THE chocking smoke from the braziers outside the tiny restaurants is what hits you first when you enter Lusaka’s Northmead Market is, followed by the deafening noise of the generators that line the pathway beside the many barbershops: all effects of constant power cuts due to load-shedding.
For an onlooker, this is a difficult environment to work in, but for fashion designers and tailors Mark Mafuleka, 22 and Timothy Mwandila, 24, whose shop is between two restaurants, this is their territory and business goes on as usual.
The Uncle-nephew duo have defied the odds with their Chitenge designs, turning their love for African wear into Kumawa Apparel, a budding fashion and tailoring business.
Working from a tiny shop at Northmead market in Lusaka, the duo have for the past 3 years created unique chitenge pieces, even dressing local celebrities along the way.
Although their chitenge shirts are more popular, they make everything from shorts, dresses to school uniforms and car seat covers.
“We make everything from scratch. We design, sew and stitch ourselves.” Says Timothy, who learned how to sew from his mother.
“On weekends I would follow her to the shop where I would play around with material, cut pieces and even sew them without her knowledge. It really all started from watching her work.”
For Mark, it was his grandmother who spotted his love for clothes and taught him the sewing craft during school holidays. “Grand mother noticed my passion and started showing me how to cut pieces, join them and adjust clothes til one day I was able to make a shirt on my own.”
Second hand clothes vs local wear
Despite the influx of second hand clothes in Zambia, the duo say it has not hurt their business because “Everything we make is new and every design is special.” Says Timothy, who is also a final year civil engineering student at the Copperbelt University.
“So those who want something unique always come to us because they know they cannot find it elsewhere.”
“We are actually inspired by some of the second hand clothes we see, which we incorporate into our Chitenge designs. Besides, some people who buy second hand clothes come to us for resizing, so there is no competition at all.” Says Mark, a first year architecture student at the same university as his uncle.
Social media marketing
Mark and Timothy have had to do all the marketing for their designs by themselves. Their Kumawa Apparel facebook page has over 1000 likes and is the source of most of their orders.
“Through our facebook page we get orders from people in the USA, UK and South Africa, who pick what they want us to make for them from the designs we post on facebook and send their measurements through email.” Says Mark.
The duo also use social media to exchange ideas and network with other designers. “We have a Whatsapp group just for designers where we interact, give each other tips and refer clients for specific designs.” Says Timothy.
Constant electricity power cuts have been the main challenge for the duo. But ever resilient, they have found a way to work around them even though it means working long hours, often in the night.
“We use the time we have no power to cut material and making sure that everything we need to stitch is in place in time for us to sew when power comes back on. We also have machines that do not operate with power but they are all busy during the day as everyone wants to use them.” They say.
Ideas and inspiration
Timothy says he sometimes goes to the mall to see what people are wearing and get ideas for his designs.
“I also get my inspiration from making something that looks good on someone and makes them happy, that alone motivates me to make another piece.”
Mark is motivated by the Chitenge material and says he loves how one can make so many different designs from it.
“The Chitenge material is just beautiful. It speaks of Africa and and there is so much variety as you can get material from Congo or Tanzania right here in Lusaka.” He says.
Because of the way African economies are set up, governments are usually the biggest employers but with the current job freeze in Zambia, a lot of youths find themselves on the street. Mark and Timothy say they are not waiting to find employment, even after they complete their college education.
“I think it’s time we stopped blaming the government for not giving us jobs because we have what it takes to be self-reliant as youths. In our case people want something new all the time that’s reason enough for us to create clothes for people to buy.”
Mark says opportunities are everywhere for young people to take advantage of.
“The government can only do so much. The economy is not doing well and employment is hard to find. So it’s entirely up to an individual to use what they have to make a living.”
The duo hope that the Zambian government can come up with programmes for designers in schools and also provide a platform for fashion to grow in the same way that the music and movies industries are doing.
“If we have national music awards, imagine how nice it would be to have fashion awards at that scale.” Says Timothy.
Mark and Timothy appeal to young people to learn how to invest or save money because ‘the economy is not friendly to people without jobs, especially young people.’ They say.