“We Africans are resilient and mentally prepared. And we support each other through tough times. Every  entrepreneur needs a network of people who will support and mentor us through the roller coaster of business life.”

 

When COVID-19 shut down Tamburai Chirume’s client base almost overnight, she applied quick thinking and agility to save her business and the livelihood of her employees.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic could’ve destroyed African designer Tamburai Chirume’s business, that is until she came up with an innovative solution to save the day.

As the founder and owner of One of Each, which sells designer handbags to Cape Town’s many international tourists, Chirume had built up a successful business. But when the pandemic hit South Africa it shut down the tourist trade that much of her business relied on.

Faced with disaster Chirume had to think and act fast. After some agonising nights, she hit on the idea of switching her manufacturing from designer handbags to protective facemasks. She looked around her studio and found that she had some spare material from Ghana and at that moment the African designer facemask was born.

Chirume was one of the first producers of designer facemasks in South Africa and in the first months of the pandemic she and her manufacturers couldn’t keep up with the demand. As the Covid-19 virus increased globally she started exporting them and soon they were selling in fashionable New York stores as well.

She says the lesson to be learnt here is to be prepared for anything. She believes that’s part of our strength as Africans.

There were moments when I thought we’d have to close. That’s when you need people around you. My mum works in the business and she has lots of wisdom and optimism. She’s actually my greatest mentor and she doesn’t even know it.

“We Africans are resilient and mentally prepared. And we support each other through tough times. Every  entrepreneur needs a network of people who will support and mentor us through the roller coaster of business life.”

Paying it forward

Tamburai believes that the pandemic will change how entrepreneurs do business. She believes ESG will be more important than ever and that those businesses with a deeper sense of purpose will be the ones that will prosper:

“So many people have lost jobs, so many have lost loved ones. We need to start valuing each other more and helping the youth achieve their dreams. I’m not just selling  bags, I’m trying to contribute to fighting poverty and creating jobs.”

To help realise this goal, she’s set up a training programme to teach young women from the Cape settlements of Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and Phillipi to learn technical textile skills and gain an appreciation of African fashion.

“I want to help these young people realise that they too can fulfil their ambitions, and aspire to a better life where they can realise their dreams. It isn’t only about textiles, it’s about the girls’ wellbeing too. We create a sisterhood where the girls support and encourage each other,” said Chirume.

About 60% of the girls find jobs in the industry, others become trainers for the next cohort of young women.

Chirume has built on this success by helping to develop the Business of Creative Entrepreneurship (BCE) in partnership with a German non-profit called Colours Of A Kind. The BCE has trained more than 150 women at 10 facilities in five Provinces including sites in East London, Cape Town, Knysna and George.

The BCE’s courses are currently all online, but Chirume looks forward to seeing 40 of her students graduate this year. Her dream is to set up her own African Fashion Academy.

“It’s going to happen,” she said. “African design has so much to offer the world. I’m tired of being the only black person in the room. We need to create a new generation of African youth dedicated to fashion and design to make things change.”

Humble beginnings

It’s an amazing journey that began on her table at home just seven years ago.

I made 10 bags at my home and thought I’d try to sell them on social media – they sold straight away and that encouraged me to make and sell more.

 

“I was fortunate to have a day job in banking but I always wanted to be an entrepreneur running my own business. I worked at the bank by day, and by night I was sewing and developing my business plan. By 2017 I was ready to launch my own textile design company. One of Each.”

From her observation of the tourists in Cape Town she knew there was an international market for beautiful African products, and she says she believed there was a gap in the textiles sector that would allow her to manufacture and create jobs.

“To succeed in business you need to look for gaps in the market. You also need partners and I soon linked up with the Craft and  Design Institute. That led to a pop-up shop selling designer bags to Cape Town’s big tourist market.”

I started selling at American and British trade fairs like the London Trade Show. Anywhere where I could reach customers. One highlight was being invited to display my bags at the British Museum shop in London when the Museum hosted a big exhibition of African Art.

“But I was still an African trader at heart and I was more than happy to sell my bags out of a big suitcase in London cafes!”

Chirume says the key to her entrepreneurial journey is relationships, to have a sense of purpose in your business and to share that with other people and mentors who know what your purpose is.

After that comes the ability to innovate – to alter your business model when things get tough – and the resilience to ride out the rough days and be prepared for anything.

Peter Burdin
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