Togo paid me a visit and we travelled back to Togo to see family. It had been 15 years since I last visited and I felt like a complete stranger in my own country. My aunt and I had gone to the market in Lomé, the capital city of Togo. As we walked through the market, all I saw was beautiful African wax prints everywhere. My aunt, being the queen of prints asked me to help select them.

My interest was piqued when my aunt advised that I consider doing something with prints. In need of extra income and knowing the demand for prints in the US would be huge, I considered it. Soon, I was making inquiries in Ghana and during trips to Togo on bags and accessories with African prints.

Carmen Attikossie

Breaking through the business world

A young woman I met at the University of Ghana, Legon where I was staying, showed me some bags that I liked. Originally, I was going to just buy bags and sell them in the USA but I didn’t like some of the ones I saw. This led me to start sketching my own designs and jotting down ideas of what I’d like. Though I had no background in design and could barely draw to save my life, I was willing to try.

When my time in Ghana came to an end, I had used all the money I earned to start Cartik. With $2.85 to my name and no books for the coming semester, I returned to the USA with 30 bags and some jewelry. It was an audacious move but I told myself even if I failed, at least I tried.

Within two months, I had sold everything and even needed to get more products. I went from ordering 30 to 60, then 200 bags. I was running Cartik’s operations from my dorm on campus with the help of my aunt and cousins in Ghana and Togo.

cartik model

Growing Cartik

I started getting invited to events to showcase my products as everyone on my campus and even local colleges around the city in St. Paul and Minneapolis knew about my business.

In my last year in college, a friend invited me to her economic development class. As I listened to a professor speak about economic development in developing countries, I realized how everything spoken about came naturally to me.

I decided that very moment, what I wanted to do with my brand. I was going to grow Cartik into an ethical fashion and social entrepreneurship brand that works with artisans in Togo and Ghana. I was going to fuse my knowledge as an international relations major into my business.

Although it’s been 2 years since we started, I still consider Cartik a startup. We’ve done many local fashion shows in Minneapolis and more recently, we did something for RAW in Phoenix, Arizona. RAW is an international artist coalition group that serves as a platform for designers, musicians, etc.

I truly believe I have started a brand with the potential to make a huge impact in Africa.

The future?

In the future, I hope to expand into producing my own African textiles, provide education and development for women and children. Also, I would love to go into cosmetics, agriculture, and start a foundation to mentor young individuals wanting to start a business.

Of course, I am trying to create an altruistic brand that will stimulate economic development and prosperity. I want to create jobs and opportunities for people in Togo, Ghana and other parts of the African continent.

Xiomara Rosa-Tedla: There are benefits to starting a business with family

Xiomara Rosa-Tedla Unoeth

Many people ask how and why my father and I started our business. And to be honest, it was by accident.

About two years ago, my father returned home from a trip visiting family in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After picking him up from the airport and unloading luggage, he handed me a gifta custom, handmade leather messenger bag. Xiomara Rosa-Tedla Unoeth Immediately, I fell in love with my new gift and sported it everywhere. From work to dinner to weekend trips, I toted my new bag all around the world. And soon after, friends, family members, and strangers started asking, Where did you get your bag? I love it! Can your dad get me one as well?” For months the questions and requests kept coming. Even my father told me he had been getting the same questions, and suggested, Hey, I think we have a business here. Lets start a leather bag business!Shortly after, the birth of UnoEth began.

Starting a business from scratch is a fun creative process, where brainstorming sessions let your mind run free with ideas and opportunities for your business to grow exponentially. Xiomara Rosa-Tedla UnoethBut as with any business, the road to success is never a straight line up. There are dips, curves and encounters with the unknown. In addition, it can be a lot of work. On the bright side, there are benefits to running a business with family.

A family member as a business partner can be extremely beneficialespecially my dad. Having an equal partner with a long history (my whole life) and blood ties helps solidify communication, trust, and dedication to succeed. Neither partner wants to let the other down. From day one of creating our new business, I felt unbelievably confident in our new venture because my dad and I shared the same vision and passion for our budding brand.Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 1.42.31 PM

In addition to trust, communication, and dedication, working with family also means splitting responsibilities. As we both grow our business around our full-time jobs, we wish there was more time in the day to juggle responsibilities. We split outstanding tasks, which alleviates the stress and workload on both of us.

