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Clothes Encounters In The Congo: How Fashion Can Be Used As A Tool For Social Change

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The power of fashion as a tool for social change is being realized in a tiny town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where suffering is being swapped with style and self-worth.

Deep in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), lies the town of Bukavu, home to a community of women survivors of violence.

Since it first opened its doors, this transformational leadership community called the City of Joy, has graduated 1,380 women leaders. Here, women are healed from their past trauma through therapy and life skills programming and provided with essential ingredients to move forward in life, supported by love and community.

The program welcomes 90 survivors of gender violence aged between 18 and 30 at a time.

Recently, specialist Dutch fabric maker, Vlisco, was asked to create a fashion collection to honor the women of the City of Joy and the surgeon who works with them, 2018’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Denis Mukwege.

Five international designers worked with 15 City of Joy graduates to create a collection of empowering and personalized garments using new fabrics.

The fabrics consist of five traditionally printed super-wax patterns incorporating 100 different, vivid colors.

The collection was showcased at a gala event in front of a global audience in Kinshasa in November last year to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and all proceeds from the sale of the collection donated to the City of Joy.

David Suddens, CEO of Vlisco, told FORBES WOMAN AFRICA that the five international designers, all African women, were keen to join the company’s efforts to help the women of the eastern Congo.

“They were immediately engaged even though they were not initially aware of the City of Joy and the scale of the rape and brutality. Once they had met the women, they formed a bond of love and respect.”

Suddens continues: “It was a real pleasure to work with the five designers; they not only created and made the garments in a very short period of time, they flew great distances to be with the women (one interrupted her family vacation in the United States to be in the DRC) and they made a huge impact on the women they designed for. The bond was palpable.”

The designers wrote to Suddens and Gabriela Sanchez, a Mexican Dutch designer and head of creative projects at Vlisco: “Thank you so much for changing not only our lives this year with this experience but also thank you for connecting us with these amazing women, with compelling stories and divine souls. You’re both a blessing to us.” The founder of City of Joy, Christine Schuler, told Suddens and Sanchez that many people visit the community, but “nobody has understood us like you have”.

“The beauty of the Congolese landscape is depicted; its river, its forests, its nature. From the dark roots of the forest, slowly flowers start to grow, butterflies appear, birds are in the sky and the sun is glimpsed behind the clouds.

Asked about the impact of the designs and this collaboration on the community, Suddens says: “The designs are related to the lives and suffering and hope and courage of the women in the City of Joy. You needed to see their faces light up when they first saw the designs. They were overjoyed.”

The main stories expressed in the fabric designs are fundamentally about the journey from pain to power.

“The designs, at the bottom, are somber, twisted, even menacing. But, as the eye moves upwards, there is gradually more light and the images symbolize hope and respect and love,” Suddens explains.

“The beauty of the Congolese landscape is depicted; its river, its forests, its nature. From the dark roots of the forest, slowly flowers start to grow, butterflies appear, birds are in the sky and the sun is glimpsed behind the clouds.

“In one design sits a lion, dignified and rather sad, symbolizing Dr Mukwege. In another, sisterhood is portrayed, with intertwined threads joining ‘hands’ as they grow lighter but stronger. And two designs depict the beauty of the vagina, full of flowers against the dark background of the universe.”

FORBES WOMAN AFRICA also spoke to international designer Aisha Ayensu, the founder and creative director of fashion brand Christie Brown known as a player in the rise of contemporary African fashion since its inception 11 years ago.

“This project gave me first-hand insight into how fashion can be used as a tool for social change but most importantly, meeting these remarkable women, sharing in their joy and appreciating where they’ve come from and their journey from pain to power has completely altered the way I view my work and my purpose,” says Ayensu.

She recalls her experience in Kinshasa as magical. “It was important that the gala event highlighted their power and recovery more than the atrocities the women faced, but all the same, raising awareness of what may still be going on and how we can help stop violence against women.”

