The African marketplace for beautifully designed and crafted baby and children’s wear and toy products is continually growing, and with it are emerging some wonderful new design talents in this space. South African entrepreneur, Asma Dukanda, is just such a talent, creating a great new niche for herself and her clothing and products, all of which celebrate the best of the country’s traditional fabric design culture.
LoA caught up with Asma whilst she was exhibiting her wonderful Mokopu brand at the Kamers2015 Johannesburg show recently to find out more.
Tell us a little about your company
Mokopu is a South African startup company, launched in December 2014, that designs and produces a range of baby products and clothing, and we specialise in locally sourced and created products. The name Mokopu comes from the Southern Sotho word for Pumpkin. We are based in Johannesburg and we are currently in the process of launching a retail store in the Maboneng area of the city, so that is very exciting for us right now. We are also very busy promoting our brand and our products at various markets in order for more people to connect with Mokopu and what we do.
"As a young start-up and brand, you really have to find the right spaces in which to retail your product. You may do the initial research before setting up the business, but it doesn’t always translate into the retail sales you imagined on paper. You therefore have to be flexible enough to figure out what is going to best work for you and your retail sales needs, and try out different marketplaces and retail environments until you find what does actually work best."
How did you become an entrepreneur, and what was the inspiration for starting up the company?
Actually, it is an interesting story. I am a qualified civil engineer and I was working for a company, practicing my trade and earning good money, but I was not happy in my work. I felt it was not creative enough for me personally and I felt the time was right to take a chance and do something creative that would fulfil me instead of running the risk of working in my profession and getting older, then regretting that I hadn’t taken the chance of doing something I really loved. So, that is how I started my entrepreneurial journey, and how my company Mokopu came into being. The inspiration came initially from the fact that my husband’s family have been selling South African fabrics for the last 60 years or so, and I loved these fabrics. Each time I went into the family store, I found all the designs and the textures of all these fabrics simply mind-blowing. I realised you could do so much creatively with all these fabrics and make some really wonderful things with them. So, I attended a friend’s baby shower on one occasion and made some things for the baby using the fabrics from the family’s store. I gave the gifts to the new parents and they loved them - this is where the initial concept for Mokopu came from.
Share with us some of the products that Mokopu is becoming renowned for.
We produce a range of baby clothes celebrating these great South African fabrics, but recently we have also added some fun new products to the range, including a children’s teepee, which is the cutest thing. It is produced in fabrics that will appeal to both boys and girls and it is such a fun and comforting space in which to play and let the creative imagination run riot. As a company, we have just started making these new fun products such as the teepees, and also great new storage containers for children. As we grow as a company, we will continue to add great new products to the range. We are trying to find a niche for ourselves as a business in this great market for babies and children. I am also continually inspired by fabrics and things that I feel are cute and could make great new appealing products to add to our Mokopu range and keep it fresh.
"I use a lot of traditional South African Shwe-Shwe fabric, and the printing process used to produce the fabric is so unique to our country, that I would like to showcase it to a much wider global marketplace and proudly showcase what we can do here in terms of textile design and production."
Do you hand-make all the Mokopu products by hand yourself?
Initially when I launched the company and the brand, I made all the products myself, including the teepees. But at this point in the company’s growth, I can’t keep up with the demand anymore so I am fortunate that I have manufacturing capacity on a larger scale. I also have a supplier base that can help me with the right quantities of materials that I need to produce more substantial numbers of products that will help me to expand over time. I know that my company’s growth should be organic, but there are so many opportunities presenting themselves to grow that I want to take advantage of them as they arise and be ready to meet those challenges.
Where are you retailing your products at the moment?