Communication is key to maintaining strong relationships with each other, our vendors, shipping counterparts, business partnerships and most importantly, our customers. In the development of UnoEth, weve learned to communicate promptly to avoid creating a bottleneck in our business. Thanks to apps like Viber, were able to communicate easily internationally via wifi and all stay on the same pagejust in different time zones.Xiomara Rosa-Tedla UnoethIts incredibly important to maintain a positive, can-do attitude with a goal always in sight. As mentioned before, the road to success is never a straight line. Every business experiences road blocks and obstacles, which can deter most individuals from starting a business in the first place.

But with an optimistic, focused, and goal-oriented outlook, one can overcome the temporary downfalls, cross the finish line and push on to the next stage. At the end of day, one must ask, How bad do I really want to be successful?And then simply just go for it!

What are your thoughts on starting a business with a family member? Enjoyed Xiomara’s story ? Share the UnoEth story with your network.

Kambili Ngozi Ofili-Okonkwo: We want to make sure the average person looks good

Kambili Kamokini

A personal need for interestingly stylish, practical and affordable swimsuits led Kambili Ngozi Ofili-Okonkwo to start KAMOKINI. The Nigeria-based brand, which officially launched in September 2014, merges fancy designs with an understanding of the average woman’s body consciousness and sensuality to create swimwear that makes women feel and look good.

Prior to taking the leap into KAMOKINI full time, Kambili worked in the oil industry and in the fast-moving consumer goods industry. She has a Bachelors and Masters degree in Engineering from Imperial College London, as well as a Masters in Supply Chain and Logistics Management from Cranfield University. I spoke with the swimwear designer about her entrepreneurial experience.

Starting out

In 2012, Kambili found herself struggling to find appropriate swimsuits for herself. “I don’t consider myself to be a model size,” she said. “I was looking for something that was not too revealing, fashionable and inexpensive.” Unable to find a swimsuit that met her criteria, she decided to design what she had in mind for herself, then reached out to manufacturers in China. Her first order of business was to send them a detailed list of specifications for the swim suits. The factory also had to be willing to sign a confidentiality agreement with her. “When I found one that was happy to sign and work with me, I started sharing my designs with them,” Kambili said.


When her friends complimented the swimsuits that she had made for herself, she made some in similar styles for them and received overwhelming positive feedback. “It made me think, ‘OK, I can do this commercially’. Why don’t I try to make these kinds of swimsuits available?”she said.

With her savings and investment from family and friends, Kambili embarked on her entrepreneurial journey. “From the get-go, I was working with an experienced production facility so it was easy to move from making sample sizes to making larger quantities,” she added.

Kambili’s spending priority with this initial capital has been on the quality and cost of the product. “I want it to be as close to perfect as possible but also affordable,” she said. She wants to ensure that her clients don’t have to break the bank in order to access her products, and wants to ensure they enjoy the KAMOKINI experience. “I feel like if it’s not adding value to my customers, then I don’t spend money on it. If I can find a way to do it without spending money, then I go for it.”

From design to delivery

Drawings and sketches of the swimwear are done by Kambili. These are then turned into computer-aided designs. She writes down specifications for the print or color that she wants to use for each item, and the material and textures that will be put together to produce it. “We have the standard elastane fabric for swimwear but I may want to play with textures,” Kambili said. “For example, you might see that some of our swimsuits have lace on them. I like playing with textures, maybe it is the engineer in me,” she added. The manufacturers she works with do the dying and printing of the fabric.

The product sample making is a three step process. First, Kambili receives swatches so that she can choose the exact color of fabric that she wants. The sample is then made and pictures are taken from different angles. After this, the sample is washed to make sure that it doesn’t run or fray, the elastic remains taut, and that the zippers, if any, work well. This testing is carried out by the technicians in the factory. Once they are satisfied with the test results, they deliver the samples to Kambili.

At this stage, Kambili analyzes the samples. She works with models who try them on to see if they fit well, the bust sizes that can fit into each, and if any adjustments are needed. And on completion of the analysis, she either sends the samples back for amendment, in which case the three step process is repeated, or she confirms for production, and the factory manufactures and labels the products to be sold. Kambili and her team, which comprises of a photographer, graphic designer, accounts manager and models, also use the samples for creating campaign marketing material and promotional content. An added advantage of doing this is that it allows the team to see how the colors look on film.

The key element for KAMOKINI in this entire design and production process is the desire to create stylish swimsuits that are practical for average people. “We are listening to what our target customers want. They want things that are pretty and can hide aspects that they don’t want to show,” she said.

For example, the company has swimsuits that have short sleeves for people who are uncomfortable with showing their arms. It also has swimsuits with inserts for padding for people with smaller busts who may want a little bit of enhancement. “That’s what sets us apart,” she said. “We want to ensure that the average person looks as good as she wants while physically exposed. It is really about meeting people’s desires,” she added.