“I had an experience with one of the ladies in Bukavu, when she did her first fitting… The sheer joy and excitement on her face when she saw her outfit and exclaimed in local language ‘for me?’ In disbelief. When she put it on and saw a picture of herself, she started to cry tears of joy and also started saying ‘is this me, today look at me, I am also somebody’. That reaction was priceless. When fashion and design is deliberate and well thought out, it has the power to elevate a woman in ways you can’t imagine.”

Added Suddens: “Never could they have imagined wearing their own designs made into garments by African designers. To understand, you need to see their faces. You need to see them literally dancing with joy.” 

-Jill De Villiers

Billionaires

How To Become A Billionaire: Nigeria’s Oil Baroness Folorunso Alakija On What Makes Tomorrow’s Billionaires

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One of only two female billionaires in Africa, with a net worth of $1 billion, Nigeria’s oil baroness Folorunso Alakija elaborates on the state of African entrepreneurship today.

The 69-year-old Folorunso Alakija is vice chair of Famfa Oil, a Nigerian oil exploration company with a stake in Agbami Oilfield, a prolific offshore asset. Famfa Oil’s partners include Chevron and Petrobras. Alakija’s first company was a fashion label. The Nigerian government awarded Alakija’s company an oil prospecting license in 1993, which was later converted to an oil mining lease. The Agbami field has been operating since 2008; Famfa Oil says it will likely operate through 2024. Alakija shares her thoughts to FORBES AFRICA on what makes tomorrow’s billionaires:

What is your take on the state of African entrepreneurship today? Is enough being done for young startups?

There are a lot of business opportunities in Africa that do not exist in other parts of the world, yet Africa is seen as a poor continent. The employment constraints in the formal sector in Africa have made it impossible for it to meet the demands of the continent’s working population of which over 60% are the youth. Therefore, it is imperative we harness the potential of Africa’s youth to engage in entrepreneurship and provide adequate assistance to enable them to succeed.

Several governments have been working to provide a conducive atmosphere which will promote entrepreneurship on the continent. However, there is still a lot more to be done in ensuring that the potential of these young entrepreneurs are maximized to the fullest. Some of the challenges young startups in Africa face are as follows: lack of access to finance/insufficient capital; lack of infrastructure; bureaucratic bottlenecks and tough business regulations; inconsistent government policies; dearth of entrepreneurial knowledge and skills; lack of access to information and competition from cheaper foreign alternatives.

It is therefore imperative that governments, non-governmental agencies, and the financial sectors work together to ameliorate these challenges itemized above.

The governments of African nations should provide and strengthen its infrastructure (power, roads and telecom); they should encourage budding entrepreneurs by ensuring that finance is available to businesses with the potential for growth and also commit to further improving their business environments through sustained investment; there must also be a constant push for existing policies and legislation to be reviewed to promote business activities.

These policies must also be enforced, and punitive measures put in place to deter offenders; government regulations should also be flexible to constantly fit the dynamics of the business environment; corruption and unethical behavior must be decisively dealt with and not treated with kid gloves. We must empower our judicial system to enable them to prosecute erring offenders with appropriate sanctions meted out. There should be no “sacred cows” or “untouchables”. The same law must be applied to all, no matter their state or position in the society; non-governmental organizations can also provide support for them through training and skills acquisition programs that will help build their capacity; they could also provide finance to grow their businesses; more mentorship programs should be encouraged, and incubators of young enterprises should be supported by public policy aimed at improving the quality of these youths and their ventures; and also, avenues should be created where young entrepreneurs will be able to connect, learn and share ideas with already successful well-established entrepreneurs.

What, according to you, are the attributes needed for tomorrow’s billionaires?

There is no overnight success. You must start by dreaming big and working towards achieving it. You must be determined to succeed despite all odds. Do not allow your setbacks or failures to stop you but rather make them your stepping stone. Develop your strengths to attain excellence and be tenacious, never give up on your dream or aspiration. Your word must be your bond. You must make strong ethical values and integrity your watchword. Always act professionally and this will enable you to build confidence in your customers and clients. 

