Working towards SDG 8: How SITA programme has empowered 41 East African Fashion entrepreneurs to grow and develop their businesses in the midst of the pandemic

PRESS RELEASE: 41 budding entrepreneurs graduate from SITA’s Mitreeki Fashion Incubator Programme, delivering their final presentation to a panel of buyers
February 22, 2021
PRESS RELEASE: ITC conduct training to launch Indian cotton-picking technology for Uganda’s cotton sector development
March 30, 2021
  • Women-led businesses are growing in Africa. Capturing their potential and supporting their development contributes directly to Sustainable Development, particularly via SDG 8.
  • In the framework of SITA Programme, Mitreeki is a platform where African and Indian women come together to share business ideas, knowledge, experience. Women entrepreneurs have best practices facilitated through training and sustained through communities of practice and networking.
  • The 2020 training will conclude this month as 41 fashion entrepreneurs present their final ‘look-books’ in a virtual meeting with buyers. This event will also be a direct opportunity to establish business linkages.
  • In light of the positive results, SITA is reflecting on the nine major learning milestones of Mitreeki Fashion Incubator Programme and their impact.

The number of women-owned enterprises is increasing rapidly across Africa. Their growth contributes directly to the Sustainable Development Goals – especially through increased decent employment opportunities for men and women (SDG8). With ‘Made in Africa’ clothing on the rise, SITA recognised the potential of the East African Fashion sector to become competitive – and identified it as a priority sector. To support women fashion entrepreneurs to play their vital role in achieving the SDG, SITA created the Mitreeki Fashion Incubator Programme in 2017.

What do fashion entrepreneurs need?

In East Africa, capacity and knowledge are two of the most prevalent obstacles holding back aspiring entrepreneurs and business leaders. Access to appropriate and useful technology and to affordable finance are crucial elements for building capacity, whilst South-South cooperation is a silver bullet for developing much-needed knowledge and skills.

What support does SITA provide through the Mitreeki programme?

Through Mitreeki, SITA provides coaching, training and technical expertise or know-how to East African entrepreneurs – all of whom are at different stages of their personal and business development.

There were 41 entrepreneurs in the last cohort of Mitreeki beneficiaries’. Over the course of the last six months, these managers, creative leaders and entrepreneurs had seven days a month of online classes, alongside small group tutorials and one-to-one monthly mentoring. In addition, a high skilled financial coach offered a full day of financial mentoring, in each individual’s business; the coach identified the most crucial aspects to provide specialized technical assistance. In the words of Ms. Solome Kiflu, Founder and Designer at Shadez Wear from Ethiopia: “before I joined Mitreeki, I really needed someone to guide me on my business, specifically in the fashion [space]. Paying a fee would have been unthinkable. Mitreeki programme helped me in every step I took in my journey in starting my fashion business.”

The learning and mentoring have been further enhanced by regular Q&As with carefully considered and high-profile guest speakers. Together, this has transformed the small businesses’ prospects through nine major learning outcomes:

