Jokate Mwegelo has more followers than AKA and Bonang Matheba put together. She inspires girls from Angola to Zimbabwe without even trying. For an entrepreneur in a Tanzanian town, she has a celeb-style social media following.
“You are such a down-to-earth and inspirational queen. Your hard work and humility have shown me that there is hope for me no matter what life throws at me,” writes one of her 2.5 million followers on Instagram.
It’s been a long road to here for 30-year-old Mwegelo. Her journey began in 2006 when taking a gap year after high school.
To pass time, Mwagelo volunteered for the United Nations and entered the Miss Tanzania contest.
“I was extremely shy and didn’t want to wear short things but was very confident in my ability to speak in public which kind of propelled me to the finals,” says Mwegelo.
She wasn’t crowned queen, but left an impression, which ushered in opportunities for acting; her debut was a role in a movie called Fake Pastors. The movie’s success was genuine.
“This was at a time when the movie industry was becoming more commercialized in Tanzania. So it was among the first movies to do very well commercially and the promotion was huge, although the pay for us actors was little.”
It paved way for more roles and earned her two awards at the Zanzibar International Film Festival and a stint as a musician collaborating with the likes of Nigerian multiple award-winning hip-hop star Ice Prince.
Although supportive of her extra-curricular achievements, her family encouraged her to stick to the plan and to go to university after the gap year.
“My parents were civil servants and very strict and valued education. In primary school, I remember my dad would forget to pick me up. Sometimes I would be the last child to leave school and even walk four to five kilometers home after 6PM,” she says.
In the end, Mwegelo listened to her parents’ advice. She graduated in Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Dar es Salaam. It wasn’t enough to fulfil the deep void she felt, six months into her post-graduation studies. Something was seriously amiss.
“As a former beauty queen, actress, media personality and fashion enthusiast, I felt I could do so much more with my image and for the industry… I hated that in entertainment, sometimes you are at the mercy of the people who may give you a job…”
“I felt like we needed a female billionaire. Many industries are male-dominated yet females are the main users. I want to be a billionaire.”
It took soul-searching, research and endless hours at a business incubating program. Her interest in fashion was heightened and her successful stints in the entertainment industry earned her precious contacts. She saw a ripe opportunity to start a business.
Five years ago, Mwegelo used her savings to found Kidoti Company, a lifestyle brand.
“I have a mole or beauty spot on my face and some people call it kidoti so that’s how I came up with the name of the company.”
She started designing clothes for popular artists, and then received a soft loan from Africa’s youngest billionaire, Tanzanian Mohamed Dewji. It changed everything. He gave her items from his company to sell from which she bought her first van.
“When we rolled out our first line of products which were hair extensions, we had such a successful media run and penetration in the market. A lady from an advertising firm called me saying my brand was the most innovative in the market at that time and she wanted to know how I did it. I was ecstatic,” she says.
Kidoti designs and manufactures synthetic hair extensions, sandals and bags.
“So far we have managed to roll out around 60,000 hair pieces in the market with prospects of doing tenfold better once we establish our own factory in the region,” she says.
To realize this, they partnered with China’s Rainbow Shell Craft.
“We were simply looking for someone to help produce our goods… No one in Tanzania was ready to invest in us and our dream. So we had to go to the source of all these factories… Partnering with the Chinese is hectic, language and cultural barriers were [business threatening]. However, it was such an amazing time. We learned a lot from each other especially about values that are vital to sustaining an international bilateral agreement,” says Mwegelo.
The company promises to be a big success but for Mwegelo, it doesn’t end here. She says giving back is a key part of her life.
She launched ‘Be Kidotified’, a campaign which empowers young girls by building sports facilities in public schools, and through education and entrepreneurship. She also launched ‘Msusi Wao’, translated ‘their hairstylist’, which connects hair dressers, financiers and customers.
Africa certainly needs more female billionaires. Given her feisty zeal, hopefully, Mwegelo will one day be among the many to make it.
– Mwegelo is one of the 30 under 30 class of 2017 in the June edition of FORBES AFRICA.