African entrepreneur sold his belongings to start Kisua


Sam Mensah found out that it is better to give than receive: in giving gifts he received success in return, after he saw the potential market for African garments and designs around the world. A significant element of the business is to present a more truthful picture of the continent.

 kisua_article Kisua is an innovative digital platform that offers exclusive contemporary African fashion online, selling limited-run pieces and providing an exciting showcase for the continent’s best and brightest design talent. Sam Mensah, founder of Kisua, was announced Most Admired Emerging African Brand by Brand Africa 100 on 22 October 2015. Here Mensah gets his award from Brand Africa representative, Addis Alemayehou.(Image: Melissa Javan)

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Melissa Javan

Ghanaian Sam Mensah may be an economist by profession, but he is an entrepreneur by passion. He gave up his corporate job to start the online store, Kisua, even though his parents were not fond of the idea.

More than a year later, Mensah is announced by Brand Africa 100 as the Most Admired Emerging African Brand. This event that took place on Thursday, 22 October 2015 in Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, gave recognition to the continent’s best brands. Brand Africa 100 also awarded Swaady Martin of the tea and accessories brand Yswara, as the Most Admired Emerging African Brand.

Mensah speaks about how, if he had not ignored his parents’ misgivings and taken the plunge, he would never have known what it was like to be rewarded the way he is today.

“My madness is slowly making sense to them,” he says, laughing.

“They used to think I was going through a mid-life crisis when I quit my job as an economist.”

He sold everything he had to create the online portal, through which African garments are sold all over the world.

And the product has been well received, with international celebrities like Beyoncé Knowles and Terry Pheto seen wearing the Kisua brand.

proverb wearing a jumpsuit

 Sam_Mensah_article  Sam Mensah quit his job and sold all his belongings to start the Kisua business.(Images: Kisua)

The beginning of an idea

As an economist working for an investment fund, Mensah would travel all over Africa visiting clients and business people. As a sign of friendship, he would bring gifts –usually artistic or cultural items. “Whenever I gave my friends things like bags and clothing, other people would see and offer me money. People starting approaching me with money, asking: ‘If you go to Senegal or Nigeria next time, bring me something.’ I turned their money down,” he says.

But their requests sparked an idea: “I started to think about how I could make this work. How could I make a sustainable business out of this?”

Then, at the end of 2013, Mensah began Kisua, which means “well-dressed person” in Swahili. It now has three distribution centres – in the United Kingdom, United States and South Africa, with its headquarters in Johannesburg.

Kisua is an innovative digital platform that offers exclusive contemporary African fashion online, selling limited-run pieces. It is an “exciting showcase for the continent’s best and brightest design talent”, the company says.

 kisua_new_3_article Not just anyone designs for Kisua. The 10 designers were selected carefully for their ability to make their mark.

African design

The company has 10 designers from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Democratic Republic of Congo. Mensah says it gets referrals constantly. “We have a fund that pays for the production of the garments that are made by designers, so we can be very selective about whom we bring in.

“We believe the designs we are getting are interesting and that there is something unique about the styles of the designers,” he says, but adds, “even though the designs are unique, we do have a signature theme for Kisua.”

In the first week of April, Kisua opened a pop-up shop at Melrose Arch in Johannesburg. Women’s Wears Daily, an fashion mediahouse, reported guests at the opening included Shashi Naidoo and Lalla Hirayama. There was a “gifting suite” and they could change into Kisua clothing at the event. True to the pop-up shop ethos, it will only be open until the end of May.

“We had a pop-up store in New York and London already. We created this to give people a retail experience. This is so that they can interact with the brand, touch and feel the products,” Mensah explains. “We are considering having more pop-up stores in South Africa in the near future.”

 kisua_new_5_article  Kisua has a fund for designers that pays for the production of their clothes.

The future looks bright

Mensah says he hopes Kisua will reach its full potential and become a household name. “I would like everyone to recognise the brand and understand what it stands for.”

Speaking to the Tutu Fellowship, he said he would like more people to visit Africa. “You must come and see for yourself. You might be surprised by what you find.”

He wants to share Africa with outsiders so that they can also see what he sees: “There are a lot of misconceptions all over the world about Africa,” he explains. “They see war, poverty and corruption. I don’t see that. I want to share my Africa with them.”

As a leader, he says entrepreneurship has an important role to play in developing the continent. His advice to young people is: “Go to school, learn as much as you can. Equip yourself with skills to participate in the economy. We just do not have enough qualified people [in Africa]. That is one of the problems we have.”

Watch the Kisua Hariri Campaign:

Watch Sam Mensah discuss leadership and entrepreneurship in Africa: