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The designers who are making crochet cool
Mama Kea’s chic accessories breathe life into an old craft
Your grandmother’s doilies is what comes to mind when you hear the word crochet. Unless you’re talking about the shoes (yes, crocheted shoes) and clothing made by accessories brand Mama Kea.
The sandals, loafers, low and high tops, with soles made from recycled rubber tires; beanies, and bucket hats are inspired by Africa’s cultures, nature’s organic colours, the beige and fawn of the Khoisan, and the red, green, and yellow of the Pan Africanist movement.
“The shoes are our star product,” says Sicelo Mabuza, co-founder of Mama Kea, which operates out of Newtown in Johannesburg.
CREATING SHOES FROM CAR TIRES + CROCHET
“We start the shoe from the ground, using patterns that define our art as Africans,” says Sicelo. Threads of nylon and acrylic are stitched using calculations so precise they become a distinct fabric and pattern. “There’s arithmetic applied to the patterning.”
Their customers love this innovation. “They appreciate the craft, and are proud that it’s an African product.” Mama Kea is a fashion innovator, much like Xhosa-inspired modern knitwear brand Maxhosa, says Sicelo.
Mama Kea co-founder Sicelo Mabuza describes how Mama Kea designs are both a mathematical and artistic innovation. Image: Mama Kea.
RECYCLED TIRES AT THE SOLES OF YOUR SHOES
The soles are bought ready-made, and one of Mama Kea’s ambitions is to manufacture their own soles. “Before we can parade our products at any more fashion shows, we need to honour our commitment to remain proudly South African at a time when healing Mother Earth is also top of the agenda,” says Sicelo.
Showcasing African talent and skill is core to Sicelo and his business partner Khulani Sikhosana’s dream. Before registering Mama Kea in 2015 they were running an online magazine called Vuka Darkie, in which they publicised stories of ancient science, art and the economy of Africa. “We had interest in black-owned businesses and this was our way of publishing their work.”
Mama Kea co-founder Khulani Sikhosana wearing one of the Mama Kea beanies. Image: Mama Kea.
THE MAMAS BEHIND THE BRAND
Mama Kea is fueled by both young and old talent. It started when the founders teamed up with two elderly women, Irene Mabitsela and Emma Mavimbela, who they met selling crochet beanies at the Soweto Arts and Craft Fair back in 2015.
“We wanted to match their intricate hand-stitching techniques with our own creative business ideas. As young people we knew how to promote and market the right product.” The women earn a commission on each item produced.
STARTING OUT SMALL AND SCALING UP
Sicelo studied entrepreneurship at Wits Business School after completing his honours degree in health science, but he hones his business acumen in the streets, as he hustles from shoe sole manufacturers in Kwa-Zulu Natal to yarn suppliers in downtown Joburg, to set up a supply chain for affordable wholesale prices for yarn and rubber.
“I love the journey of being an entrepreneur,” says Sicelo, who says he’s gained a massive amount from collaborations. His alliance with retail outlet Detail, his work with two other accessories brands, Pex Lifestyle and IFreecan Timepiece, have taught them discipline.
BUILDING PROCESSES AND STRUCTURE
His biggest lesson yet has been about processes. When their business gained traction in 2018, they were taking money for pre-paid orders for shoes while developing a range of beanies and bucket hats. They were also getting a lot of coverage and opening their first retail store in Newtown Junction Mall.
“In hindsight we probably received too much attention too early on,” says Sicelo, “and we weren’t able to keep up with demand while maintaining a consistent supply of the soles, yarn, and labour needed to make shoes that we were proud to brand Mama Kea.”
SCALING UP PRODUCTION
A pair of Mama Kea shoes takes about 4 hours to make, the headwear about two hours of crochet time alone. At the height of consumer demand between 2018 and 2019, Mama Kea’s small team were producing 100 pairs of shoes a month, and roughly 40 beanies, and exported over 200 pairs of shoes to the United States, Ghana, Egypt, France, and other parts of Europe.
“Our products are expensive to produce. We need the quickest means to produce and we need to have distribution points for people to come in and buy.”
Jack performs a dance move as part of the #MamaKeaCulture, a #GetYourMoveRight campaign. Image: Mama Kea.
STAYING ON COURSE IN LOCKDOWN
Lockdown has given the business a chance to regroup, so they can stay on course and on purpose forblack excellence.
They have a shrewd plan for the long-term: Before lockdown Sicelo and his core staff had trained over 20 youngsters for production so that they’re ready to scale up as required. “What makes me happiest to talk about the young people we’ve trained who will help with production.” From this also sprung a formalised curriculum.
This is the framework the duo believes will catapult them and their brand to black excellence.
HOW TO BUY SHOES FROM MAMA KEA
Mama Kea shoes sell from R850 and hats from R350 pop-pp store Detail in Newtown Junction Mall. You will also find their product at Homegrown Shandis store coming soon, also in Newtown. Order or follow them on Mama Kae's Facebook page and @Mamakeaofficial on Instagram.
Article by Justin Nurse.
Mama Kea is the last small business featured in the Small Business Spotlight, a CapeTownMagazine.com and Lulalend initiative to help boost small businesses.
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