Challenges and opportunities

Like every entrepreneur who is starting out, Kambili has dealt with her fair share of challenges. For one, people in Nigeria are relatively conservative when it comes to exposing themselves. As such, they don’t take advantage of the numerous beaches and pools in the country. They are also not used to decent, well-designed swimwear being sold next door. Additionally, KAMOKINI is a luxury brand that also creates awareness. “There is a real threat to spend more money than you intended on educating people and creating that experience so that they want to buy swimsuits.”

To tackle this, she has established business partnerships with alcoholic beverage brands that host beach and pool events. “We are working with them to create that world class experience that you find in places like Miami or Cannes – places with developed beach and pool activations,” Kambili said. “This will be an avenue for the target market to interact with the brand directly.” In addition, the company has invested in marketing. It has an active presence on social media, particularly Instagram. Spice TV recently did a documentary about KAMOKINI which has helped the business reach some of its target market. The brand has participated in fashion shows such as Runway Fiesta and Copa Lagos. Kambili’s products have also been featured in music videos and been endorsed by celebrities and media personalities.

Manufacturing KAMOKINI products in China as opposed to Nigeria or somewhere else in Africa has also come with its own set of challenges. There have been several timing related delays. In addition, the minimum order quantities required by the factory are very high. “I would rather spend that money on a variety of styles as opposed to producing one style in bulk,” she said. She is hoping to be able to have her own factory in the future. “It would be nice to have a vertically integrated supply network. It helps in making quicker decisions from idea to production.”

Staying the course

As much as the challenges are tough to deal with, she sees the opportunities they provide and is determined to explore them. Her resolve is further strengthened by the support she gets from her family, partner, friends and customers. “I am grateful and blessed to be surrounded by people who encourage me and understand my vision,” she said. Her customers encourage her every time they send her pictures enjoying themselves in KAMOKINI products. “It is the most amazing feeling. It means that we are adding value to people’s lives. It’s not world peace but we take it for granted that to wear a swimsuit you are literally going out in your underwear,” she added. “It takes a lot of confidence to do that.”

Kambili, who was 2015 SLA pitch competition 2nd place winner wanted to expand the product line with her cash award. At the time of this interview, the brand had only released eight pieces and was looking to launch a full collection. “I want to produce an extensive range of samples for current and potential wholesalers to order from. I want to give them a good range to choose from depending on their clientele,” she said.

Kambili’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is this: “Understand the money you have. It doesn’t matter how small you are starting, if finance and accounting is not your specialty, get an expert to help you. You need to know how much money you have to play with and how to plan it. As much as you want to make a difference, it all comes down to money.”

See more of Kambili’s designs on KOMOKINI’S Instagram page.

Rayana Edwards: I had to figure out a different model

Rayana Edwards fuses culture and clothing to empower women through her business Harem Clothing and her project Sari for Change. Harem Clothing focuses on creating modern modest dressing for women of all ages. Sari for Change trains unemployed women to reproduce new garments from donated saris. Upon completion of the Sari for Change training, the women are encouraged to launch their own businesses. They also continue to receive mentorship and have the opportunity to partner with Harem Clothing. Through both endeavours, Rayana not only dresses women but creates employment opportunities for them.

Rayana aims to promote sustainability within needlecraft and manufacturing industries, and incorporates the ethos of sacred economy into her business and her project. She is currently exploring the concept and process of township economies, which she is excited about  introducing all over Africa.

I caught up with the South Africa-based entrepreneur and life coach via email to talk about her work.

Tell us about yourself

I am a mother to 5 daughters ranging from age 6 to 26. I have this absolute love affair with culture and travel. My fashion story started when I was living in Kenya; I was so inspired by the raw talent there.

People were curious about me and my sense of style, as I often fused items from various cultures. I could wear a scarf from Ethiopia, sandals from Kenya, and a jalabar from Morocco, and blend it all in a way that made it effortlessly stylish and interesting.

This was not new to me as being from Cape Town, we enjoy a heritage of rich cultures fusing into each other. I would travel and often shop for 20 different people, working with endless lists. Soon, I opened my first boutique in Westlands, Nairobi called Cape Connections.

Tell us a bit more about Harem Clothing – what is it and why did you decide to start it?

Harem Clothing literally means a sacred space for women. I started Harem Clothing in Johannesburg after having my last and most unplanned daughter. I was studying for my life coaching diploma while waiting for her to arrive, and really became so obsessed with our inner realities.

