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Kawira Mirero on taking the pragmatic approach to building a business

Kawira Mirero

Straight talking Fashion and Marketing Communications Specialist, Kawira Mirero founded her company, Mambo Pambo, against a backdrop of passion and pragmatic optimism.

The 41-year-old Creative Entrepreneur and mother of two talks to Damaris Agweyu about her journey to building a successful fashion business.

Kawira, when did your love affair with clothes begin?

As far back as I can remember. My siblings and I would go fabric shopping with mum who invariably took us to tailors to have our clothes made. As I grew older, I’d go to Gikomba market, buy clothes and repurpose them at home- so if sleeves didn’t look nice, I’d chop them off; if they were too long I’d shorten them.

So yours was an early start?

I didn’t know this would be a career until much later. I have always enjoyed sewing, drawing and painting. Back in school I used to make birthday cards for money, paint shop windows during the Christmas season and run kindergarten art clubs, so I always knew I was artistically inclined.

When I was in Form 2, my class visited the University of Nairobi to see the final year showcase of the graduating Design class. I was blown away! That’s when I knew what I wanted to do with my life. My parents didn’t share my enthusiasm. They didn’t see a prosperous future in the creative industry. They said, “Don’t be ridiculous! You’re at Alliance Girls so you’re going to study Law, Medicine or BCom –  at the very worst, do a BA“. It was a continuous argument until they finally succumbed.

I finished High school and went to the University of Nairobi where I studied design. In the first couple of years, I was exposed to everything in this field – textile, fashion, interiors, 3D and graphics. I chose graphics and went on to major in this over the final 2 years.

As opposed to fashion?

I am pragmatic. I chose graphics because I knew I would get a job immediately after I graduated.  I didn’t want to take any chances because I was a scholarship student and our parents raised us to be independent; being a firstborn, going back home after I completed my studies was not an option. I needed to graduate and find a job.

And did you?

Yes. I graduated with a first-class degree and less than a month later, I had a job.  I worked as a Graphic Designer for a while then realized there isn’t much room for creativity when you’re doing graphics for clients. I job-hopped until I joined the Nation Media Group. This was a stable job, I could proudly tell my relatives I was working for a blue-chip company. In 2001, I enrolled into an MBA course and after graduating in 2004, I was offered a management position in Marketing & Communications at Strathmore University, and two years later, I moved on to Davis & Shirtliff.

Meanwhile, I was studying for a Professional Chartered Marketing Diploma from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I worked at Davis and Shirtliff until 2008 when I got married and moved to Accra, Ghana. It was during my time in West Africa that my dreams for fashion design were rekindled.

How so?

Every time I would come home in December, my friends would ask me to bring them clothes and West African fabric. I asked self, “Why is it so hard to find Afro-contemporary clothes in Kenya while in West Africa, they were available on every street corner?” There was a gap in the market and I wanted to fill it.

I am very passionate about the fact that Africa should be able to dress itself.

Kawira Mirero
Is it true that West Africans are more stylish than us?

I thought I was stylish until I met West Africans! We were living there as expats so we had functions to attend almost every weekend. West Africans know how to dress up, they don’t just go to a boutique, buy a dress and wear it; they have their clothes tailor-made for every occasion. This inspired me to work on a collection of my own while I was there- during my combined 6 years in Accra and Abuja, I worked as a marketing communications consultant but I was also designing. When we came back home in 2014, I bought my first sewing machine, hired a tailor, and set up my workspace in our new home.

And how did that go?

I did not expect to earn the same salary I had been earning in my corporate career. I did, however, expect to start running a sound business- I needed my own studio and a well-trained team. So I applied for a loan from the HEVA fund, got it and soon after the business moved into its own premises and continued to grow organically.

In the beginning, most of my money came from made-to-measure tailoring where clients came in for consultations, followed by fittings, adjustments. With this business model, you can work on one client for months, it can get draining and frustrating for both the designer and the client, it’s complicated to scale. I didn’t think it was sustainable so I started working on a ‘ready to wear’ model. Here, I start with one item, my prototype, I ask people to try it on then get opinions- once the design is right, we then produce several items and put them up for sale. Some designs are big winners so we keep making and adapting them, others don’t do so well so we drop them. We now have over 24 unique designs.

The entire thinking behind this business is that it’s a Made-in-Kenya brand. We want the world to know that impeccably designed, Afro-inspired attire is readily available.

Good quality, Afro inspired attire is, generally expensive, why is that?

The cost of production, fabric, skilled tailors, overheads, we don’t have the kind of economies of scale China has. Factories in China have mastered the art of reducing wastage, which automatically reduces costs.

Is Mambo Pambo a luxury brand?

We don’t see ourselves as a luxury brand. Though we aren’t cheap, our quality is exceptional.

