The foundation for her business might have been laid when she was 17. She did a mural for a nursery school in Mombasa which earned her Sh4,500. It was an affirming exercise to her that her future was in arts, design, and people.
Then while at The Alliance Girls High School, a teacher took Kawira Mirero and her classmates to visit The University of Nairobi where they interacted with students and tutors of design which is what she majored in while at the same university later.
You can say she was well-prepped to start her business. But no, there was a refining process to it. She went the corporate way after college for about 17 years before starting Mambo Pambo, her fashion line.
Light bulb moment
Living in Accra (Ghana) and Abuja (Nigeria) was a light bulb moment for her. There she saw an entire industry hinged on just fashion.
“My husband and I had moved to West Africa for work when I came face to face with the business aspect of fashion. I saw people making money from it. And I started building my business slowly by collecting fabric, designing outfits, and selling them,” she says.
Her point of divergence (from passion to business) came in 2015 when they came back to Kenya and officially set up the business from a guest room in her apartment.
She wanted the Kiswahili word Pambo in her assemblage of business names. Her children were learning rhyming words then and they added Mambo to Pambo and a business name was registered and the enterprise incorporated.
So, what does it take to start a fashion line? “A guest room in your apartment,” she jokes about it. It requires funding, a vision, human resources, a strong will, an unwavering spirit, a passion, and inventory to get you up on your feet.
She went back to school to study for a Master’s degree to understand business beyond her passion.
But most importantly, it requires capital to start a fashion line. She bootstrapped most of her initial capital.
“I started the business from my savings, I had about Sh200,000 that went into buying a sewing machine and an overlock machine, threads, needles, and other things that make garment construction possible. I had put away half a shipping container of fabric from West Africa that was about Sh200,000 also.
Collectively, I started the business with about Sh400,000 from a guestroom in our apartment since the money wasn’t enough to hire the space I wanted. So it was just me, two tailors, and the guestroom at the beginning," she says.
She ploughs back earnings from the business and has gotten facilities from HEVA (an East African fund that invests in the creative industry sector) and local banks to expand her reach.
“I put back almost all the money we earn into the business. We have also secured facilities from HEVA and local banks. The company’s track record of discharging (sometimes even early) our debt financing over the years and sustainably growing revenue year-on-year has created and maintained a credit-worthy profile for us,” she adds.
Running a micro-SME in the fashion industry, Kawira admits is a daredevil act. At every turn in the country right now, there is a designer, a tailor, the whole ensemble.
What are the chances of succeeding in the industry, how does one maintain their head above water when everybody is sinking?
“I have an excellent team; I am good at what I do. I am a trained designer who has an academic and professional grounding in the principles of design and branding, and I believe this adds that authentic stamp of approval on our work and creates a flywheel to keep generating new concepts and design ideas,” she says.
The way to remain relevant in her industry is to be creative. She is always looking for new designs, new fabrics, and new or better ways of working with fabrics to add freshness to her client's sense of fashion.
How does she come up with these designs? “Several ways.
One, good old inspiration, the Power Collection for instance is based on man’s tie. The idea came to me at 3 am after months of trying to find a unique look for the collection. I start with a brief. What do I want to design, for whom, and for what occasion, is it sufficiently unique? Two, client input. Sometimes I get challenges from clients and fans," she says.
Three different people have asked her why she did not incorporate Kikoi into her designs. "It is the one fabric we can say is uniquely Kenyan," she says.
She sketches with a pencil first, and will create say, 12 designs, and then pick six. The other six go into the prototype stage.
Mambo Pambo has since moved from her apartment guest room to stores and workshops in Nairobi's Kilimani, Karen, and Village Market.
They now have a team of 10 fashion consultants that help run the business.
She speaks about the future with prophetic assurance. Like she has been there and seen it all. It is majorly because she has learned the ropes and had successes and failures that enable her to predict or visualise the future.
"This year we are cleaning up our operations so that we can scale from a micro-SME to a medium enterprise. We are bullish about the demand for quality, thoughtfully designed apparel. I am also keen to explore the Venture Capital (VC) world now to tap into growth capital having established product-market fit and demonstrated a viable business model. However, we will be prudent about the vision and cultural alignment of our potential investors,” she says.