Vuyo Mahlati: Inspiring Change In Africa Through Designs
“This was their first time getting something to do,” Dr Vuyokazi Mahlati tells me as I appraise the rich cashmere fabric, “and they were mostly made by women.”
Dr Mahlati has been at the forefront of women entrepreneurship. Being a social entrepreneur herself and a gender activist, she is a global director of the International Women’s Forum with notable members such as Hillary Clinton, Sandra Day O’Connor, Coretta King, and Katharine Graham. With many years of experience up her sleeve, the African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA) Woman of Substance Awardee is also the Principal Consultant and Co-owner of the African Financial Group.
However, what she is remarkably known for around the world is her service as the President of the African Farmers Association of South Africa where she has made changes in promoting the rural regions to the global community.
First In Africa
Despite these achievements, of particular interest is her impact as the founder of the first wool and cashmere processing plant in Africa, Ivili Loboya.
Mahlati has made deliberate decisions and influenced policies that have affected the rural economies in South Africa. According to StatsSa, over half of the population (30.4 million South Africans) were living in poverty in 2015. Although about 98% of the population is educated, 9 in 10 poor South Africans are black [as of 2018].
This is one of the many backdrops from which Mahlati’s mission takes its course. “How do we get rural markets mainstreamed into global markets? I then decided to start an enterprise that can actually benefit local farmers in rural South Africa and women.” Most of these farmers are people who have never worked and are in their forties.
Convincing those in the rural communities would have been a herculean task save for her research which started in 2012. Referring to it as the incubation period, she says that “I worked with a research institute and started exposing them [farmers] to other countries like China so that they can see that there is value. There were also exchanges so that people in China can come and share their experiences with these farmers. And then we moved from incubation to commercialisation.”
This has an intended consequence. The farmers quickly rose from 100 to over 1500 farmers who are a part of this system and 332 local farmers, mostly women. In time, her aspirations widened. Vuyo took on the responsibility of establishing Ivili Loboya which led to the birth of the Dedani Collection. Dedani literally means ‘Get out of the way, we are here to stay!’ and is described as “A phrase that embodies the spirit of the brand, from developing the rural community of the Eastern Cape province to poverty eradication for the women and men who are the heartbeat of Dedani Collection.”
Each luxurious fabric is intertwined with the history and tradition that the rural communities hold dear. She adds, “it is an amazing thing seeing ordinary people collaborating, including me as an ordinary person…, to form something that is appreciated worldwide.”
But this in itself did not come easy. As a woman and an investor, she was refused funding and had to sell her house and use her money. It was only when Dedani looked promising that the initial hold she had sought started to roll in their numbers a few years later. “As a woman, you have to prove yourself because nobody really believes you. ”
Mahlati is openly passionate about the female gender. She mentions that because of her methodology which was to uplift women via weaving, embroidery and other skills to enhance their skills with the aid of women cooperatives – this posed a challenge. “Basically, when you do that, they don’t see that in the beginning as being potentially commercial.” However, she places emphasis on the fact that race is an even more dominant issue. As a ‘BLACK’ ‘WOMAN’, she is not well received in the industry simply because of her skin colour.
“You are viewed differently in the industry which is dominated by white men so you are not getting into an industry where you find peers that help you or accept you in the industry. It takes you time to be accepted in the industry.”
Yet they are inspired by the spirit of Dedani and have refused to relent on their brand. And this is paying off. Today, Dedani has had partnership exhibitions in several countries including the UK and Italy.
In the Spirit of African Fashion
Competing with the Louis Vuittons’ and the Pradas’ of the world, it has become clear that Dedani, as well as other brands across Africa, believe that the time is now to pay attention to the African brand.
“The thing about African fashion is that it is diverse, unique and made for you. It celebrates the person who is wearing it. African fashion fits perfectly in this new emerging space.”
Like other brands, there is the fear of being judged by your native homeland on your art. Again, like the others, the fear is cast in the background if it must be appreciated both at home and abroad especially if the brand is certain that this is what the world needs.
But most importantly is fashion being at the helm of feminism. She strongly believes that Africa fashion [including the Dedani brand] “is a celebration of femininity and the boldness that defines us in our beauty. Those who look at us in our beauty see our vulnerability and victimisation. [African fashion speaks loudly] We are happy with who we are and we represent ourselves boldly. In that celebration of our femininity, we are passing a message across: See me, see my femininity and respect it.”
Another factor which has been one of the brand’s highlights is to focus on sustainable production methods using natural fibres and ways of getting the products without hurting the animal.
In this regard, there is the COVID-19 pandemic that threatens to affect the economies of various countries. At the time of writing, there is a prediction of a global recession with a tough recovery of the world economy. In view of this, Vuyo believes that online trading is a solution that can help fashion.
On the other side of the coin, some designers are fast taking inspiration from the pandemic and are creating coronavirus-themed designs and masks. If this is something Vuyo will consider, she opines that it is likely as some of the collections were pulled from the drought and other pandemics.
“For us, it is natural that some of the designs alleviating the realities that we live with and how the people are dealing with these realities are highlighted.”
For someone who has made a mark in the industry with Dedani, It is her belief that her success has been defined by different thresholds. According to her, her first level of success was with convincing the farmers, her second level of success is that she has created jobs for the majority of people who have never worked, another is in training these people and lastly; encouraging the firm belief in themselves.
“Whether we close or not, there’d be people who have skills and can use it in different ways. Obviously, success is about demonstrating to the world, that Africa is alive with possibilities and is rising.”