Are you where you want to be, business-wise?

I have come a long way but there’s a lot further to go. My vision is to be selling hundreds of pieces a day, have branches across the continent and support meaningful employment for a complement of staff. They say if a business needs the owner to be present to run it then it’s still young; in my case, if I’m not here, things start to go wrong…so yes, there’s some way to go.

After 4 years I would imagine you are starting to let go though – to some extent…

I’m working on it. Every year I let go a bit more. Now I can travel for a week or two and things don’t fall apart. It does help that the brand is now relatively well known, so I get tailors calling to ask for work. Before it wasn’t easy to hire and retain good talent. We may still have some way to go but I can’t complain. I don’t live life waiting to exhale – I just exhale and celebrate every milestone no matter how small. Back when I started, if I hit 100,000 in revenue per month I would be elated. Then we grew to 200,000, sailed through 500,000…and now a bad month brings in about 1 million. It would be great to be at 10 million or even 100 million but it’s a journey.

Why did you settle on Afro-centric designs? Were you bitten by the West African fashion bug?

I am very passionate about the fact that Africa should be able to dress itself, and since you mention West Africa, one of the things I admire about West Africans is their pride in their heritage. Even the prints they produce have a cultural meaning.  East Africa is not on the same level. Our print should have some history or cultural context, I should be able to look at fabric and tell you this is inspired by the Maasai folklore for instance. My children should have pyjamas with Mzee Kobe, not Cinderella!

Why don’t you change it? This is, after all, your space?

When I started out, I said I would, but it’s also largely a factor of demand and so I have to be pragmatic, especially considering the cost of production is very high. The fabric we currently use is made in China or India – it’s a pity that the textile industry is struggling in this country. It’s a pity tailoring is not considered a respectable vocation. Our foundation is still lacking. Ideally at this stage, I should have a Master Tailor, a Pattern Cutter, a Designer; people specialized in various skills to do the work. I don’t. I have to wear many hats, including quality control.  I’m running a business, if I don’t stay on top of invoicing I’ll lose money, if I don’t take care of my employees, I will struggle to retain a good team, if I do not design, then our output will not be as fresh.

What’s the one skill that has brought you this far?

I’m good at doing many things at the same time; I juggle well and switch hats quickly.

What are some of your daily challenges?

A creative business is as good as how you manage your cash flow- if you don’t do that you will shut down and this is what I keep telling people who work for me.  You collect 100,000 and it looks like a lot but then you start to spend it and if you don’t keep track of it, you will find yourself in debt and won’t realize where things went wrong.

One of the things that affect cash flow is wastage, my guys will tell you, if I find a zip on the floor I will tell them, “that’s a 100 bob, would you throw a 100 bob on the floor and step on it?” If I didn’t do that constantly, zippers would be swept away every day; after a while, it adds up. Discounts are another thing; some clients will guilt you and emotionally blackmail you for discounts.  I’ve had to learn where to draw the line. Then there’s maintaining creativity, if you don’t keep your designs fresh, people lose interest. I also have to learn tailors strengths- tailors are not equal- one will work well for a week but next week you are sure that half the time he’ll not show, how I react to that is very important.

It’s hectic but I allow myself to take breaks every so often. There are days I won’t even leave my house, that is my thinking time. I also decided to limit client appointments to 3 days a week- Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. It’s important to learn to prioritize and to delegate. Running a business is not easy and it’s not meant to be easy.  It can get very stressful.

How do you manage the stress?

I give myself time to work on things.  I don’t work in crisis mode because I learnt that when you shift crisis to tailors they make mistakes. I don’t get angry- it takes a lot to annoy me. If I’m annoyed everybody here knows that today they have crossed the line.

What will you not tolerate at your workplace?

Negative energy. I don’t accept rude clients- it’s not good for me or my tailors. If we do something for you once and you are rude, you will not come back- I just find a tactful way to tell you.

What role has your husband played in your journey?

There is a very interesting dynamic in my house, my husband is my best friend but we also fight. At the end of the day though, I know he is my biggest champion.

Every time I have threatened to shut this business down and go into employment he’s talked me out of it. He’ll tell me,  “I know this is your dream and I see you and you’re happy and get excited doing it’. And, if you don’t do it now, when will you ever do it?”

He’s got my back; he’s the one who got me the accounting app that I now use on the go. He listens to me when I need to vent when I have issues with tailors, he gives me advice and often, is the one who tells me when its time to transition a non- performing employee. I have friends who want to quit their jobs and do their own thing but their husband’s tell them they can’t- mine is like, “I have 100% faith in you and know that you will make it work”.

Any famous people you’ve dressed?