Right now, my focus is on retailing at various markets and events, but with our soon-to-be-launched Maboneng store, that will really become our flagship retail outlet. We also have an on-line presence. When I first started, I had assumed that most young people shop on-line and I had also assumed that our on-line retail presence would be a gateway to more customers and that it would be easy to build a retail consumer base in that space. Yet, it has been harder in reality - South Africans are gradually getting used to shopping on-line, but it is still a very new concept for them. The bigger on-line retail companies have their customer bases and can attract the retail numbers, but for single independent companies, it is very difficult to break into the on-line retail market and get the traffic. And, even if you do get the traffic, people are more likely to email you and ask you where you will be in person next, showcasing and retailing your goods, or where can they find your physical retail store, rather than ordering directly from you on-line. So, customers currently prefer to rely on traditional sales methods and outlets rather than the on-line environment. In fact, this is one of the bigger challenges to be addressed for a new company such as ours. On paper, the on-line marketing presence would seem to offer so many opportunities, but in reality, you need to build your brand presence out there in the marketplace first, people need to see your brand and your products in person, and it is a lot more work than you might at first have imagined.
"As an entrepreneur, to be in charge of your own destiny and to enjoy what you do each day is absolutely priceless."
- Asma Dukanda, founder of Mokopu
What other challenges have you faced as a young start-up?
As a young start-up and brand, you really have to find the right spaces in which to retail your product. You may do the initial research before setting up the business, but it doesn’t always translate into the retail sales you imagined on paper. You therefore have to be flexible enough to figure out what is going to best work for you and your retail sales needs, and try out different marketplaces and retail environments until you find what does actually work best. This trying process can be tedious and it can be costly, so if you can find a marketplace where you and your products and brand belong, that is key.
Where to next for Mokopu, what are your aspirations for the company and the brand?
Now that we are creating a retail store, I would really like to have more stores across South Africa, in key cities such as Cape Town and Durban, and to grow organically from those bases. Because of what I do, and the fact that all our products are created using South African-made and designed fabrics, I would like to see Mokopu go overseas. I use a lot of traditional South African Shwe-Shwe fabric, and the printing process used to produce the fabric is so unique to our country, that I would like to market it to a much wider global audience and proudly showcase what we can do here in terms of textile design and production. In fact, the company producing this fabric currently is doing so much in terms of expanding their designs and their colour ranges. I feel like there is a perception, particularly amongst South Africans themselves that they think they know what this fabric is all about, but the fact is that new and innovative designs and colour combinations are being produced all the time, and more people need to get to know about them. Also, people from overseas love these fabrics because they are uniquely and proudly South African. So, in the future, I would like more people to connect with our products and our fabrics in overseas markets. From the experience I have had so far in selling the fabric to Europe and the US, the reaction has been really positive.
".... you have to put yourself out there in the marketplace and you have to get used to making yourself available 24/7 to deal with potential customers, market enquiries, etc."
As a young woman entrepreneur just starting out on her own business journey, what advice would you give to other women who might be thinking of launching a new startup?
It is not easy - I planned a lot, and saved up my money ready for the day I was to launch. You forget that in the initial stages it is slow, and you have to remember that you are building a new business and a brand. In all the initial excitement and with so much to do, it is easy to forget that you are a new startup and you are often tempted to raise your own expectations to impossible limits, or to look at others that are so much further down the business journey than you are and wish you were there already, so you have to continually remind yourself that you are just starting out on your own journey and that it takes time to become established. One of the key challenges is to manage your own expectations.
Another piece of advice is that you have to put yourself out there in the marketplace and you have to get used to making yourself available 24/7 to deal with potential customers, market enquiries, etc. It requires a major mind shift in the early days. The other challenge to be faced is that it is very comfortable being in a corporate 9-5 job and to get that comforting sms from the bank each month saying that your salary is in your account. It is very difficult to let go of that initially and to realise that you are solely responsible for that money being generated and ensuring that it lands in your account on a regular basis. However, it is worth it at the end of the day. As an entrepreneur, to be in charge of your own destiny and to enjoy what you do each day is absolutely priceless.
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Why LoA loves it….
At LoA, we think Asma Dukanda has a great eye for design, particularly when it comes to appreciating the unique beauty and cultural traditions behind South African traditional textile design, and understands what appeals to both children and parents alike. Her Mokopu childrenswear and toy brand is a real celebration of what makes South African traditional fabrics so special and so appealing for this young market. Her fabulous fabric teepees are also really special, and help to bring children’s imaginations and playtimes alive. --- Melanie Hawken, Lionesses of Africa founder and editor-in-chief