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Brand Voice

Charmaine Mabuza Honoured With FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Social Impact Award

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Brand Voice by Zamani Holdings and ITHUBA

Group CEO of Zamani Holdings, Charmaine Mabuza was honoured with the Social Impact Award at the 2020 FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit held in Durban ICC recently.

This award recognizes Mabuza for her measurable philanthropy that has positively impacted the lives of many South Africans for the past 21 years. 

At the top of her philanthropical projects is the Eric and Charmaine Mabuza Scholarship Foundation which she founded with her husband, Advocate Eric Mabuza in 1999. The Scholarship Foundation started in Mpumalanga, where the Mabuza’s business hub is centered. Speaking to Ukhozi FM in an interview, Charmaine Mabuza said that together with her husband, they funded this foundation straight from their pockets. “Both my husband and I come from humble beginnings and we know what it’s like to not have means to study further, especially when you believe that education is your way out of poverty. So when we started making good profits from our small businesses at the time, we decided to dedicate a portion of our personal income to funding tertiary education fees of previously disadvantaged children”, said Mabuza.

Powered by Zamani Holdings, the Scholarship Foundation later expanded its reach to the rest of South Africa, supporting over 160 students countrywide, many of which have qualified as Doctors, Chartered Accountants, Engineers, Quantity Surveyors and many more. The 2020 Scholarship Foundation programme launched on 13 January, with an intake of 21 students.

Zamani holdings has empowered the rest its group of companies to roll out CSI initiatives that truly transform the lives of ordinary South Africans. At the forefront of these initiatives is ITHUBA, the South African National Lottery Operator and Zamani’s flagship company.

In July 2017, ITHUBA launched the ITHUBA Female Retailer Development programme, specially designed to empower women who own spaza shops and informal supermarkets, who currently sell National Lottery products, from all around the country. This included women from previously marginalized communities in the rural outskirts.

In collaboration with reputable institutions such as Regenesys and the University of Johannesburg, this programme has upskilled over 100 women in retail business. The latest group of 14 women graduated in October 2019 at the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway campus, each being awarded a qualification in Advanced Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation.

Zamani’s Social Responsibility initiatives include:

  • ITHUBA Graduate Programme: An annual skills development programme for graduates within the Marketing, Finance, IT, PR, HR and Logistics fields, with intake of 13 students in 2020.
  • Youth Enterprise Development:  Eradicating youth unemployment through developing upcoming entrepreneurs and helping them build sustainable, profit making business. 
  • Housing project: A project that builds houses for employees in the lower income brackets, who have been in the employment of the company for 10 years and more.
  • A media campaign to condemn femicide and violence against women.

“I firmly believe that education is key to eradicating poverty and injustice. This is why all of our initiatives are based on imparting knowledge and skills. Through education we empower, through education we liberate” said Mabuza.

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Entrepreneurs

The French Silhouette In Africa: How This Designer Started Her Own Business Despite A Shortage Of Funds

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From glamorous Paris to gritty Johannesburg, Zazi Nyandeni arrived with $2,700 and updated sartorial skills to showcase haute couture on South Africa’s racks and runways.

With just $2,700 in her bank, transferred from her savings account in France, Zazi Nyandeni returned home to the South African fashion industry with her freshly-minted talent. But if Paris was school, Johannesburg proved to be university. Qualifying was never easy.

About 53kms from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport is Constantia Kloof, a scenic, upmarket suburb in the West Rand, where we meet Nyandeni, the up-and-coming 25-year-old fashion entrepreneur whose brand, Zazi Luxury, has showcased in Paris, the fashion capital of the world.

“I wasn’t really introduced to fashion, but more so to art,” recalls Nyandeni of her early days. “Ever since primary school, I was exposed to paintings, drawings and music by my father when he would come back with artworks from his travels.”