West African Afro-pop Singer, Yemi Alade- we have dressed her a lot of times and part of the reason I love to dress her is she allows me to push creative boundaries- she pays us to be creative. Radio Personality, Mwalimu Rachel is also fun to dress, she is also not afraid to push boundaries.  I have spent many sleepless nights working with such clients but we are always happy with the end product and its always fun.

Kawira’s past creations for Yemi Alade (centre) and Mwalimu Rachel (left and right)
Who is your typical client?

Someone like me.

Any particular reason?

I like projects whose outcome I can predict, and so I address clients whose language I understand.  It’s easier than saying I’m going to do men’s suits- I know nothing about men’s suits – Ok, maybe I could learn, but do I want to? No. I have no interest so I do what works, what I feel passionate about. I enjoy this, I understand it, I can talk about it- if you call me in the middle of the night and ask why your outfit isn’t working, I’ll have an answer.

What is your definition of success?

Hmmm…Are you able to pay your bills? The reason I am asking this question is that I want to work backwards and then we’ll arrive at an answer. People say follow your passion and you’ll be successful- now what happens if your passion is not profitable? I have seen people follow their passion for years and there’s no money yet they have bills to pay, school fees, rent… for me, yes, this is my passion but if this business wasn’t paying my bills and I had to go to my mother or husband to ask for money to buy or do what I want, then I don’t think I would say I am successful.

It’s always been important that I am self-reliant- if I want to buy a shoe or if my kids want piano lessons I should be able to afford that. If Martin, that is my husband, was out of the equation today can my life continue as it is? Yes. The first 2 years it couldn’t and I was very stressed about it and I kept telling my husband, “I can’t afford my life, I didn’t sign up for this”.

For me, true success is being able to follow your passion and still be able to afford your lifestyle because again, not everyone is cut out for business; I know people who would rather go to the office and get a paycheck at the end of the month so that they can plan. They say, when they retire, then they can pick up hobby A hobby B but hustling is not for them. Me, I’m good at this and I can do it.

Running a fashion business in Kenya takes blood, sweat and tears. In my first 2 years, I would cry! It eventually gets better so yes, persistence is good but within reason. If you can’t pay your bills after 4 years of chasing your passion, then consider doing something else.

That’s why our parents insisted we go to school so that we have choices. Even now I’m not sure I  would not be like my mother- I will tell my children to go to school and get to the highest level they can and then, after that, they can pursue a career as Creative Entrepreneurs if that’s what they want.

Interesting…

Look, I’ve had to prove myself to get here. I am still working to prove myself. It’s debatable that if I started at 20, I may have been successful sooner but is that guarantee? No. Get an education so that you have a fallback plan – especially in this part of the world. 

My parents couldn’t afford to take me to a design school in Italy so the best thing they could do for me was insisting that I go to school and finish- then I had the capital to start and even as I started I knew that if this doesn’t work, there are still other options I could explore.

If our children decide they want to become fashion designers and our projections show that we can’t take them to the best fashions school in the world, I will insist that they get a proper, full education that we can pay for then when they finish they can pursue a career in the creative industry. In any case who says you do not need a business degree to run a creative business? They are not going to become part of this ‘please help me culture’- I mean you are 40 and you are asking for financial support from your parents- no! I feel very strongly about this.

What have you had to sacrifice on this journey?

I don’t know; it’s the people around me who might have that answer. One of the things my husband and I agree on is there is nothing like work-life balance, work is part of your life so one of the things I do is every second last Saturday of the month I close shop, everybody goes and spends time with their families and that has ensured that I have one full weekend with my family every month. And that is another example of my husband’s support. Saturdays, he’s with the children and some days he’s home before me so he spends more time with the children.

My work and personal life are merged. In my home, we are generally happy campers. When I feel tired, I take time to rest. If a client didn’t plan well and wants something done express I’m comfortable saying no. Work doesn’t end, the phone will ring, it’s Ok to refund money. I’m 41 years old, I’d like to think I’m a little seasoned with life. Life can drain you, creative work can drain you and there are segments of the population that think creative work is not ‘work’. When I tell you I have to process your design it means I have to think about you, and what is the best we can do for you – what’s your lifestyle? What will look good on you? It’s not magic.

Before I would get very stressed, now, I know to just drop things that I need to drop because again, money is never enough- you have a million today and tomorrow it’s gone and you start over. You don’t need to take every shilling every day- no but that’s a factor of learning and growth.  In fact, it’s this year that we came up with a saying at work – pesa haitoshi, haitawai tosha so Friday tumefunga mpaka Monday (Money is not enough and it will never be enough so from Friday to Monday, we are closed). I mean what’s the emergency? An emergency is being hospitalized; clothes are not an emergency. Nah!

For more wisdom and insights from Kawira Mirero, get your copy of Different Paths, One Journey HERE.


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