Mercy Chewetu Mukupa had never before prepared a line sheet. Running a small fashion business from the sewing machine in her home, she had not yet had the need to communicate garment information to wholesalers.
That all changed when she was chosen to attend Source Africa – one of the world’s biggest textile and apparel fairs – in Cape Town in June 2019. Suddenly her brand – Queen of Chitenge fashion – was to be thrust into the spotlight and she needed to prepare a lookbook with pictures of the items in her collection, brochures, samples and a line sheet with item information and pricing for potential manufacturers and buyers to peruse.
“I was so excited when I was picked to go to Cape Town. It was my first trade fair,” said Mercy, who founded her own brand that uses household items and bold African designs to make upcycled jewellery and ready-to-wear garments.
Mercy was one of 13 female entrepreneurs in the textiles sector in Zambia to be supported to attend the fair by SheTrades – a flagship initiative on women’s economic empowerment, established in 2015 by the International Trade Centre (ITC).
“SheTrades connects women to markets so they can enter supply chains, charge more for their products, become more independent and unlock financial services, such as savings and credit,” said Chileshe Mwamba, SheTrades Zambia National Coordinator.
In January 2019, the ITC SheTrades Initiative launched its Zambia project, which aims to support 200 entrepreneurs to receive tailored training, mentoring, coaching, invitations to trade fairs and introductions to buyers, all based on the sector their business operates in. The initiative is informed by constant monitoring to determine the most urgent needs of women-run businesses in Zambia.
Interest in the initiative has boomed, and there are currently 400 entrepreneurs registered in their database, most of them coming from the woman-dominated sectors of agriculture and textiles.
Chileshe met Fridah Bupanda Chirwa at Lusaka Sunday market mall. Chileshe was looking for entrepreneurs to join the SheTrades initiative when she saw Fridah’s booth adorned with contemporary bed slippers, pyjamas, bags and other accessories.
“Chileshe approached me as she was looking for people with unique products. When she told me about SheTrades I was excited to sign up,” Fridah said.
Also selected to exhibit at the Source Africa fair, Fridah was looking forward to the opportunity to grow her business.
“I currently rely on local markets at shopping malls. It’s a hand-to-mouth arrangement – I buy materials, sell them and then use whatever money I have made for essentials at home,” she said.
Making buyers aware of women and women aware of buyers
SheTrades invested a lot of time and energy supporting women to prepare for the fair so they could make the most of the opportunity.
“We helped them prepare their product range and communication material, as well as set up social media pages so they are easily contactable by buyers after the fair. We also ran a workshop to help them understand what international buyers want,” Chileshe said.
At the fair, business meetings were facilitated between the entrepreneurs and possible buyers and manufacturers. They also put on a fashion show to highlight the garments and accessories made by the SheTrades contingent.
“We also had a SheTrades booth where the entrepreneurs could seek extra support in negotiating pricing, delivery methods or other technical aspects relevant to buyers and manufacturers,” Chileshe said.
All the personalized support helped Mercy feel confident to be able to take her business to the next level.
“Through meeting different buyers who told me exactly what they look for, it really gave me an eye opener of what I need to do to reach an international standard,” she said.
When she came back from Cape Town, Mercy found she had received an inquiry from someone in Belgium.
“I was able to do my own line sheet and quote them with the prices. As a result, I got an order for 50 items. The training I got from SheTrades really helped me to do things in a professional way,” she said.
She has moved the sewing machine out of her home and into a boutique store in the heart of Lusaka where she now employs four people full time and 12 women part time.
“I train women from the community to make garments. It’s not just a source of income for them, but they are also learning a skill.”
“My dream is to have a factory in Zambia where I can create employment for my fellow Zambians. I’d also like to see my brand in our local clothing stores and in stores all over Africa.”
Getting investment ready
One of the biggest challenges Mercy faces as her business scales up is access to finance.
“If I get a big order, I either have to ask the client to make a 50% down payment, which they are often not willing to do, or I have to ask friends to lend me money so I can buy the materials I need to start production.”
According to Chileshe, accessing finance from banks is extremely challenging for most Zambian women.
“Interest rates are between 40-70%,” she said.
SheTrades has been helping women become investment ready – building their credit worthiness, implementing record keeping procedures, creating business plans, and networking with other women entrepreneurs who can serve as guarantors.
“The village savings model where women band together in groups to share savings and guarantee each other can be very powerful,” Chileshe said.
“We are also approaching financial institutions and are committed to offer the women with incubation services.”
The hands-on mentoring and coaching approach post-fair continues, with help to entrepreneurs in communicating with their buyers, connecting to manufacturers and determining appropriate international pricing for their products as they prepare to learn about the nuances of exporting and meeting international standards.
And it’s making a real difference.
“SheTrades exposed me to markets that I never knew existed. It pushed me to make my products better – to brand them properly and to be innovative,” Fridah said.