Meet miss Mahawa Rachel Lahai. A graduate from Njala University with B.Sc Hons Business and information technology. She is an accountant in one of Sierra Leone’s leading accounting and audit firms. She is the CEO of chelma’s Design, a go-getter, and risk-taker.
Chelma’s design is made in Sierra Leone and an African inspired fashion brand that is into; kids’ clothing, bridal accessories, African accessories for both sexes and home decor. Chelma is a combination of two names; the last four letters of Rachel and the first two letters of Mahawa. The idea of Chelma started from her desire to participate in the AYV Annual Miss University Contest. Her friend was the reigning queen in 2012/2013 and she wanted her to enter the competition the following year 2013. So she went ahead and bought the form, filled it and returned it. After submitting her application form for the competition, she was discussing and sharing her excitement with her friend when her friend told her that beyond the catwalk, which she will coach her, she will need to prepare to display a particular talent as part of the competition. The statement baffled her and she replied, I don’t have a talent. Her friend then told her you better be looking out there for something you are good at and will display for the audience.
One day she was watching Ebony life TV on DSTV when a particular program came on and a young entrepreneur was teaching viewers how to make the button necklace DIY. She was so caught up into it and was inspired by it. She instantly called her friend and tell her that she had discovered her talent. The next day she used her lunch money to buy some of the items she needed to make the necklace to try out what she learned on TV. The finished product was great and she wore it to campus. She received so many compliments and reviews and got her friends and colleagues requesting she made the same for them. She started doing research, going to YouTube and making different types of neckpieces. For some personal reasons, she did not take part in the Miss University Pageantry as planned. But that process changed her life forever. She discovered she can work with her hands and that process has led her to where she is today.
She took a break from the craftwork in 2014, as she wanted to focus on her academics. Just after her final exams, then came the Ebola and she was at home doing nothing. She started her craftwork again producing for families, friends and the general public. She finally registered it as a business in March 2015, and immediately started expanding her accessory line, making different earrings. At that point, she made up her mind to add one new item to her collection every year. The need to move into bridal accessories came when she wanted to make some of the items for her aunts’ wedding. She was her first client. ‘Taking a look at the pictures now, I realize I have evolved and grow a lot’, she said. Since then she has done over twenty weddings so far.
She also has an eight to five job, fully employed with a leading accounting firm in town. Her craftwork is mostly done at night after her full-time job and mostly on weekends.
She has a training school for people within the Goderich community, where she trains young people the bulk of whom are women. Last year, she had a fundraising dinner which was organised for the sole purpose of raising funds to acquire a piece of land where she will erect a building that will serve as an Art and Craft training centre, where they will train deprived women in the community (especially those who are involved in the hard labour of breaking and selling granite as monies from this source goes right back into their hospital bills) so that they can be empowered to start their own business.
Chelma designs are into the following she said; kids’ clothing, teddy bears, hair broaches and accessories, Ankara peplum belts, earrings, and necklaces. Wedding accessories; bridal bouquet, bridesmaids bouquet, a bouquet for flower girls, clothing for flower girls and page boys, bow ties and neckties. Home decorations such as Ankara wall hangings and flower stands.
She was a recipient of a grant from UN women. A grant was given to startups and business enterprises owned by women. She was going through her Facebook one day when she saw this flier about the grant available for women, so she applied and was shortlisted. After rigorous selection processes which included a verification visit from the organization, she was approved for the grant. ‘I had to go through several weeks of training and coaching, where we were taught how to prepare a sustainable business plan and how to do our financials’ Miss Lahai proudly stated. She said she is extremely grateful to God and to the UN Women for the grant.
She used the grant to expand her business to get more sewing machines, had increased her number of trainees and have employed three staff. One that handles the Finance part of her business, one for public relations and the other for marketing and sales. ‘With the grant, we were also able to get more materials and tools to make our work easy and so far we have been doing well and we are grateful for the opportunity’, she stated.
Miss Lahai hopes in the next five years Chelma would be a known brand locally and internationally with branches in the neighbouring countries. She would want to be involved in exporting her brands. She had tried exporting before but was too expensive and not favourable for a young business like hers. She would also want to open her physical store downtown in the central business district area and an online store. ‘I would want to grow my team of designers, seamstresses and other skilled people needed’ she stated.
Ms. Lahai further stated that one of her greatest satisfaction and pleasure is to put smiles on the faces of her customers as a sign of appreciation and satisfaction for the services they receive from us. ‘Nothing beats that feeling’ she said.
Her advice is for young Sierra Leoneans to believe in themselves and their abilities. They should not allow anything to stand in their way in their pursuit of self-development and empowerment. Nobody is too young or too old to dream, to start their own business, or to be rich. So they should believe in themselves and know that failure is part of the process. If they fail the first time they should see it as a learning curve and basis to acquire experience; they should dust themselves and get back up and move on with it. They should be passionate about whatever they want to do as that is what will push them if they hit a wall along the way. Young people should be with likeminded friends that will push them and give them the support system they might need one way or the other. Finally, they should always ask themselves this question, what’s next?