At just 24, Mr Wilkins Odinga Fadhili is the CEO of a company that is building East and Central Africa’s first incubation hub for entrepreneurs interested in fashion and other creative arts.
Fashion Torch Africa’s aim is to provide funding, mentorship, office space and marketing capacity for start-up businesses. And for his efforts, Fadhili is drawing the right kind of attention. He was most recently awarded a grant of Sh16.5 million by 1608 Creatives, a US-based company that has now partnered with his firm.
Fadhili was also among the speakers at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit that was hosted by President Uhuru Kenyatta and President Barack Obama last year in Nairobi. He is scheduled to speak at this year’s summit as well for chasing a dream not many in the continent would. “The fashion industry has many opportunities. Through it, l have met many people, travelled widely and been a part of major events,” he says.
But the path Fadhili’s life has followed is not something he saw written in his cards from way back when. The young CEO, in fact, had no plans to pursue fashion – he was studying journalism at Daystar University when an opportunity to join the industry fell on his laps.
In 2012, he attended a mentorship talk hosted by Kenyan supermodel Ajuma Nasenyana on fashion entrepreneurship at his university. “At the event, I asked several questions, which caught Ajuma’s attention. After the talk was done, she told me I had the potential to be a good model. I was struck by this. I started working with her, doing catwalks and commercials for about two years,” Fadhili said. In 2014, during a fashion show in South Africa, it struck him that the Kenyan fashion industry was way behind its peers in the continent and the rest of the world.
Fadhili felt modelling would not help him bring about the growth he wanted to see in the local industry, so he quit. Two months later, however, he was invited to a show at the French Embassy, where he met Celine Merachaux, the wife of France’s ambassador to Kenya.
They got to talking about how to elevate fashion, and Fadhili gave her his vision of an incubation hub that would bring creatives together, and equip them with business ideas, training and mentorship so that they could exploit the opportunities the industry provides.
He felt one of the biggest failings in the local sector is that there was no place for players to meet, network and share ideas. Ms Merachaux was sold – she gave him Sh150,000 to set up Fashion Torch Africa.
It was also around this time that Fadhili heard about the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi. He applied as a participant, but was told he was time-barred. He was not about to give up on such an important learning platform, so he pestered the organisers and eventually got a spot as an attendee.
“A week after they had told me l was time-barred, l got a call that l would not only participate, but would also be one of the speakers.” For Fadhili, speaking at the summit is one of his most memorable moments. And to cap the good run, later the same year, he was named among Business Daily’s Top 40 Under 40 men.
While Fadhili knew he wanted to set up a fashion business hub, he was not sure it would be viable, so he partnered with Ipsos to research the potential. The results were encouraging. “The research said young people had interest in it, and there was need to have a hub in East and Central Africa,” Fadhili said.
With this stamp of approval, he registered the region’s first fashion business incubation hub in June this year.
It currently hosts 10 start-ups from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, with their founders mentored by fashion designers, stylists, photographers, bloggers and make-up artistes. Fashion Torch’s target is to incubate at least 30 start-ups before the end of this year, and grow this number to 120 by June 2017, helping set up enterprises that will create thousands of jobs.
Entrepreneurs interested in being incubated pay Sh30,000 for training and mentoring for 10 months. They also get the opportunity to pitch their ideas to secure funding.
Fadhili caught the attention of 1608 Creatives when speaking at a Blaze mentorship summit, which is sponsored by Safaricom, in Eldoret. The CEO of the US firm was streaming the event live and noticed Fadhili’s business pitch. After the event, Fadhili got a Facebook message from a stranger saying the CEO of 1608 Creatives would like to meet him. He agreed.
They met and Fadhili pitched his company’s ideas. He was invited to the US for more meetings to ensure the two firms’ visions aligned. And then he secured Sh16.5 million in investment. “At first, l felt like they were joking with me. It took me some time to believe them, but I did and I got the money,” said Fadhili, who was born in Kakamega.
1608 Creative is now a partner, and advises start-ups through sessions streamed through video-chat application Skype. The firm has also promised to help some entrepreneurs intern in the US.
Despite achieving so much in such a short time, Fadhili is not about to rest on past successes. “I open my door to new challenges every day. Furthermore, the Kenyan fashion industry still has a long way to go, and l am the person to push it to international standards,” said the former student of Nabongo Primary and Kamusinga High.
His achievements are even more notable when you consider that Fadhili first came to Nairobi when he joined university. “I came via the Musamaria Mwema bus. My hand was on the window almost throughout the journey in awe,” he said. His biggest challenges include finding investors willing to sponsor start-ups in the fashion industry.
Still, there are those who believe in what Fashion Torch is doing, including Chilli Mentoring (Australia) and Style Fashion Week (South Africa), as well as local organisations like Afrivazi-Kenya, Marketing Parts and Kenya Airways. By June next year, Fadhili plans to launch hubs in Eldoret and Kakamega, and venture into Rwanda and Tanzania.