This is a story of a woman you might already know, and should know. Mpho Kuaho embodies style and elegance, but behind this creative is a businesswoman trying to make her mark not only in the fashion industry, but also in the world of business. She strongly believes that while everyone has something special to offer the world, others choose to follow their dreams, desires and passions, others choose to ignore them. She has chosen to follow her passion, and she is happy if she can make money out of something she loves doing.
Today her associates include the likes of South Africa’s David Tlale, Gert Coetzee, Thula Sindi, and Sonwabile Ndamasa of the famous Mandela shirts. “I learn a lot from them, but I also have something to offer them,” she says. Kuaho started her career with a job in a local boutique that sold Italian labels soon after completing her secondary school education. She later realised that fashion was her real call. “I remember being obsessed with fashion channels and magazines when I was quite young,” she says. This go-getter also began collecting vintage items and had an amazing love for illustrating fashion. When it finally became clear to her that fashion was her destiny, she pursued a Diploma in Clothing Production. This course was based on the practical side of things and very limiting according to her. She then decided to further her studies and pursued a BA Degree in Fashion Design in Durban, South Africa.
It is in Durban that Kuaho sharpened her design skills, participated in fashion shows and was exposed to the industry not only of South Africa but also of the rest of the world. “South Africa has a very vibrant multi million fashion industry, and it was a career come true to have pursued my dreams in such an environment,” she says. Many opportunities came her way while there, but it never crossed her mind that she would relocate to South Africa. “I was spotted at the annual Durban Designer Collection show together with Lindiwe Khuzwayo, a seasoned Durban fashion designer and businesswoman,” she says. “At that time, we were involved in a massive project that was to give birth to the Ingwe outlets in OR Tambo International airport in Johannesburg and others across South Africa.”
But Kuaho came back home to Botswana and does not regret it. “I believe my time in South Africa laid a good foundation and launched my career,” she says. Kuaho did not wait a bit. When she got to Botswana upon completion of her studies in 2003, the young talented designer started her company Issues, in the backyard of her home. She started with one industrial machine and an over locker. Three months down the line, she had hired two seamstresses. “We started with a wedding, and I was happy and inspired to have done things well from the beginning,” she says. Things were looking up for the inspirational Kuaho. In 2004 she clinched a deal to start supporting Timber Trading. She was beginning to enjoy the fruits of her labour, managing to pay staff, rent and other company overheads. Kuaho’s name quickly became a brand, and she increasingly became known as one of the high-end fashion designers who dresses among others top government officials and local celebrities. Her name also became synonymous with Colour in the Desert Fashion Week, her brainchild.
She shot to stardom in 2006 when she was named the Redds Africa Designer of the year, after beating 10 other designers from around the continent. The local film production of 2006, the No. 1 Ladies Detective movie also gave her a boost. She worked with several other local designers in a project that took close to a year. “It was a huge exciting operation of buying fabrics, dressing the main act, Jill Scott and supporting actors. Kuaho’s story is also one of patience and perseverance. In 2011, tragedy struck. She had to make one of the most difficult decisions she has ever had to make. The business was not doing well and it was becoming more expensive to run. She ultimately took a decision to lay off some of her employees. “This has been by far the most difficult decision I have had to make in business. Not only were these people my staff, they had become a big part of the larger Issues family.”
This challenge was not a sobering reality to her business only. The whole textile industry of Botswana was ailing, causing government to inject capital of about P38 million to cover a period of two years from 2010 to 2011. This injection helped keep afloat 237 companies comprising of 209 small and micro, 15 medium and 13 large-scale companies, according to the Botswana Exporters and manufacturers Association (BEMA). “This is what people do not know, difficult times come in business, but success is on the other side of fear,” she says. That is what pulled her from the dip at the time. Business deals lined up for her taking after that. She clinched a deal with Options, a local clothing store that sells designer fashion and some of the most expensive labels around. It was also in 2011 that she explored mass production of corporate attires and uniforms.
One of the most valuable lessons that she learnt in business is that money that belongs to the business does not belong to her. “This is one thing I would change if I was to go back in time,” she says. “To realise that even if things are pressing, this is one unforgivable business mistake no one should commit. She observes that many younger entrepreneurs fall into this trap. One of her greatest misgivings is that though government encourages entrepreneurship, and has established several bodies to facilitate local enterprises, the reality on the ground is not encouraging. “Implementation still remains a great challenge in government, red tape and bureaucracies,” she says. She believes that a lot still needs to be done to ensure that each sector is given the attention it deserves because no two sectors are the same.
“Government cannot for example address different challenges in different sectors with the same antidote. She believes government could do much more to support her industry. She is also worried about labour laws that seem to disadvantage the country in relation to Foreign Direct Investment attraction. “The current challenges of power and water shortages are also disturbing,” she says, adding that investors need an assurance that their businesses will have all they need to operate in the country. For local enterprises, Kuaho believes that securing funding still remains a big challenge. “It is really difficult to secure funding. No financier wants to take a risk with such businesses. The first thing they want you to offer them is security. If you do not have that, they do not look at you twice.”
She realises that her industry is often one of the first hit when the larger economy is not doing well. People do not have money to spare on extravagant clothing, when there are more important issues of survival to deal with. As a high-end fashion designer, it is often difficult to make people appreciate the cost of fashion. “It takes people who understand fashion to be able to pay huge moneys for a garment.” To get to where she is today, doors were shut in her face. “If it was not for the passion for what I do, I could have long quit,” she says. According to her, the secret is to stay focused on the bigger picture. Currently Kuaho runs her shop Issues, in Riverwalk mall and has expanded to a factory in Block 8. There are deals that she is currently working on in other parts of Africa including; Nigeria and South Africa, Cape Town in particular. As the economy holds positive prospects this year, the hope is that the fashion industry will also fully recover and benefit from the ripple effects of the larger economic activity.