FASHION ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR

Childhood fashion dream comes true

Benadatte Kaggwa overcame health, financial woes to make Nnunji shine

In Summary

• Growing up, Kaggwa awed the fashion industry, later joined it after initially avoiding it

• She defied health, career woes to win Africa SHE Awards' Fashionpreneur of the Year 

Benadatte Kaggwa with her Fashionpreneur of the Year award at the 2021 SHE Awards in January
Benadatte Kaggwa with her Fashionpreneur of the Year award at the 2021 SHE Awards in January
Image: COURTESY

Benadatte Kaggwa is living out her childhood dream of being in the fashion industry.

For as long as she can remember, she has always wanted to be in the glamorous world of fashion.

"I always knew I would end up in fashion, actually. When I was in primary school, I used to have a 'fashion book', where I would sketch different outfits I would see in magazines," she says.

Kaggwa's father was in the travel industry and he would bring home travel and fashion magazines, which she would browse for inspiration.

Her mother, who was a seamstress, also had plenty of fashion magazines in her workshop.

"She had magazines such as JC Penney, which I would flip through and see how the models posed, and I would try to recreate them," she says.

Kaggwa would sketch the models, including accessories, and even colour them.

She still has that fashion book and she constantly looks back to it to reminisce.

Kaggwa (R) poses with winners from other categories at the 2021 SHE Awards in January
Kaggwa (R) poses with winners from other categories at the 2021 SHE Awards in January
Image: COURTESY

FAMILY INFLUENCE

"My mother was a major influence, and one of my great grandparents was also in the textile industry. Even some of my siblings are in the fashion industry themselves as fashion designers and seamstresses," she said.

"We were surrounded by a lot of fashion growing up. We would watch our mother working and we used to save the leftover fabric from her work and make clothes for our dolls, tie them around our heads as accessories, and so forth," she recalls.

This ignited a sense of fashion savviness within her.

It was an idea that she merely toyed with, such that after high school, she ended up not studying fashion design.

"I loved design and I also love IT, so I ended up doing web design as a course in university," she said.

But as many stories go, she ended up doing something entirely different from what she studied.

She ended up working in the investment banking industry for more than five years. While at the investment bank, some jewellery vendors used to pass by to sell their handmade jewellery pieces, which attracted her.

"They were really beautiful and they piqued my interest, so I used to place orders for custom-made pieces from them," she said.

Kaggwa noticed that the pieces the women were selling were often similar in design and at times even identical, and she felt they lacked some creativity in their design.

"Sometimes the only difference was that they were of different colours. Some were just a single strand of beads stringed together without much creativity to them," she said.

She decided to make her own sketches to be custom-made by the women so she could get her own unique designs.

Her designs were so wonderful that sometimes the women would duplicate them for other clients.

After a while, Kaggwa felt that she should provide her unique designs to more people.

"I thought of creating a platform where I can have my custom creations and be directing people to that platform," she said.

At that time, she did not have the know-how to make the jewellery herself, so she thought she would employ the use of skilled artisans.

With her skills as a web designer, she felt she could easily design a website to make this idea come to life.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

In 2012, she took the plunge and left employment in customer service and operations to finally pursue her passion for creative design.

"I thought of a name for the website, which was on Image Etiquette Advisory. It was going to be a platform for etiquette, communication skills, grooming, wellness and nutrition," she said.

The idea was to have an online shop where she would feature the handmade jewellery pieces made by the artisans she designed herself.

Kaggwa said it worked out for a few months before it started becoming difficult working with the artisans.

"I wanted one-piece designs but unfortunately, they wanted to mass-produce the pieces like what you have at Maasai Market and Kariokor. They wanted to make like 20 pieces from one design," she said.

Buying in bulk would water down the uniqueness of the design.

She was basically working as a reseller of the crafts and they had to sell them to her in retail instead of wholesale price, which was very expensive, especially to the end consumer.

The quality of the designs was also difficult to maintain as Kaggwa says the artisans often made her designs the way they made theirs.

"I would get instances where one piece had to be recreated several times, especially with the brassware. I had to go to different artisans sometimes, wanting a piece to be made, and since the order was not bulk and would earn them little money, they would not prioritise it," she said.

"I would go maybe after a week and my order would still be incomplete, and then they would have to rush on it so when you go to collect the end-product, you would find that yes, it is complete, but there are still some faults here and there."

So, she decided to learn how to craft the designs herself.

A brassware necklace from the Nnunji collection
A brassware necklace from the Nnunji collection
Image: COURTESY

She went online, researched and found out what crafting tools and equipment she needed.

Kaggwa also realised that she would need a brand for her accessories, not just sell them.

