It’s business unusual as young entrepreneurs get wings to the fashion industry



While Heineken East Africa honored winners of the African Inspired Design Challenge at a ceremony at the Village Creative – Lavington Nairobi, something else stood out that day. In Kenya, although fashion and design scene is fantastic and craving is in the air, it is still being taken up as a part time job.

It is at the back of this that Heineken saw an opportunity to give a chance to talented emerging designers, challenging them to explore the creation of contemporary prints and redefine hospitality fashion garments.

Just when a three-day knowledge exchange workshop held in Nairobi led by Amsterdam design house, LEW, ended, Azra Walji and Lulu Mutuli emerged tops and were awarded with various firsthand experiences about the global fashion industry. Although 10 shortlisted finalists also benefited from the challenge, the two winning designers travelled to Amsterdam to co-create a 14-piece collection, which was showcased in Nigeria at the Lagos Fashion and Design Week in October last year.

For Ms Mutuli who studied fashion design in the United States at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia and runs her fashion line “AMILO”, this was a priceless experience, an eye opener and the beginning of bigger aspirations. She says: “I have made inroads, met mentors and learnt all the things they do not teach you in school and I would honestly wish this experience and exposure for all fashion industry players in the region.” 

The same sentiments were shared by Ms Walji who believes the challenge will most likely shape the ever-evolving fashion world. It means a lot for a young lady who cut her teeth in fashion design at the Limkokwing University of Creativity and Technology in Malaysia. In a competitive market where the textile options are scarce, she enjoys manipulating fabrics in order to create fresh textiles. “My life is transformed. I now dream different, think different and I am certain my fashion business will surpass all my previous expectations,” she says.

Heineken East Africa General Manager, Uche Unigwe
Lulu Mutuli
Azra Walji

During the award ceremony, both Walji and Mutuli received design enabled laptops and years membership at business incubation center Metta where they will be mentored and taught on how to actualize their ideas and talents into successful businesses.

Uche Unigwe, who is the general manager for Heineken East Africa termed this journey as a first step in breaking the low glass ceiling for fashion designers in the region. He says that globally, fashion is a big industry and while it is not being seen as such regionally, it is such awards that will play a pivotal role in transforming the way the industry is seen and appreciated.

“We have armed them to become passionate entrepreneurs,” says Unigwe. “Heineken is always looking at innovative ways to open the doors of men and women of the world. We looked around and we saw that in Kenya.

So Heineken saw an opportunity to give a chance to young ones who have the skills in fashion to turn their fan into a business. This is how the economy of the country grows, and that’s what we are doing. We are sure that we have armed them to become entrepreneurs, and it is going to pay off massively.”

The project sought to generate fashion forward collections for Heineken global hospitality range through an “open design exploration” process that saw Heineken co-creating with emerging creative talent and their partner design studio. Its objective is not to make money out of it now – fashion is not the business that the international brewer is here to do. The marketer of premium beer and cider brands just found the opportunity to support and open the world of young people to showcase what they can do and turn it into business for themselves while also creating employment.

Contests organised for niche designers like this one not only provide the much-needed exposure but also offer a chance to designers to sell brands in either local or foreign markets. If retail outlets such as Mr Price, Woolworths, or Little Red are still serving Kenyans, top professionals should also become conscious of investing in the world of fashion and design thanks to a huge opportunity in a multi-disciplinary industry that is yet to be fully accepted as a business.

Although the manager, Mr Unigwe didn’t reveal the amount that the company spent on the project, but simply saying that “it is a lot of money”, he expects the returns to come in multiples sometime in future.

“We shouldn’t count the cost but the return is huge. Just watch these two young ladies, in the next one or two years, go back and find out what they have done you will see what they have done,” says Unigwe.