Co-Founders China and Liswa met while studying in NUI Galway. Having spotted a gap in the fashion market for African designed fashion brands the two women decided to create Umoja Production but later rebranded the company to Umoja linn (Umoja means Unity in Swahili, and linn means ‘by us’ in Irish). The pair have created a marketplace for African inspired fashion and now work with more than 15 designers, and recently won best pitch at Republic of Work Founders weekend, I interviewed the founders about why they started the company and their growth since:
- To someone who isn’t aware, what is Umoja Iinn? What is your USP?
Umoja linn is your hub for World-Class Afro-centric Fashion Brands. We are an Afro-Irish Startup dedicated in promoting African-inspired fashion globally, while solving the barriers facing Afro-inspired designers through various methods including a free online marketplace (www.umojalinn.com) and Physical Markets. Through the Umoja linn Marketplace, designers globally can sell their unique and high-quality products to a wider audience enabling them to globalise their reach, monetise their talents, while inviting consumers to the bold and audacious world that is African Fashion. In addition to the Online Marketplace, through Physical POP UP events, Umoja linn brings Afro-inspired fashion to the world! Overall we bring you unmatched high quality products, world-class brands, and a strong community dedicated to foster the growth of Afro-inspired businesses including Afro-Irish businesses, and African Fashion globally.
- What were your backgrounds before starting the company?
Umoja linn (formerly known as Umoja Production) was founded in 2017, at this time we were both in college in NUI Galway, with China studying Engineering and Liswa studying Science. We both had combined 4 years sales experience and we also designed clothing and jewellery items, mainly as a way of self-expression that enabled us to represent our cultures (Igbo and Zulu) into our daily wear.
As we managed Umoja linn, which to date has been completely bootstrapped, we continued to do other work in parallel all of which has not only enabled us to fund Umoja linn but has also given us experience and skills which are transferable to our business. China who leads activities relating to finance and operations also works as a Business Operations Manager at Wayflyer, Ireland’s newest unicorn and fastest growing start-up, which provides revenue-based financing for e-commerce brands, while Liswa who leads activities relating to customer acquisition, product improvement and operations, is Senior Operations Specialist for Amgen where she leads risk investigations, determines, and implements process improvements to eliminate root cause and ensure operational excellence.
- What was the spark to create the company?
The short answer is the lack of access to Afro-inspired Fashion brands and African Fashion overall. We both (Liswa and China) immigrated to Ireland at the age of 11 and 10 respectively, with Liswa immigrating from South Africa and China immigrating from Nigeria. Growing up in Ireland we always struggled to find items that allowed us to represent our cultures through Fashion and not only that the lack of access to African fashion meant (1) Insanely talented Afro-inspired brands weren’t reaching audiences in certain regions, (2) Global consumers weren’t being introduced to these high quality Afro-inspired products and (3) subsequently these brands and businesses weren’t generating revenue to the capacity they could. From individuals of African heritage alone, like ourselves who longed for fashion items representative of our African heritage, we knew the demand was there, let alone the wider scope of the consumers and fashion lovers everywhere who wished to diversify their styles.
- How did you decide on the name of the company? What advice would you give building entrepreneurs on naming their company?
Umoja means Unity in Swahili, and linn means ‘by us’ as Gaeilge. At the core of Umoja linn is Unity, ‘Umoja linn’ is a true representation of our values and also incorporates our Irish heritage. Choosing a brand name is always a challenge, the best advice we can give is, determine your brand values, think about your customer and where possible try to select a name that incorporates your brand value and is evocative, you want to be remembered!
- Did you enter any accelerator programmes before launching the company? How did they help build the company?
We didn’t join any accelerator programmes prior to launching the company, as we navigate the business, it’s been a continuous learning process and in that duration we’ve taken in various knowledge filled events such as Founders Weekend by the Republic of Work and some events by LEO. We’re also looking into joining some accelerator programmes.
- How did you start to attract designers to the website?
Prior to starting Umoja linn, we worked with two designers, one in South Africa and one in Nigeria whom we knew personally. As we prepared to launch Umoja linn we had a number of designers who had either signalled their desire to work with us or that we identified as wanting to work with, and these were the designers we launched with. Post launch, designers generally find us on our socials (@umojalinn) where they get the link directly to www.umojalinn.com. On the Umoja linn website, designers can express their interest to join the Umoja linn designer family by submitting an application via our ‘Become a Designer’ feature and all applications are reviewed by the team. Additionally, we have a team of scouts that search for Afro-inspired designers that align with the Umoja linn values.
- What do you find is the best marketing for selling products on the website?
We launched Umoja linn on 15 January 2022, and we did this with zero market spend, our main goal was to gauge customer interest as organically as possible. The traction was INCREDIBLE! Our best Marketing for selling products on the website to date has been content marketing on social platforms, particularly Instagram and print advertising. We’ve used various Instagram features to reach customers just about anywhere and having seen just how effective this content marketing has been using this platform, as we create more content to advertise our products we only expect the customer reach and traction to only increase.
We’ve also had the opportunity of being featured on various magazines and newspapers including the Independent Magazine and The Irish Times and thanks to amazing people like Bairbre Power, Fashion editor of Irish Independent, and Ruth O’Connor, an amazing journalist who also writes for the Irish Times. Their vested interest in our business has most definitely had an impact in our brand awareness and subsequently product promotion and customer gain. Similarly, with content creation we’ve had various prominent Afro-Irish figures like Tolu Makay and Celaviedmai, who happen to be Umoja linn customers, posting their favourite Umoja linn products on their platforms and promote the brand overall!
- How did the pandemic affect the organisation?
The pandemic was actually a really productive period for Umoja linn! We took the time to re-evaluate what was then Umoja Production and in the process analysed our business model. A lot of work went into it from our platform development to our business optimisation. We went into the pandemic as Umoja Production with 2 designers and re-launched January 2022 as Umoja linn with 15 designers!
- Have you won any awards or received any recognition in recent years?
We were recently awarded Top 3 in the APNI Lion’s Den Competition, a Dragons Den style competition where Afro-Irish entrepreneurs compete for grants. Umoja linn also recently won best pitch at Republic of Work Founders weekend. As we grow we only look forward to more wins!
- Are there any other African-Irish owned businesses that you are a fan of in Ireland?
Most definitely! From ThisCreativeFiend with her beautiful bucket hats, to Turbante.se with high quality head wraps, to FeLAA Boutique with amazing print shirts, to InphityxAccessories with stunning statement jewellery pieces! The list goes on! As a community of Afro-inspired designers, at Umoja linn we’re privileged to work with a majority of these brands.