Fashion Sustaining the Voice of Hope in a Crisis: The Story of Chenesai Africa
2020 has not been the most thrilling of years for most businesses, especially in the fashion industry. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the resolutions of many African fashion companies washed down the gutter, given that most of them depend on imports for raw materials. In Zimbabwe, the fashion industry was dealt a double blow through the COVID-19 crisis, and an economic meltdown. Regardless of trying times, there will always be two kinds of people – those who complain about how things could have been, and those who rise up to the occasion and act. Chenesai Africa is one of such resilient brands that have managed to stay relevant in the heat of the crisis.
Chenesai is a Zimbabwean fashion brand formed in 2016, and named after its founder – Chenesai Mukora Mangoma. As a little girl, Chenesai grew up admiring her grandmother who made a living out of a small fashion trading business in Zimbabwe. She would occasionally help her grandmother as she exhibited her works at local trade fairs, and from this experience, she grew a strong love for fashion. Chenesai then went on to pursue a Master’s degree in Investment and Trade Law in Pretoria, after working with a number of companies in the USA. In 2016, she returned home and answered to the call of her first love – fashion. From seemingly disconnected experiences, Chenesai built “Chenesai Africa”, a name that is vernacular for to “shed light”. The entity is inspired by the need to build systems and processes that will work to increase trade and investment for micro-small scale creatives. Chenesai Africa houses 3 portfolios i) Fashion and Apparel, ii) Community Upliftment and iii) Investment and Trade Law. Fashion and apparel focuses on production, and distribution of African inspired designs, and Investment and Trade Law supports capacity building of fashion entrepreneurs in the areas of product development and innovation. Community upliftment is the arm focusing on human centered projects that empower women and young girls, in a thrust to promote gendered economic justice.
For Chenesai Africa, the focus spans beyond selling units of apparel, to creating sustainable economic strategies for the fashion industry. Chenesai Africa is using fashion to among other goals, tell stories of how systemic trade and investment in the creative sectors work to improve livelihoods and win the fight for economic justice for our women and girls. Thus the Chenesai Studio imparts fashion and business skills to contribute to sustaining livelihoods. For this brand, people are at the center of their business philosophy, and this drives their passion to create lasting impact on livelihoods. The fashion industry is particularly special for this kind of impact because it is a women-friendly business. African women’s day to day familiarity with fashion makes it easier for them to transition their minds from just seeing beautiful pieces of clothing, to converting them into a source of income. Chenesai Africa then comes in to create value chains that work collaboratively to help them build robust businesses in the creative sector.
On responding to COVID-19
The outbreak of COVID-19 proved to be an opportunity for Chenesai Africa to shed light, as is the meaning of its name. After hearing about the outbreak of COVID-19, Chenesai the founder of the brand decided that it was important to demystify some notions about the disease so she took an online course with the World Health Organization. This made her understand more about the disease’s symptoms, preventive methods and risk mitigation strategies for the disease. Equipped with proper knowledge about the disease, Chenesai opted to join forces with other development partners so as to amplify efforts to fight against the disease. The brand collaborated with partners such as DevDispactch, I Harare, Caligraph, Fade2Black, Africa Arise Youth and Ignite Youth of Zimbabwe, and together they came up with online and offline strategies to increase awareness of the pandemic. “What is always important in our work is that we do the very best we can and keep the community at heart, we don’t always win the war but we hope that we definitely leave having made an impact on lives. We immediately strategized that under the conditions (capital and movement constraints) of COVID19, Chenesai Africa was best placed to collaborate with other community champions to create digital campaigns around increasing awareness of preventative measures. As a means to invest in the prospective potential revenue income of our brand we went into overdrive ideating and prototyping different product lines to bring to the market - always with the backdrop of ‘fail quickly’”, said Chenesai.
The first port of call was Chenesai’s home town. The area is a farming region that is predominantly populated by farmers and a lot of people of low income. As such, their access to information is also limited. Through her brand, Chenesai conducted trainings on the COVID-19 pandemic, educating the members on best practices regarding the pandemic. With the help of partners in their network, Chenesai Africa launched a ‘make to give’ campaign where they produced and donated reusable non-surgical masks, to give to less fortunate members of community. After weeks of advocating for use of non-surgical masks, Chenesai Africa was pleased when wearing non-surgical masks in public was adopted as public policy by the Government of Zimbabwe.
For the populace that have access to internet, Chenesai Africa brand has been conducting online tutorials on how to make face masks. Whilst it’s not business as usual, Chenesai Africa brand chose to remain a beacon of hope by starting an online chat series called C.H.A.T (Chenesai Have a Talk About). The series is a platform that celebrates the amazing work that micro-small creative entrepreneurs around the world are doing, through conversation and showcasing their works online. As the fight against COVID-19 continues, Chenesai Africa has stood out in Zimbabwe’s creative space, shedding light on the many good things that we have to look forward to after this pandemic is over. To view more of Chenesai Africa’s incredible work and initiatives, visit her website.
Article written by Sibusisiswe B. Muperere.