She thought she was going to become a doctor growing up because of her choice of subjects in high school but still pursued design to stay close to art. Thankfully, her parents picked up that she was artistically-inclined and gave her their unstinted support.

In 2013, after high school, Nyandeni took the plane out of South Africa and went on to study fashion at ESMOD, an international fashion design and business school in Paris. She wanted to express herself without saying a word, and found her way. She spent close to six years there, studying full-time for the first three years and partially for the last two, whilst freelancing and interning for various companies in the glitzy city.

“I love to draw and not really to sew. For my first freelance job, I went for a company that would help me work on my weaknesses; I went to Loon Paris boutique and worked on my sewing techniques. They were very strict and meticulous when it came to sewing and I learned a lot about technique,” she says.

The intense training meant that even the inside of a garment had to be as exquisite as the outside and if the hand stitch was incorrect, she had to undo and redo it all over again.

READ MORE: Conscious Fashion: ‘So Much More You Can Do With Discarded Clothes’

“When I asked ‘aren’t we wasting material’, they would say ‘I’m wasting their time’,” she laughs.

The eager fashionista was juggling two jobs; the other was at a PR agency named DLX Paris, which was sourcing brands for international celebrities like American singer-songwriter Kelly Rowland.

She soon came to a realization that in fashion, there is nothing new, which is when she moved to fabric store Boutique Malhia Kent, a French manufacturer of haute couture.

Nyandeni has a soft spot for weaving. She clearly adores fabrics, and this is apparent in the weaving machine she has at her Constantia Kloof studio, placed in a corner of one of the work rooms.

She says her weaving differentiates her from the other designers, as she compares herself to South Africa’s Laduma Ngxokolo of MaXhosa Africa and Greek fashion designer Mary Katrantzou.

“You can make a silhouette similar to somebody else but the real interesting part is the fabric, so Malhia Kent deals with fabric customization, and this is where I learned that in the world of fabric, you are two years ahead of the industry; like Chanel orders their fabric from Malhia Kent,” she says.

That was the space she wanted to be in.

So in between jobs, Nyandeni co-founded Garbage, a business that looked into environment-friendly garments.

“We wanted to speak on the notations of how do we pick up the fashion industry and say that there are other ways to look glamorous and chic and it doesn’t have to be wasteful and terrible to the environment.”

The business ran for a year and sold a few garments, but sadly, collapsed. That inspired the birth of an idea, one that would solely work for her, a business that would include all that she had learned from fashion school and the stylish streets of Paris. She had also personally worked with Katrantzou, building a portfolio and a first collection. She was ready and had under $2,700 in savings.

READ MORE: Owning The African Narrative

Nyandeni returned home to South Africa and registered her company in 2018.

“In my heart, I thought I was going to be able to buy sewing machines and a small car to travel back and forth for business, be able to get staple fabrics that people would love,” she says.

It was not the case, but she started the business despite a shortage of funds.

“I called it Zazi Luxury because it speaks to more of the inside and outside of a garment and the technique used which is the core of the business. The inside is about matching the outside; I should literally be able to wear it inside out, and if not, it’s not [a Zazi Luxury product].”

Her first client was South African comedienne Tumi Morake referred by a mutual friend, and later actress Zenande Mfenyana, but currently, her clients are also doctors, lawyers and drawn from the corporate world.

“In the beginning, the business was focused on couture and it developed a bit more into business such as television, dressing anchors, and we also have ready-to-wear garments. We are broadening the business to other boutiques too.”

Zazi Luxury recently showcased at South Africa Fashion Week. This year, she will be working on a fourth collection that will be both couture and basic women’s workwear garments but featuring the Zazi aesthetic.

Zazi Luxury currently employs seven young enthusiastic fashionistas; one of who is Lebohang Ketlele, who has worked with Nyandeni for two years.

“I am a dressmaker and stylist. I don’t think I would know the things I know now if I wasn’t working here, we have dressed celebrities and that is a great experience,” attests Ketlele.

Inspired in Paris, but made in Africa, Zazi seems to have made the cut.

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