I am catching up with a dear friend of mine, Caterina Bortolussi.
She was one of the first people I met when I moved to London and we became very good friends, as we changed career at the same time 10 years ago.
Caterina is a fashion designer and the co-founder of Kinabuti, an established ethical fashion brand based in Lagos, Nigeria.
Her story is inspiring and we would love to share with you some of her thoughts.
So you decided to start a fashion brand in one of the most controversial countries of Africa, Nigeria: even the thought of it doesn’t seem easy. What made you say: ‘yes, I will do this’?
My mum stopped talking to me for months when I moved to Nigeria. To answer your question. What made us stay and say “YES we will do this” was a dream, a dream to use fashion as a vehicle for empowerment and development, the dream to implement social projects that can create development through MSME (Micro-small-medium enterprises) in the communities of Nigeria. The strive to achieve our dreams and support others to make their dreams a reality too.
You actually mentioned in the past that peoples expectations of you were quite different from what you are doing. What helped you to stop to act according to others expectations?
I believe the bigger influence in this sense came from Francesca (my business partner) and my sister Elisa, both decided to follow their own path and do what they love and make themselves happy. I followed their example and I took my life in my own 2 hands.
The story of your business seems based on a beautiful friendship with Francesca Rosset: how strong would you say is the relationship between having support and reaching ‘the dream’?
The friendship between Francesca and I is truly a blessing. Francesca and I are not just friends or business partners, we are family and we have a united vision/dream and complimentary talents.
Our relationship is based on respect and love.
Ethics and fashion it is a clever and thoughtful combination: do you think it will be possible to stick to it in the longer term?
We dare to dream of a business model where ‘everybody wins’ can truly happen, and to achieve that, we will stick to an ethical business that believes in trade and not just aid. Where the engine for growth is the MSME that represents the base of any economy, a source for innovation and the most relevant job creator.
Francesca and I have ventured to work in the most dangerous area without an escort, pick up rubbish in the streets with the people, to share the values of environmental respect with the local people. We looked for sponsors to support elementary and nursery schools in poor suburbs of Lagos, produced an TV reality show called Dare2Dream, to inspire the youths to dream and achieve their dreams. We believe in all we do and we put belief, passion, energy and our faith in God, into it.
How has the local community responded to your effort to support the local women?
In a very positive way, we have very good relationships with all the communities and we have continued implementing through the years our empowerment project. At the end of each project, we give students a contract to produce for Kinabuti a mini collection. To the present day, the most reliable and professional continue collaborating with us and become MSMEs (micro, small, medium enterprises). The most beautiful thing is when we see our students succeeding in their business and developing as MSME.
What are the main challenges of working and investing in an African Country?
The main issues of working in Nigeria and in an African country are: lack of infrastructure, lack of finance, poor vocational education and educational systems, high instability politically and economically and poor electricity supply.
All these above make the cost of running a business very high and very challenging. On top, in Nigeria we must foster the 37 millions MSME, that:
- contribute to 48.5% of GDP
- contribute to 7.3% of exportations
- represent 96% of all enterprises
- represent 75% of the national employment
- represent 13% of the local manufacturing production.
These ones are considerable challenges! A good number of creatives face the hardship of the dilemma ‘genuinely’ against ‘commercial appeal’:
How do you face it, considering the challenges you already mentioned?
We grew up in a small village, with genuine and strong values, so genuinely will always go together with the awareness that to foster development in Nigeria we have to support the local MSME and use local raw materials and services, contributing to develop the local economic activities.
Wow, you are doing an amazing work! Your story really seems worthy of a beautiful movie. How do you manage the days when it does it feels that way?
With a lot of gratitude, for doing what we love and being part of this dream called Kinabuti.
Fashion is seen as a vehicle for empowerment and development in a Nigeria: since the Kinabuti atelier was set up in Lagos, we kept on working with young women from the disadvantaged communities of Lagos, teaching silkscreening, sewing, cutting patterns, cinematography, batik and tie-dye. Fashion is seen as a vehicle for empowerment and development in a Nigeria, and the results are building up.
What would you say to the women that have dreams but no means to open their business?
ALWAYS SOLUTIONS AND NEVER PROBLEMS. There are always many ways to look at something and history has plenty of examples of very successful businesses that started with NO Capital.
What would you says to parents/relatives of young ones with creative talents?
I believe we all have talents and I would recommend the parents of young ones to teach them to work hard, be disciplined, determined and never give up in achieving their dreams. The values that our parents teach us as we grow up remain the foundation of anything we are doing as grown ups.
And to finish: lots of writers find Africa Inspiring under different profiles. Tell us, what is the most inspiring lesson you learnt since you opened your brand in Nigeria?
Nigeria and Africa really taught us to trust God, to be grateful for all that we have and that truly dreams can become our reality.
Thanks for your sincere answers and for the amazing work you are doing with Kinabuti.
For our readers, to find out more, feel free to look at www.kinabuti.com, or if you like to explore Kinabuti collection personally, the Collection Kinabuti will be in London on the 31st of May, with a Pop-Up Shop at The Exhibitionist Hotel in Kensington located at 7-10 Queensberry Place, London, SW7 2EA.