Questions like: why the need for retail therapy? what makes us happy? and why are we here? seemed to be topmost on my mind. This journey allowed me to give birth to Harem. I needed a space where I could dress women but also give them the tools to feel good inside.

Harem was that space where you could come in for floaty feminine clothing, coaching on the self and emotions, and a bit of culture in terms of décor and artifacts that I sourced on my many travels globally.

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 1.45.36 PM

What steps did you take in starting Harem Clothing – in terms of fundraising, production, marketing and distribution strategies?

Harem was 100% self-funded. I sold my property and the proceeds of the sale allowed me to start Harem.

Most of the production was sourced in India and Vietnam at the time, and I focused on a niche market, namely modern modest.

Starting out as an entrepreneur is difficult. You are faced with challenges ranging from breaking into the market to having a constant stream of revenue. What key challenges did you face when you started out, and how did you deal with them?

When sourcing stock, the bulk of your money lies in what does not sell as eventually it ends up on a sale rail at cost price. The biggest challenge was making purchases based on clients needs.

It so easy to get distracted by a ‘must have’ only to find out it might not be appropriate for your client. The point here is to know your clients and their needs really well.

As a serial entrepreneur who has also failed, I learnt to build and improve and always redefine by going back to the drawing board. Looking back now, I see it all as a stepping-stone and preparation to start digging into the more meaningful and relevant issues we are challenged by today.

What kept you going in those early days?

Exactly on the point above. I literally personalized each purchase overseas as I knew it had to be sold the minute it landed. Once the stock arrived, it was the greatest joy to see the correct design to client matches.

I am also blessed to have a very supportive family, and my daughter Mishka, shortened her gap year overseas to assist in the business. She has been one of my first mentees and today she owns a successful store catering to her age group called Me and You Clothing Boutique.

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when Harem Clothing was starting out?

Financial planning was my weakness at the time so I would often ignore what I least liked. I now know to work on converting a weakness to a strength.

I also have an exercise I do with everything, and that is the SWOT analysis. What are the strengths, where are the weaknesses, and I identify the opportunities and threats.

You are also the founder of Sari for Change, what inspired this project?

I started to source production locally and realized what a difficult process it was both in terms of skill and costs of fabric. I am a very tactile person and my idea of having fun is to be able to walk through a fabric store or market, and feel and smell the fabric.

This was mainly how I learnt fabrics in the early days. With a sari, I realized there was all of 6 metres that could be used for fabulous garments as saris came in rich colours and silks, crepes and satins.

As entrepreneurs, we are very close to our businesses and the business depicts what we are feeling. For me, it was about giving back, and wanting to work with women who mattered around me.

Paying homage to an old adage…charity begins at home. With this is mind, I had to now had to figure out a model. I believe you have to do something different for a different result.

Sari for Change newspapers
Sari for Change newspaper bags

How do you select the women that participate in it?

They must be motivated and aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Passion and commitment are the qualities we look for and they must really want the change for themselves, holistically.

I surround myself with women that understand that we are more process driven than outcome-based. Selection processes normally start with a creative workshop I call “tapping into the inner creativity.” It is an all day workshop with many processes systematically in place that allows someone to really hone in on all of their senses.

What kind of support in terms of training, design, equipment, production and marketing, do you offer the women when they join Sari for Change and after they start their own businesses ?

They are able to train or continue their internship with Harem. Once they start up on their own, we ensure they become one of our suppliers in production. Basically, we try to create a diverse structure in sourcing for every part of needlecraft.

We further expose them to our networks and allow them to scale their products to market. We also raise funds for equipment needed as a startup. Our intern fashion designer assists in the patternmaking processes.

They are expected to come up with their own marketing plan which we then support. I often profile them on our networks and social media pages.

Afro Amour, A Sari for Change partner
Afro Amour, A Sari for Change partner

What difficulties have you have faced in the Sari for Change journey? How have you tackled them?

The difficulties were mainly with funding or the lack thereof. However, after a bit of self-funding and many attempts at crowdfunding, the value came when I started working with good networks.

For instance, The Art of Living initially endorsed our project as a charity or service project. This means that their members were able to donate these saris and allow for unemployed women to get skills.

I am a director of Meaningful Change, an NPO that focuses on bridging the gaps in society. This collaboration was needed to ensure that Sari for Change became a reality.

You are working towards building a model within the needlecraft industry that aims for sustainability. You had mentioned that Sari for Change speaks to this. Could you tell us about this?