  1. First up, production. Until recently, custom-made tailoring has been the norm in East Africa. However, for fashion houses to establish a brand identity, scale their production and export, garments need to be manufactured with standardized sizes and quality. To get in good stead for production, the Mitreeki programme teaches women about terminology, the role of technology, sourcing suitable fabrics and practical advice on fitting, the importance of (and methods for) quality control, and costing using standardized systems.
  1. Pricing is also a critical element of a successful business model. Currently, East African Fashion entrepreneurs can be lured into under-pricing as they try to access the mass market.  Without owning factories or having mass distribution systems, this has negative consequences for the fashion entrepreneurs. As this is not an option for most Fashion entrepreneurs, due to lack of access to finance, many African designers can play to their strengths better if they cater to a high-end market, which gives leeway for higher price-per-unit production costs. Mitreeki guides women entrepreneurs’ to find their price point and trains them on how to keep it consistent; this contributes to a clear brand identity and customer loyalty.
  1. A clear brand identity makes it possible to identify and target potential customers – and this compelling identity is especially critical for businesses who cannot mass-produce to price themselves competitively. Mitreeki platform has emphasised the importance of brand identity and coached the businesswomen to find their “Ikigai”. Ikigai is where (1) what you love, (2) what the world needs, (3) what you are good at, and (4) what you can be paid for, all converge.
  1. The ultimate litmus test for production, pricing and brand identity done right is the cohesive collection that ensues. Mitreeki women entrepreneurs are trained in ‘mood boarding’ and trend forecasting to help them bring these things together consistently so they can stand out from the crowd. Participants are taught about presentation of the collection too (e.g. producing a ‘look book’ and photographing products), so that they are able to make themselves appealing to prospective buyers.
  1. SITA Programme also supported women entrepreneurs on marketing – the marketing tools available and how to implement them for specific business ideas. Given the start-up nature of many of the Mitreeki entrepreneurs, Social Media can be the silver bullet of marketing solutions, so in particular the businesswomen develop ideas and technical advice for how to navigate the online landscape successfully.
  1. Along with marketing, media presence is ultra-important for developing fashion brands – more so than other sectors. One of the learning techniques used during Mitreeki classes is roleplay: participants simulated the journalist role and imagined what information they would want, and what information they would find compelling. After several reproductions, the businesses are in a better position to extract and communicate their key messages. This will enable them to establish a brand awareness.
  1. As well as attracting to their market, Fashion designers need to find ways to get the goods to them. Mitreeki experts assisted the participants to understand different distribution models so that they can weigh up selling direct versus selling via a retailer and allocate their time and resources strategically. The students were also directly introduced to appropriate, ethical fashion merchandisers through private talks followed by extensive Q&As, for instance, the prestigious online platform Industrie Africa, Afrikrea (a booming online marketplace for modern African designs) and Fashionomics (an accessible online resource and sales platform convened by the African Development Bank).
  1. Financial management and business administration establish all the stages of fashion business development, so Mitreeki ensures that entrepreneurs acquired knowledge on how to axe overheads, organize financial records, bookkeeping, stock keeping and business registration. The start-ups owned by women got introduced at earlier stages  of their business development learn the importance of separating personal finance and business finance as well as funding sources they might be eligible for, e.g. grant bodies, financial institutions, scholarships, residencies, and crowdfunding techniques like network mapping.
  1. The current pandemic has intensified the existing pressure on providing sustainable support. Sustainability is often seen as being a ‘new’ concept, but many aspects of sustainability, particularly zero waste, are in the foundation of African culture. During one of the many the ground-breaking exercises on the course, the entrepreneurs’ illustrated this themselves, through sharing their practices with each other.  The morale of the story? Think creatively to use your strengths and communicate your story well (especially adapt sustainability into your brand in a way that can be attractive to the global markets).

Having reached these nine learning milestones, the soon-to-be graduates are currently preparing to do their final assessment before receiving their certificates in a graduation ceremony in February 2021: “after I graduate, I believe I am going to use every bit of the training I took: technical sheets, finance, marketing, how to organize [my value chain] and especially product quality and packaging” – explained Ms. Kifli.

Creating a community of practice

The learning environment promotes collaboration over competition, establishing relationships between participants for future synergies within and between East African countries: “we are all different”, explains Ms. Ann McCreath, ITC Fashion Expert and the course convenor, “nobody can truly be called a competitor: if we recognise that no person dresses 24/7 in the same brand, it becomes clear that it is about finding synergy with other designers who could sell to the same client and finding ways to do so.”  Mitreeki promotes diversity and reaches out to all sorts of designers including people with special learning needs, refugees etc.

“Mitreeki helped me to find my brand DNA, to manage people and blessed me with great talented people who have become amazing friends; this is so cool because we are now a support network for one another,” explains Ms. Kiflu from Ethiopia.

The course also gives rise to collaboration between senior and young fashion designers. Based on the experience, senior fashion designers have the production capacity and HR experience, complemented by the good establishment and the right equipment. While the young entrepreneurs have strong skills on social media and digital marketing sealed with contemporary customer demand. For example, Ms. Kui Ngugi – a young artist and designer at the earlier stages of her professional development – has recently begun working as an assistant for Ms. Chebet Mutai of Waza Wazi Leatherware. Through this relationship, she will enrich the designs, whilst also using the facilities to make some of her goods.

Graduating from Mitreeki

Ahead of graduating, the students will present their look-books to a panel of industry experts and buyers who will offer feedback from the perspective of each designer’s target market. Having this assessment goal to work towards encourages students to implement their newfound knowledge in real time. The viva-style presentation to potential buyers also means that the assessment might also translate into a sale – or at the very least a practice run.

The wider Mitreeki programme

These 41 fashion entrepreneurs were not the first cohort of designers to benefit from Mitreeki: Mitreeki has helped approximately 160spiring fashion entrepreneurs since it first began in 2017. Fashion is also not the only sector that Mitreeki tackles: Mitreeki has other programmes running in Agribusiness, IT and Social Entrepreneurship.

Across all these contexts, the success of SITA’s Mitreeki beneficiaries has shown that with increased capacity and industry-specific support, women-led businesses are put in a better situation to make the most of opportunities (which the SITA Mitreeki team work to identify and bring within reach). Returning to the bigger picture of sustainable development, SITA’s Mitreeki initiative has proved itself as a powerful model for promoting decent work and economic growth (SDG 8) in the Global South. The implications do not stop there: as well as directly feeding the economy and creating decent jobs, succeeding on SDG 8 can provide catalysts for many of the other goals of Agenda 2030 too.

Voices of SITA
Voices of SITA
This blog provides a window into the SITA project. Through stories from India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania, this blog showcases the project’s progress and impact.