“Let’s do business!” cried Kenyan TV presenter and entrepreneur Julie Gichuru to a room packed with over 600 women entrepreneurs from around the world. Gathered together for the 2018 SheTrades Global event, the women responded enthusiastically to the call to grow their networks and their businesses.
Gambian fashion designer Awa Conateh was in her element – having creative and inspiring chats with other fashion designers from across Africa was something she loved to do. And yet she couldn’t help but notice a strange feeling.
“My time in Liverpool was bringing me back to something that I thought I had lost,” she said.
Nearly a decade earlier, she had been denied a visa to the United Kingdom (UK).
“I was in Leeds studying for a diploma in fashion and decoration. I had come home to see my family and found out that I had overstayed my time in the UK by three months so I was refused a renewal of my student visa and had to give up my studies.”
Feeling frustrated and disappointed, Conateh channeled her energy into her first love – fashion. She started sketching patterns for outfits, something she had been doing since she was a little girl.
“Fashion is in my blood. My mum was a seamstress so I was around clothes a lot. I remember always changing my dresses to make them more bold, colourful and playful,” she said.
After getting a few of her designs tailor-made, she found that people were regularly complimenting her unique look.
“Friends and family started asking me to design clothes for them. And that’s really how my business – Yaws Creations – was born.”
She started small – working from home with one tailor – but her vision was big and bold.
“I was focused on using African prints in contemporary ways. Most fashion in The Gambia is quite traditional and is showcased in hotels, whereas my style was a new thing here. That gave me a buzz,” she said.
As one of the youngest people in Gambia’s fashion industry, Conateh started to shake things up. She began hosting monthly fashion shows in a Gambian nightclub, inviting designers, artists and musicians to showcase their creations. And, inspired by this, a group of young fashion designers and PR friends, with Awa, started Fashion Weekend Gambia.
Around this time she appeared on the radar of SheTrades – an initiative of the International Trade Centre (ITC) that seeks to connect three million women entrepreneurs to market by 2021.
“In The Gambia, SheTrades is focused on helping women entrepreneurs take their business to the next level. Whether they are just starting out and need help establishing, or they are looking to export, we help them meet their goals by providing training, coaching, grants, study tours and other support,” said Anna Wadda, Component Coordinator for Fashion at SheTrades Gambia.
Once Awa became a SheTrader (as program participants affectionately refer to themselves), she was invited to attend the SheTrades Global event in Liverpool as a way to network with others in the program.
It was then she realised the significance of her efforts with Yaws Creations.
“Being back in the UK was a strange feeling. I realised that I hadn’t lost the opportunity to work in fashion. By starting my own fashion house, I had claimed it for myself. And to see others responding so positively to it was very validating.”
While in the UK she took the opportunity to immerse herself in the African fashion scene.
“After speaking with vendors and businesses, I saw how much African fashion was being embraced in the UK. I started to see the possibilities for my own fashion business,” Conateh said.
“I realised that I had been running my business as an artist, as a creative mind, which is great for product innovation, but not for basic business processes like bookkeeping. If I was going to expand and realize my ambitions, I needed to develop my business skills.”
And so she came back to The Gambia with a drive to better set up her business. She set her sights on getting investment-ready in order to expand Yaws Creations, taking it online and selling internationally.
After five years working from home, she moved into her own fashion house and doubled the size of her team to meet growing demand from customers. She also took on interns, but found their finishing skills lacking in quality.
SheTrades, which is supported by the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF), sent her to Ethiopia, where she got to tour some of Africa’s leading fashion institutions.
“That trip made me realize that if we really want to see expansion of the fashion industry in The Gambia, we need to level up our education and training. I’m really passionate about creating a skills development centre that can finetune the finishing skills in our industry.”
“With training and business coaching support, I have now almost completed a business plan and rebrand, which means I’ll soon be ready for investment and to export,” Conateh said.
Lately, Yaws Creations has been making masks in response to the need spurred by COVID-19.
The SheTrades initiative is set to launch a small grants program for female-led companies, as well as a co-investment facility to help the companies secure investment from an angel investor network that companies can pitch to.
“We have also been working on promoting women in public procurement through our Women in Business advocacy group,” Wadda said.
“We want to see 30% of public procurement contracts guaranteed to go to women-owned businesses. This is particularly important in sectors such as fashion, which are dominated by women.”
And it seems that some Gambian public figures are already leading the way. In her role as a gender champion, The Gambia’s first lady Fatoumatta Bah-Barrow has committed to commission Gambian female fashion designers to work on her wardrobe.
“Should she be interested in shaking it up with some unique new looks, she knows where to find me,” Conateh said.