Sustainability in this sense means increasing the capacity and well-being of the people and communities behind fashion. The first concern was around women traveling far distances, leaving their homes at very early hours, to get to their workplace; transport costs would be where the bigger part of their wages would go to, and the infringement on the family and quality of life is huge.

Thus, we started the township economy and encourage our entrepreneurs-in-training to open up businesses nearer to where they stay. We also provide a meal to our trainees as we realize that most of them would come to work hungry.

We encourage them to make clothing for themselves first as this gives them a better sense of what they are producing. The main vision though, is for us to be significant contributors in this industry and for the women to be able to pay it forward in both skill and entrepreneurship learning.

Could you please tell us what a sacred economy is?

A sacred economy is where you have like-minded people supporting a common purpose. We all do our part in ensuring we all succeed. It’s not about accumulation of wealth but rather sharing in it, and ensuring that we are building a community of ambassadors for each other.

Sacred is anything that is of God, and we are working with our talents and creativity which is God-given.

How have you been able to incorporate the ethos of a sacred economy into Sari for Change?

One of our fashion designers is currently on a UN youth leadership programme. The seamstress she employs is filling in for her so we ensure that she is able to understand what is done on a production line.

We share the learning and when we outsource our bigger orders, it goes right back to our entrepreneurs. When there is an urgent need amongst our mentees, we rally together to ensure a solution. We recognize each other as a resource and work together.

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The women of Siri for Change

How does Harem Clothing fit into this economy?

My own modest modern line is produced in-house but most importantly, each entrepreneur has a chance to work and produce for Harem. Our new website will include all entrepreneurs and Harem will become the central online marketing platform.

They also have the opportunity to work at Harem exhibitions, events and stores, and are often left to their own design and direction.

What steps can aspiring and current entrepreneurs take in order to contribute to a sacred economy?

Share resources or space – often this is the biggest challenge. Consider the power of collaborations. Promote each other and talk about your products on social media. Buy local and appreciate the products being made.

The African narrative is so essential at this level as our focus is on slow fashion rather than mass-produced goods that are continuously dumped in Africa, enslaving yet more consumers.

Become conscious of who made your clothes and what their conditions were. Surround yourself with like-minded people and form little groups of interest.

You had said that you are currently exploring a township economy. Could you please define what that means? What does it entail?

By township economy, I refer to a need that is filled by a community-based enterprise. At present, we have street vending, taverns, spaza shops, hair salons and child-minding. The closest to what we do would be the traditional tailoring shop.

In South Africa, we have huge shopping malls which have also crept into our townships – Maponya Mall, Cosmo City Mall – to name a few. They have seen the gap and yet entrepreneurship has been alive in our townships forever.

Why are we not offering new solutions? If we are able to shift consciousness to support each other in business, we can be part of building each others businesses to this level.

So we encourage entrepreneurs to start producing what they sell and to build a better capital base within their own communities. My challenge to our boutique owners in Cosmo City is – if there are 40,000 women living in this area and should 1000 of them spend R50 each month at your store, that means a turnover of R50000?

What do you need to do? It’s as simple as this – you can achieve sustainability and profitability with a good plan as the masses are based in the townships.

How can entrepreneurs and people invested in empowering women, in particular, contribute to this?

I would really like for this grow out of South Africa and would love to hear from fashion designers and creatives in this industry to start up more groups in Africa.

A synergy between entrepreneurship, emotional wellness, and skill development is needed. We need to develop key partnerships that ensure holistic growth from the ground up.

What is your ultimate vision for both Harem Clothing and Sari for Change?

For Harem Clothing, our vision is to be able to mentor and coach more women into sustainable and profitable businesses, and to collectively build a proudly African brand that depicts all of our cultures and diversity, creating an identity that we are proud of.

At Sari for Change, the notion of creating beautiful garments, accessories and décor items made from recyclable elements becomes a stronger reality in a consumer-driven world. We also have a vision of seeing our products in European and American markets, rather than stripping ourselves of our creative talent by buying secondhand garments from them.

Let’s reverse it! So right now our store in the township of Cosmo City is busy producing a kaftan range using the saris for a new online store in Gothenburg, Sweden. Our ultimate vision here is to replicate our township model throughout Africa.

Lastly, where can our readers find Harem Clothing and Sari for Change products?

On our new website. We are also in stores in Naivasha Avenue, Cosmo City; Northcliff Corner Shopping Centre, Johannesburg; and Ravats Persian Carpet Gallery, Pretoria.

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