Katungulu Mwendwa has deconstructed fashion and has a positive, defiant and edgy take on the environmental crises compounded by the global clothing industry.
A sleek saffron kaftan over Pollock-spattered silk trousers; the obsidian fins of a night-black evening dress; a sashed, punky, persimmon hoody from the future streets of Nairobi. These are the irresistible stories in Kenyan designer Katungulu Mwendwa’s startling KATUSH fashion brand label.
The child of a psychologist and an architect, Mwendwa grew up in a nurturing creative environment that introduced her to an eclectic skillset of creative tools.
“My dad used to take us to work with him,” she says. “We would actually draft a lot, as an experiment. In fashion, you have to create the pattern, the master bloc, and it requires a level of geometry to develop. With the human form, you have to remove suppression at different angles, to create volumes and shapes. So working with my dad definitely made me more confident in that. He did want me to be an architect. So now I’m like, ‘look! I’m an architect for clothing!’”
Emboldened by her triumph in the reality TV contest Catwalk Kenya in 2007, Mwendwa pursued her bachelor’s degree at the University for the Creative Arts in Rochester, United Kingdom.
“By the time I graduated, I had a better understanding of who and what the key players and roles were,” she says. “I was determined to come back to Kenya to create a business that I could then offer not just to the local consumer, but to a global market.”
Her second major break came with an invitation to present at Gen Art’s ‘Fresh Faces in Fashion’ show at New York Fashion Week in 2012. She arrived “by myself with two suitcases, running around New York lost and confused,” after two sleepless months of frantic sewing.
“It was exciting, but extremely nerve-wracking,” she says. “I remember some people saying, ‘but your stuff doesn’t really look African…’ They were waiting for something with more color, with more prints, and I had this post-apocalyptic, nomadic thing going on! And I struggled with that at the beginning – the whole concept of being told I’m not African enough – and I used to wonder what that meant. These days, I’m like, no, that’s not my battle. And now I’m designing what I like to make.”
She cites the essential impact of opportunities such as the HEVA investment fund, which supports entrepreneurship in the East African creative sector.
“I was very grateful to them,” she says, “for at least being patient and interested in those of us who would not necessarily get financial support, because we are considered such a high-risk business.” She now involves local artisanal groups, such as brass and aluminium casters, in her creative projects, and is sensitive to the challenges facing cottage industries whose traditional skills often lie outside the purview of a ruthless, churning, unpredictable industry.
“I’m curious about the evolution of culture, and practices and aesthetics relevant to our day-to-day lives,” she says (see her ‘Dinka Translation’ collection, which transfuses an ancient South Sudanese iconography into the clipped geometric lines of the boardroom or the cocktail party). “Retaining specific cultural practices, as opposed to copying and pasting, is critical in understanding how to manoeuvre through some of the challenges we face.”
She says that much more can and should be done to bring these local industries into the fold. “These artisans don’t have access to markets, and because they can be so detached from their direct consumer here in Nairobi, it becomes easier for someone to exploit them,” she says.
“I’ve always felt it’s the role of designers in the region to work closely with them, and then by extension, the market will create further demand.”
The edgy Afro-futurism of her work feels like a positive, defiant repost to the environmental crises compounded by the global clothing industry, a bloated leviathan which dumps almost two hundred tonnes of mitumba (second hand clothing) into East African markets every year. The Kenyan mitumba sector is a complex, controversial beast in its own right, creating millions of jobs while simultaneously suffocating regional productivity.
“Brands like myself cannot compete with clothing that is here for free,” Mwendwa says.
“There are a few designers creating upcycled clothing, which to me is extremely admirable. But I don’t know how good it is for us as a people, because it limits our ability to compete on an equal level. It has killed our textile sector, our own industry, and therefore we aren’t even able to source locally.”
She is optimistic, but cautious, about the future; light on her feet about the direction she may pursue.
“I’m going to tell more stories. I want to better understand how to communicate with a consumer that feels the way I feel,” she says. “I know it’s probably a niche consumer, but I also know they exist, in different pockets of the globe. I think we’re all everyday superheroes: that person that brings you a cup of coffee in the morning, might just say hi, might just be a stranger who stopped and waited for you to cross the road. That’s what informs my collection. And I want to share that with people.”
By Alastair Hagger
Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’
Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.
With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.
The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.
The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.
But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.
Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.
But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.
“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.
On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.
Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.
“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.
“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.
Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.
Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.
All For Grooming Future Leaders
Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.
He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.
Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.
“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.
He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.
Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.
“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”
Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.
“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.
Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.
Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.
“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.
But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.
The Mother-Daughter Duo Behind A New Inclusive Community Teaching Budding Professionals How To Better Engage At Work
Edith Cooper, who spent more than 20 years as an executive at Goldman Sachs, knows what it’s like to stand out in a workplace. Being one of few people of color in a sea of white faces over the course of her career hasn’t been easy. But rather than dwell on this reality, Cooper, who now sits on the boards of Etsy and Slack, has championed her differences. That’s what helped her rise through the ranks at the bank to eventually head its human resources department, an accomplishment she says was a result of her ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.
