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The Designer Who Made A Mint By Closing The Mint

David Tlale—one of the rising names in African fashion—on struggle, design, business and why he has no hesitation in putting men in dresses.

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Not so long ago, fashion design in Africa went something like this: A tailor sets up shop in the back room of his house; he services the needs of the community’s elite; in between making wedding dresses for local girls and three-piece matric dance suits for the boys, he’s known as the go-to person should your hemline need a bit of adjustment.

Ten years ago, this was fashion designer David Tlale’s reality as he sat alone by the sewing machine in his mother’s house in the township of Vosloorus, in the East Rand of Johannesburg, South Africa, drawing sketches and making patterns. Nowadays, it is these designs that have helped change the face of fashion in South Africa and the continent.

Fashion designer David Tlale at his Sandton store; Johannesburg, 1 November 2011 – Photo by Brett Eloff.

As Tlale and I sit in the lounge of the upmarket Fire & Ice! hotel in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, for sundowners, it is crystal clear that his vision is far from being a mere pipedream. In the nine years that he has been a professional fashion designer, he has won many awards and accolades; he has become arguably the most famous and recognizable black designer in South Africa with a list of endorsements.

And on the topic of endorsement, his current collaboration with the South African Mint is the talk of the town, owing to reports that the Mint stopped producing money on the day they hosted his fashion show at their Centurion premises during the recent Africa Fashion Week, in October.

So how did he get the money-making machine to come on board with him?

“SA Mint got in contact with me after they attended the fashion show that I held on the Mandela Bridge in May 2011 (the bridge was also closed for this show). They had been supporting a few campaigns on climate change—the awareness and fundraising for it, so they wanted me to bring a fashion element, like an artistic interpretation of the dangers and effects of climate change,” he says.

The Mint had a special coin, worth more than $1,000, struck in his honour for his contribution to the cause.

The Mint was not the only customer. Luxury car manufacturer Volvo also selected Tlale as one of three South African designers—along with Nkhensani Nkosi of Stoned Cherrie and Gert-Johan Coetzee—to help design its cars.

But his biggest coup so far has been Estée Lauder’s Clinique range, for which he designed a limited edition handbag. This resulted in David Tlale branding being splashed across malls and department stores all over South Africa and beyond.

In September 2011, Tlale took a major plunge by opening a store at the high-end Michelangelo Towers in Africa’s economic hub—the mall of Sandton City. Now, at a time of recession when other established designers are selling into major parent companies, mainly for security, this move has raised the proverbial eyebrow among many a fashion and retail expert.

“Three years ago, Woolworths came to me and offered to take my brand on to distribute through their stores. Now after working for so many years to make sure that consumers understood my identity and aesthetic, I decided to decline this offer because I felt that they wanted to wash away much of the detail that makes a David Tlale creation. They wanted to dilute my signature basically, so I decided to wait it out until I felt that my brand was ready to stand on its own two feet in the world of retail,” he says confidently.

Tlale is also known to be open and honest about having faced extreme highs and lows in his journey to becoming a fashion businessman.

“I have seen it all,” he says. “I have gone through times where the business overheads were way more than what was coming in; I have even gone through a time when I thought I needed to get a nine-to-five job to finance the costs of running the label. But that was part of the journey that every entrepreneur goes through.

“People criticize and slate me for choosing the Michelangelo Towers to house the store, but I personally believe that the brand David Tlale calls for an address like that and nothing else. We are a luxury brand and we have to be where all the other luxury brands are, and where the tourists and the moneyed set hang out. And the label is ready,” he adds.

While it remains to be seen just how well the store at the Towers does, over at The Bromwell boutique hotel in Cape Town, where Tlale’s wares are also sold, things appear to be going swimmingly.

“I was so amazed by how well our merchandise is moving at The Bromwell. At this point, customers are calling for us to open a David Tlale branch over in Cape Town, so what I am working on right now—while I watch the progress at my Johannesburg store—is to expand within The Bromwell,” he states.

With prices at the store ranging from anything between R1,200 ($150) for a blouse to R8,000 ($1,000) for an evening dress, how does Tlale handle the general perception that one has to pay a fortune to afford a David Tlale piece, and does that hurt his business in any way?

“I get a lot of that kind of reaction. People generally think that it takes a right arm, a leg and a kidney to afford one of my garments, and that’s not necessarily true,” he says.

Tlale’s deep-pocketed clientele pay more than R25,000 ($3,150) for a custom-made couture piece.

I ask whether Tlale has male clients who allow him to put them in dresses, like he does the male models who walk the ramp for his fashion shows.

“My inspiration for putting men in dresses stems from the eastern culture that I totally embrace. And as a point of correction, those garments people see as ‘dresses’ are actually long kaftans. As an artist, I love pushing the boundaries and reminding people that fashion is art, it’s fantasy, and I do not believe in doing a show that will not give people something to talk about when they leave. I use my shows to tell a story, to give people an experience and to give the media something to chew on,” he says.

As one of the most publicized fashion designers in Africa, it would seem that the media and the press appear mesmerized by Tlale. The reports aren’t always rosy; there is talk of tardiness and “diva tendencies”.

