Putting our Stamp On It

In today’s economy, with jobs as scarce as they are, and youth unemployment at an all-time high, it has become even more important to be entrepreneurial. Instead of seeking employment, we need to create our own. One venture that seems easy but isn’t as effortless as we had thought – based on how many endeavours that have come and gone –  is the T-shirt printing industry.

T-shirts have morphed from undergarments to central pieces worn by both genders; they also come in different styles: You can rock a plain white tee, spruce your outfit with a coloured tee, or make a statement with a printed tee.

Printed tees have become popular within the country, with several people and companies trying to make their mark in the industry. Besides corporates printing tees for promotional purposes, there are several brands that have cropped up to create and sell unique and impressionable printed tees. What makes our t-shirts unique is the fact that they are truly statement pieces – an attempt to unify Basotho around their Basothoness. We chat with two prominent Lesotho brands, Basutoland Ink and Mora Mosotho, to discuss the countries t-shirt printing industry, their struggles, how they see their brands growing, and the complexities of working in Lesotho.

Basutoland Ink is regarded as one of the pioneering printed t-shirt brands specializing in proudly Basotho wear. The brand began in 2006 when three friends (and business partners), Bokang Khekhe, Karabo Maitin and Tlotliso Setsomi had the idea to create t-shirts which showcase Lesotho’s vibrancy. One can say the idea began haphazardly. Basutoland Ink was born out of passion for Lesotho and an opportunity to fill a void. While students at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, “I saw a guy wearing a printed shirt that had ‘Lesotho’ across it and it did not look right. I did not want that to be the way people saw Lesotho.” Bokang explains, and thanks to the guy with a poorly printed shirt, the idea to create Lesotho inspired tees was born.

As avid basketball fans, the Basutoland Ink boys set out to sell their collection of basketball sneakers to raise the starting capital for their company. They raised about M4000, and with capital from Tlotliso Setsomi they raised enough money to print their first batch of tees.

Max Ramakatane of Mora Mosotho, also started his line from capital he raised himself. With earnings from his work as a DJ, event coordinator, and stake in Lighthouse Media, he was able to set aside enough money to design and print his line.

Mora Mosotho came about in 2011, when Moeketsi “Max” Ramakatane decided to create a line of clothing based on what he wanted to wear. The name derived from him combining the first two letters of his first and last name, Moeketsi Ramakatane, to form Mora, which conveniently spelled the Sesotho for “son”. Max is so known by his clothing moniker that it took me a while to figure out that “Mora” was not his legal surname. He, like the Basutoland Ink boys, is inspired by and passionate about his “Mosothoness”, hence him naming the line Mora Mosotho, “Mosotho’s Son”.  An epithet to him and all who wear his clothing.

Both groups expressed that people are generally discouraged from starting their own ventures because they do not have the initial capital, which is true all over the world. What makes the situation more difficult in Lesotho is the lack of support to acquire funding, either as start-up loans from banks, funds from ministerial departments, or corporate buy in. However, I have heard of, and seen companies begin with little to no money and flourish into viable businesses. The greater issue is the lack of support speared towards our entrepreneurial minded youth.

If it is not straight discouragement from their parents, friends and other acquaintances, it’s the lack of resources that hinders people’s efforts. A sentiment echoed by Karabo Maitin. He complained about the lack of structural support; lamenting on the fact that we do not have any incubation models to follow, organizations which encourage entrepreneurial thinking or a space to hash out ideas. Maitin wished for support that came in forms as easy as  monthly meeting spaces where people can share ideas, learn from each other, and find out what the relevant next steps are.

Another issue that many people have with starting a business in Lesotho is all of the red tape they have to go through in order to establish their company. Our country is very bureaucratic, which in itself is not an issue. The problem is that the departments and offices we have to visit in order to get ourselves off the ground are often not organized or efficient. At times it seems like an “I know, you know” situation which is highly discouraging, especially if you do not know “the right” people. Information is not readily available as to what we have to do in order to complete a task. We are sent to multiple offices to get what seems like arbitrary forms and signatures; we are then subjected to long waits and poor customer services; sometimes we get no service for something as trivial as someone having their lunch at their working station.

Complaints aside, it is equally necessary to have the correct paperwork and documents when you start your business as to minimize complications down the road. Especially in a creative industry like t-shirt printing, it is imperative to protect your brand so that no-one can steal your designs for their own profit. Mora Mosotho and Basutoland Ink are both registered companies and they expressed that it was a relatively easy process. For Basutoland Ink the process cost them approximately M3000, which included legal fees and the necessary fees for the Ministry of Trade and Commerce; the process took two to three months to get it all in order.

So what are the next steps for these clothing brands…

It is important to note that, although these two brands began by imprinting t-shirts, they have since expanded to hoodies, body warmers, and caps.

The deal between Basutoland Ink and the Lesotho Football Association (LeFA) is relatively well known. They boys supply the national team with a fresh kit every game, and in turn they receive revenue from replica jersey’s sold; they also sponsor league winners Lioli, and hope to clothe more teams in due time.

I asked them how the deal came about, to which Bokang Kheke explained that they want Basutoland Ink to be for Lesotho what Pringle is for Scotland and Ralph Lauren, America. They want Basutoland Ink to be a national brand that can compete internationally. Through LeFA, they can bring their brand to new audiences, including those who may not connect to the t-shirts and sweatshirts they currently produce.  Maitin explained that “the national team is bigger than politics and creed.” We can, and should, all rally behind our national football team regardless of our political leaning. They hope to sponsor more teams in the future to broaden their reach. This year they are also expanding their offerings with a line of Basutoland Ink beanies for the first time.

Mora Mosotho, now in its second year of existence, has expanded the number of places where people can get their clothing from. The brand is available from Max at Lighthouse Media, Turning Point Lifestyle in Pioneer Mall, and Montana’s Boutique at the upper level of Victoria Hotel stores. At the time of our interview he had expressed that all of his stock was sold out, a statement I believed based on how many Mora Mosotho clad people I had seen that week. The exciting news was, including the new stock and styles he was in the process of ordering, he has plans on opening his own store in Pioneer Mall in the future, the brand also wishes to go into dresses and shoes.

Both Basutoland Ink and Mora Mosotho have  had requests from people in America and the UK  interested in their clothes, although Max did not seem completely sold on the idea, he may start selling online too. His trepidation came because he believes that his line has become bigger than what he had initially anticipated – I told him that is a luxury problem.

When Basutoland Ink began, they received a lot of backlash at the pricing of their garments, but they were adamant that they wanted quality product, and quality comes at a price. Both of them, regarded as higher end clothing brands, started off at a loss, not because people were not interested in their apparel, but because they had “sold” their product on credit. A credit they oftentimes never got back. The two have expressed that the t-shirt printing industry is not as lucrative as people believe. Those looking for a quick buck will be highly disappointed. In order to have any form of success, hard work is the key ingredient. Mora Mosotho and Basutoland Ink are riding high right now because of the extreme efforts and passion they have put behind their projects. Admittedly it is still not smooth sailing, as there are many inroads these two still have to make. They are still working really hard to solidify their mark in the country, and in Basutoland Ink’s case, the continent.

Only time will tell how far both brands will grow. However their dedication to their respective labels, and inner camaraderie, will assist them in the long run. It is only fair that we support our local start-ups to ensure their success and to inspire other ventures in the future.