This week Girls Perspective caught up with Sela Motshwane founder of the fashion line Touch of Africa. She spoke about the differences working in both Botswana and the UK, her inspirations and more.
When did you decide to start Touch of Africa?
I came to the UK to study Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. For one of my modules I was able to study African tribes so I decided to study Botswana tribes. I realised that we were connected to many other tribes in Zambia and in Kenya and we had such a rich history. However, I found that hard to show through essays so I decided that the best way I could showcase this was through fashion. I found most people were able to relate through clothing and that is how the business was birthed which I then started after finishing my degree. In 2011 Cambridge University gave me £3000 and with the money, I went back home to Botswana, paid the tailors, went to Zambia and bought the fabrics, made the clothes and was able to launch the business.
Do you think African brands and designs are represented well in the UK, and if not, what can be done to help them?
I think it’s a growing market still very much under the radar. Ankara and Kente cloth are well known in the UK, but prints from southern Africa are unknown. Generally, when it comes to starting new businesses in Botswana we don’t tend to get any help in terms of starting up business outside Botswana and getting global customers. For myself, I think that getting support from representatives such as our high commissioners could be helpful, in terms of when we approach them about the logistics of starting a business in the EU. There could be an active diaspora group that assists us, or a consultancy/concierge could be available for people like me looking to branch out beyond Botswana. Having this kind of support could be really important in terms of helping people in Botswana and other African countries to know that they can trade internationally and get the support, because doing it on your own can be very hard especially if you are unfamiliar with the international markets.
What made you decide to come to London?
I moved to London to expand the business into new areas by participating in various events across the city.
Why do you think there is a market for African designs and fashion in London?
The African print market is growing across the European continent because customers buy young fashion. A lot of them are from mixed heritages, for example, Bulgaria/Ghanaian and they want to showcase their culture in their fashion.
What are the differences between your customers here and in Botswana?
European fashion customers have access to payment technologies like PayPal, easy deposits, contactless payments, cash, debit/credit cards and so they pay on instantly. Botswana customers have a more primitive payment method and often work on a buy-now-pay-later policy which is troublesome as you then have to spend half the month chasing the customer for payment.
What motivates you?
I am motivated by my need for people to see Africa Differently, through our culture and tribal wear to contemporary fashion. I am also motivated by being a Botswana woman in the UK wanting to succeed in business.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?
The biggest challenge has been working with 5 seamstresses and 2 tailors who do not understand the urgency of delivering the product to the customer in time for Spring-Summer- Autumn- Winter wear. Botswana has reversed seasons and the country does not have a well-defined seasonal dress code as we do in the UK. So it is hard to articulate this to a group that has never been in a season based fashion country.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I get my inspiration from imagining the best version of myself on the streets of London, what I would wear and how best to be a Botswana/African Ambassador at the same time.
What is your vision for Touch of Africa?
My vision for Touch of Africa is to see it become the go-to brand for African print in Young Fashion.
How do you balance your time between London and Botswana?
The best way I balance my time is to plan the year before and forward thinking to what I’m going to be doing for the following year. I tend to plan for 6 months in London and this allows me to budget in terms of buying my fabrics for the following year, as I buy my fabrics in the UK as well as in Zambia. When I am in Botswana I tend to use 3 months for production and another 3 months for the unexpected in case things happen as they tend to.
What is your favourite thing about doing what you do?
My favourite things to do is picking the fabric for designs and meeting customers who share amazing journeys of their family’s move from Africa to parts of Europe.
How did you overcome the common issues new businesses face (such as finance, marketing etc)?
I find that when you start a business you can read all the books and websites about starting a business however you won’t really know anything until you actually do it. For me I found that I learned things as I went along, opening business accounts, filling in applications, registering your business etc. I find that you have to lead the business first, in terms of marketing I worked with one model when I started the business and found that she wasn’t promoting the brand as much as I was, so I realised that I couldn’t depend on her and that I had to really push the brand.
As a startup business, it can be difficult to get people to notice you. What are the types of marketing strategies you use to promote your brand?
I work with Fashion Bloggers in Cambridge, I’ve got about 5 of them that wear my outfits and write posts about them and share them on their social media which helps get the word out, as well as my own personal Instagram. When I started it was very much before the time of Instagram, so when this all came about none of the photographers and models I was working with really knew about social media so I had to learn that very quickly. Especially with fashion and clothing, it’s all about taking good pictures and sharing them and making sure that the photographers and models that I use are also social media savvy so that they too can help me in promoting the brand.
How did it feel to get your clothing line on ASOS?
It took two years to get my clothing line on ASOS. In 2015 and 2016, the images I sent with my application were rejected. So during that time, while I worked to understand Asos’s terms and conditions I had numerous stalls in and around London (Brixton, Chelsea, Hackney, Camden, and Spitalfields market). Although exhausting, it helped me to engage with the customers directly and they told me what they liked wearing. Since then I made better customer focused designs that were then accepted into ASOS early 2017. Rejection doesn’t have to mean defeat you can use that time to turn your situation 360 and come back winning months later. For me to have been accepted in 2017 has been a long hard journey and I am proud to be on a reputable site.