“The problem here is that I am always the last designer to close off a season of Fashion Week. And what normally happens is that everyone before me is already running late, so by the time I’m supposed to come on and wrap things up, it’s glaringly obvious that everything is running two hours late and I get the flak for all of it,” he explains.

Whether or not you subscribe to Tlale’s over-the-top bling aesthetic and price tag, there’s no denying that he has indeed come a long way from the dusty streets of “Voslo”, and is inching closer to realising his dream of changing the face of fashion in Africa.

The David Tlale label is making waves at the respective fashion weeks in Angola, Nigeria, Ghana and Mozambique—the rest of the continent awaits to be conquered.

 

Entrepreneurs

Enterprise And Traceable Tea From Tanzania

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Tahira Nizari; images supplied

How this Tanzanian entrepreneur’s tea startup is weathering the Covid-19 storm.

When Tahira Nizari started her social enterprise Kazi Yetu in Tanzania’s bustling city, Dar es Salaam, with her business partner and husband, Hendrik Buermann, almost two years ago, she didn’t anticipate the sheer scope of her big idea.

But she also didn’t expect that, because of an employee’s exposure to the coronavirus in April, she and her entire team would be quarantining for two weeks, stalling work in a year that she had projected growth for her company. With the pandemic’s onset, she lost most of her customer base in Tanzania, albeit temporarily, and was forced to come up with a game-plan and quickly pivot.

“It’s been an economic recession overnight, more or less,” says Nizari.

With family roots in Tanzania, and armed with formal degrees from Dubai and Canada, and experience in economic inclusion in the non-profit development sector, Nizari aimed to set a benchmark in the agribusiness sector in Tanzania through value-addition and by employing local women in her factory based in Dar es Salaam to produce “a traceable product” for the local and international market.

“Right now, tea is just exported in bulk completely (from Tanzania) and then all the jobs thereafter in that value chain are done abroad. So what we said was ‘let’s redistribute that job creation, let’s bring it back to Tanzania and let’s create a facility in which we can hire workers all locally and have a product that is 100% made in Tanzania’,” says Nizari. After extensive research in multiple target markets, both locally and abroad, building relationships with 250 Tanzanian farmers, setting up a factory exclusively employing local and previously-unemployed women, and many iterations of the seven blends of its flagship Tanzania Tea Collection using local flavors and spices, Kazi Yetu was ready to expand its scope in 2020.

“We were following our business plan… but we were really cautious and risk-averse (in 2018 and 2019). And then, we said, ‘you know what, when 2020 hits, it’s going to be growth’.”

Nizari was planning on reaching up to 4,000 farmers, buy machinery from China, grow the local B2B customer base, permanently employ all the women at the factory and begin to export on a larger scale after the launch of Kazi Yetu’s online store.

But when the coronavirus hit the local and international markets, things started looking very bleak, especially since Kazi Yetu is currently fully self-funded.

 Not only did it lose almost all of its monthly income, but the farmers stopped meeting in groups for the training, so the supply chain was disrupted.

“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution.”

The factory also had to introduce safety protocols for employees at work and at home, as well as reduce the number of people working at any given time in order to adhere to social distancing.

An employee’s father also died of the coronavirus, which forced Nizari to ask everyone involved with Kazi Yetu to quarantine at home for 14 days.

“So what we said was, ‘look, we don’t want to risk their safety, but we also don’t want to risk their economic well-being’. So we just paid all of them their full-time salary,” says Nizari.

“Generally, our operational costs have been really hard to cover right now… but it’s okay, because it made us pivot.”

It inspired Nizari to expedite Kazi Yetu’s plans to export, kickstart the online store sooner than anticipated and build up stock to send to Germany, rather than just focus on the Tanzanian market, which is temporarily quite small. Exporting has been an issue, given limited shipping at the moment, but the European market proved to be a pleasant surprise for Nizari.

“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution,” she says.

Slowly, the factory is moving back to normal operations and Nizari is trying her best to ensure a steady income for the employees. Kazi Yetu is also now available on local delivery applications in Tanzania, so people can order tea to their doorsteps.

Looking ahead, Nizari hopes to scale up exporting through the online store and retailers, whether in Europe, or also in markets like South Africa where products from sub-Saharan Africa are popular, and North America where innovative African products are in demand.

“We want our product to be competing with products made in Europe, and for example, Sri Lankan tea, Indian tea and Chinese tea. We want Tanzanian products to be well-regarded,” she adds.

Since the teas are traceable, which is a unique selling point, Kazi Yetu is also working on an app that uses blockchain to allow customers to access data on the tea they purchase, from the farm level, all the way to their cups. This way, they will know first-hand the impact the product has.

In addition, Nizari is working on a farm-hub model to build Kazi Yetu’s supply chain by helping them produce better raw products through a no-interest investment that can be paid back with their final product over time.

“The whole ‘economy versus safety’ debate… it’s something we have to think about moving forward… You can’t just operate as a business that makes money, you have to think about… the well-being of your workplace, the well-being of everyone in your supply chain… And I think this is where social enterprises really come in,” Nizari adds.

And a hot cup of locally-produced tea can certainly help take forward any such deliberations.

By Inaara Gangji

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Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’

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Shola Ladoja; image supplied

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.

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All For Grooming Future Leaders

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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.

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