That quality would continue to work to her advantage: As Goldman Sachs evolved, so did its staff. Diversity was reflected not only in employees’ skin colors and genders, but also in their ages and geographical origins. Cooper was awakened to the fact that if the company was going to thrive, it would need to create an environment wherein its multifaceted staff could feel comfortable embracing their differences and, in turn, learn from them.
“If you can figure out an environment where people can thrive together, it’s powerful,” Cooper says. But it’s a process that takes time, especially if newer, more inexperienced employees aren’t equipped with the proper skills to navigate this balance between professionalism and open expression.
That is in part what inspired Cooper’s new startup, Medley, which she launched with her daughter Jordan Taylor, a former chief of staff at Mic and Harvard Business School Baker Scholar, to provide a community in which young professionals can gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work without fear. In light of the heightened tension surrounding ongoing racial injustice that’s inevitably seeping into workplace communication, it’s an ideal time to learn this skill.
Taylor has also had her fair share of experiences being the “only one in the room,” but as an emerging leader, rather than an established executive like her mother. Graduating in the top 5% of her class and being one the first 20 Black students to be named a Baker Scholar meant she was constantly figuring out how to relate to peers in predominantly white spaces. She figured it out, but Medley is a platform she wishes had been around when she was finding her voice among people whose backgrounds were much different than hers.
Medley groups young professionals in their 20s and 30s with other like-minded members whose workplace values, concerns and priorities align. The professionals that make up these eight-person groups differ, however, in terms of gender and ethnic background, which Cooper and Taylor hope will translate to increased empathy that members can apply within their respective workplaces.
“This idea of people being able to bring their true selves to work and to be able to talk through what that looks like is at the core of what Medley is offering,” says Cooper.
In addition to full access to workshops, panels and conversations led by experts across industries, members commit to a 90-minute virtual meeting each month, facilitated by a Medley-certified coach and focused on addressing and reflecting on ongoing experiences in their personal and professional lives. Cooper credits Medley’s robust network of coaches to the guidance she gained from Merche Del Valle, former global head of coaching at Goldman Sachs and a certified lifestyle, nutrition and wellness coach.
Merging personal wellness and professional development in group discussions is a priority. “You can’t just look at your career in a vacuum,” says Taylor. “In order to meet your potential, the ability to have a more holistic approach is incredibly important.”
To ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the ability to join the community, Medley offers a sliding scale fee ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the financial situation of prospective members. Cooper and Taylor are also in conversations with companies interested in partnering with Medley to give their staff reimbursement for membership.
With the help of investors including Away cofounder Jen Rubio, dtx company founder and CEO Tim Armstrong and MIC cofounder and former CEO Chris Altchek, who contributed more than $1 million to the project, Medley was ready to launch in May 2020 as an in-person membership hub in New York City. Shelter-in-place mandates halted the launch, but also presented an opportunity for Medley to instead be virtual and incorporate international members. The more springing corporate workers that can benefit from the community’s aim to build the next generation of confident, communicative professionals the better, the mother-daughter team notes.
“Medley gives people an opportunity to be a better human in relation to the people they work with and quite frankly in society,” Taylor says.
Download issues of Forbes Africa
- Single Digital Issue: James Mwangi Cover - Forbes Africa Aug/Sep2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa June/July 2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa April 2020 - 30 Under 30 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa March 2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa February 2020 R50.00
Subscribe to Forbes Africa
The People’s Banker: ‘Entrepreneurship Means Folding Up Your Sleeves And Working’
The World’s Most Valuable Brands 2020 | The Countdown | Forbes
Politics Of The Big Tech Hearing: Facebook, Apple, Amazon & Google – Steve Forbes | Forbes
From The C-Suite: ‘The Digital Economy Is An Extremely Powerful, Transparent Tool’
Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’
- Health2 days ago
[IN NUMBERS] Coronavirus Update: COVID-19 In Africa
- Health7 days ago
4 Ways Women Can Better Advocate For Their Own Health
- Brand Voice4 days ago
Focus on Namibia: The Vision Which Is Breaking Down Boundaries To Expand Namibia’s Infinite Horizons
- Video7 days ago
This Aquanaut Is Building A $135 Million ISS Of The Deep Sea | Forbes
- Brand Voice4 days ago
Egypt’s Blueprint For A Better Tomorrow
- Product Review5 days ago
Daring In Display And Design
- Video7 days ago
Serena Williams On Her Journey From Fashion School To New York Fashion Week
- Video6 days ago
Cutting Drug Prices? What You Need To Know – Steve Forbes | What’s Ahead | Forbes