She brainstormed on a name and consulted an acquaintance she was working with who was good in marketing.

At the time, she was inspired by jewellery brand Kazuri, which crafted its pieces from clay.

"Kazuri means nice in Kiswahili. I thought of naming my brand Nnunji, which means nice in Luganda, my native language," she said.

"So I sketched my logo and gave it to a professional graphic designer for the final product, then I registered my brand in 2013."

Nnunji crafts unique jewellery and accessory pieces, such as headpieces, body chains, scarves, belts, brooches and even special hampers to gift loved ones on special occasions.

Clients would often ask whether she sold other ready-made clothes they could pair with her jewellery and accessories.

"I saw that there was a really high demand for the ready-made clothes, so I decided to launch a fashion line under Nnunji called Nnunji Closet in 2021," she said.

With Nnunji Closet, suppliers bring her ready-to-wear clothes and she sells them at her shop on Tom Mboya Street at the World Business Centre.

"For Nnunji, we have the online shop, but for the Closet, we have a physical store and our WhatsApp catalogue. Soon, we will launch our online store on our website, Nnunji.com," she said.

Kaggwa said she wants to make it easy for anyone to shop, so all you have to do is make the order in your size and have it delivered to you.

"We have dresses, skirts and tops for the Nnunji Closet because it's not easy to figure out ladies' silhouettes, and also ready-made bags and shoes," she said.

She gets suppliers from Europe, Asia and the United States, and she has to stay informed about what is fashionable in the world to get the best orders.

Nnunji Closet caters to women between the ages of 25 and 55, not forgetting plus-size women.

"The professional lady in that age bracket is keen on fashion and has buying power, and plus-size women are also often left out, so I saw it fit to include them," she said.

FINANCIAL, HEALTH PROBLEMS

Along the way, she had difficulties that almost made her quit the journey.

Kaggwa says being a fashion entrepreneur (fashionpreneur) is hard, but her passion for the industry makes it easy.

Somewhere along the way, she veered off her path and went back into employment.

"It's not always easy running a start-up because you have all these ideas and you want to have a fully functional set-up like accounting, marketing or production, and if you don't have enough capital, then those can be very discouraging moments," she said.

She said entrepreneurs often dig into their savings and profits to help keep themselves afloat.

"I try to avoid loans from financial institutions and banks because that can really get you into a mess," she said.

"Somehow, I have managed to wade my way through without them. My friends and family have really helped me out a lot."

Kaggwa describes her growth in business as gradual as she has also had some health problems along the way that also disrupted her business.

After almost 20 years of suffering from chronic back pain, she had a fundraiser to help her go seek treatment in India in 2019.

"I got some treatment but of course, it wasn't permanent relief, I have to live with that pain and learn to manage it through physiotherapy," she said.

She says she has learned to take things as they are because there are times there is an abundance and a time of lack.

"There are always challenges in running businesses, but I wake up feeling challenged every day because I always have something to create. In that aspect, I enjoy what I am doing," she said.

The win came as such a welcome surprise because it felt that I was being recognised for all I had done, as well as a pat on the back from God to propel me forward

BALM OF RECOGNITION

All these challenges finally paid off when in January, she was recognised and awarded as Fashionpreneur of the Year 2021 in the Africa SHE Awards.

"A friend of mine saw nominations for the award on Facebook and told me to join. It recognised African small business owners and I felt I had a story to tell with Nnunji, so I sent my application," she said.

The Pan-African Business award featured six African countries, and she was up against over 30 contenders in the Fashionpreneur category.

At some point, Kaggwa said she was mentally checked out of the competition because it was taking a long time and she felt she was up against bigger names in the fashion industry than herself.

"I remember a friend asked me whether it was too late to vote for me in December and I told them not to bother and just save their money," she said.

Just a day before she was notified of the victory, she said she was lamenting on one Facebook group for women entrepreneurs about struggling in her business.

"The win came as such a welcome surprise because it felt that I was being recognised for all I had done, as well as a pat on the back from God to propel me forward," she said.

For the future, she sees herself seamlessly merging Nnunji and Nnunji Closet, as well as building a bigger enterprise.

"I would like to have a workshop where I can even employ artisans to work with, such that I just design the pieces and they create them," she said.

"Then I can get more time to focus on other things, such as marketing and even a retail outlet for the business, where it is just a one-stop shop for both the handmade and the ready-made pieces." 

To order pieces from Nnunji, contact: Instagram: @nnunjike, @nnunjicloset Facebook: @Nnunji, @NnunjiCloset; Twitter: @Nnunji; YouTube: NNUNJI; Phone/WhatsApp: 0770186529, 0792789172

Edited by T Jalio