Finding AmAfrikan in Township Fashion Retail — The life of Phindi Esther Chiloane
We caught up with Lerato K Masha, co-founder of AmAfrikan.com, as he goes on the road to explore the African world of products, brands and sales, attempting to answer the question: “why did I start this?!”
AM: So, Lerato, tell us what does “AmAfrikan” mean?
LKM: A couple of years ago I started to really explore my identity as an African and it led me to co-found AmAfrikan: a summary of everything I understand my heritage to be. With the aim of creating a platform to develop and nurture African luxury brands, we sell beautifully designed, high quality products and we give our customers the ability to experience African elegance. We’re placing African treasure on the gallery of humanity.
AM: So the brand embodies the “African identity”. Who do you sell to?
LKM: Interesting that you ask. I recently went on a journey to try and understand who this “AmAfrikan person” is that we are trying to connect with as both a customer and a contributor to the business.
My first instinct was to interview people within my network, i.e. friends, relatives, former colleagues, mentors and leaders in the business. However, something in me told me to look internally. I had to ask myself, why did I start AmAfrikan? This was not an easy question to answer. There are so many elements to it. For inspiration, I turned to one of the most influential people that shaped my life: My mother.
AM: So your mother’s influence lives through you in establishing the brand. Who was she?
LKM: Phindi Esther Chiloane. She was born in 1956 in Pretoria. At this time apartheid was starting to become a haunting monster, infiltrating every free space she had. After completing high school up to grade 10, she decided that she was fed up with the joke of a “Bantu Education” system exclusively reserved for “non-Europeans”.
LKM: Yes, and my mother was a very strong woman. Phindi always envisioned a better life for us and rebelled against the status quo regardless of the apparent external circumstances. You can witness this throughout her life. In 1976 she studied and then started working as a registered nurse until 1985 when she boldly made the decision to resign.
AM: Why did she decide to resign?
LKM: It certainly wasn’t easy for her – in fact, it was a very bold decision in those days, especially if you were an African woman. In the apartheid years, being a nurse was very prestigious and carried a lot of weight within the social hierarchy. It was also at time when opportunities for black people were forcefully limited – so having a job with some status was akin to owning gold. She decided to embark on her own journey and become an entrepreneur – staying strong and steadfast at a time when her and my father filed for divorce.
AM: It must have been difficult! Which direction did she go? Entrepreneurially speaking, of course…
LKM: Phindi was widely known as one of the best dressers in Mamelodi and used her fashion sense to promote herself as a brand, growing her business. It was no surprise when she made the decision to go into clothing retail as her line of business. You can put this down to individual style, but more importantly she was a strong,independent woman at a time when most women were subjected to traditionalist roles.
LKM: She quickly identified a gap in the market and exploited it. Her business model looked at three things namely; convenience, creditworthiness and fashion.
AM: Let’s start with convenience…
LKM: Well, access to fashion back in those days meant that you had to travel distances as far 60km for fashion. That’s a long way to look good. The best shops were based in Johannesburg. There was also the common theory that the best could only be found in Johannesburg — a journey that took eight consecutive trips from Pretoria. So Phindi basically started providing the convenience of the best fashion “on your doorstep”. She would be the travelling stylist doing shopping for the local community interested in looking and feeling great. She would sometimes make the entrepreneurial pilgrimage to Jozi multiple times with my siblings and I. As kids we would help by carrying bags of beautiful garments. It’s important to note that in those days, Johannesburg was also a much more dangerous place, and she helped us to become street smart — lessons that I carry with me to this day.
AM: Amazing. I can already see how her influence shaped your thinking around African Designer Products.
AM: How was she able to judge creditworthiness?
LKM: Most black people in 80s and 90s South Africa did not qualify for credit — even when they could afford it. My mother understood the people on the ground and managed to provide credit in those days for many township folks. Interestingly, it was more out of necessity to make people look good, rather than making money off interest. Her customers benefited from purchasing clothes from her a good price. Of course, debt collection was a challenge to her business as it is to any.
AM: It sounds like she really enjoyed giving back to the community.
LKM: Over and above her individual success she was also a business incubator among her community as she helped a group of women to become entrepreneurs themselves. She would play the role of business coach and mentor to their businesses. Phindi understood that as AmAfrikans we grow as community and success is measured on how successful your community is.
Through her business of the Township fashion retail space, she managed to put food on the table, build us a home as a single parent and pay for our schooling. In the harsh reality of a township life, one could say that as her three sons raised by a divorcee, we were regarded as privileged. Our lifestyle was incomparable to many black South Africa, albeit, she gave us what would be considered normal.
AM: That’s an amazing memory, Lerato. Where is Phindi Esther Chiloane today?
LKM: My mother sadly, passed away on the December 2001. Needless to say, she had a dramatic impact on my life. The AmAfrikan that I saw and experienced in her life, is the AmAfrikan I see in the future as a business model that seeks to take our African continent forward. In Phindi Esther Chiloane, we learn that being AmAfrikan is not the geography you are from, your culture, language or background, but rather how Africa lives in you as a human being. Even when things get difficult, I perpetually face my challenges as an AmAfrikan. To me, it is the ultimate way in which life in all its diversity makes sense.
AM: Before you go, one last question: What’s your favourite product on AmAfrikan?
LKM: To be honest, we handpick every single product we showcase and make sure it goes through a rigorous quality check. I truly love every single one of them where I don’t own them yet, I work harder to make AmAfrikan a success so I can buy those products too!
AM: Thanks for your time Lerato.
LKM: Ke a leboga.