Monica Lopes: Soaking the Opportunity Up

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Being a seamstress is a trade that has run in Monica Lopes’ family for four generations. Although she never pursued it as a career, it’s ironic that today, at the age of 39, she finds herself running a small but growing business built on the creation of vividly colored, handmade toweling hoodies. Soakuddlies, or “Soakkies” as Lopes likes to call them, are a passion for this creative single mom who has big ambitions but is realizing them one step at a time.

Lopes was born and grew up in Luanda, Angola in Southern Africa. She had always wanted to be a doctor, but when the time came for her to go university, she had to find a new career as there was no medical school in her home country. With an aptitude for languages, Lopes decided to study Portuguese and English with the aim of becoming an English teacher. She graduated from Agostinho Neto University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sciences of Education.

After university, Lopes visited Namibia, which borders Angola to the south, and fell in love with the country and a young man she met there. She decided to stay on in Windhoek, the capital, and began working at the Diplomatic Embassy of Angola as a translator. After four years, her marriage was suffering and work at the embassy was becoming increasingly demanding and stressful. She decided to go out on her own as a freelance translator, specializing in legal, marketing and business documents, to have better control over her hours and projects.

Starting her own business may have increased her job satisfaction, but it created other problems when her marriage ended in 2010 and she found herself raising her 9-year-old daughter on her own. “It was really difficult because I have always wanted the best for my daughter, she’s such a clever girl. I always wanted her to be in the best school I could afford and that was my battle … to give her what I think she needs and deserves.”

Lopes struggled financially for several years until an unexpected opportunity popped up about two years ago that changed the course of her life.

Photo courtesy of Joyous Love Photography
Photo courtesy of Joyous Love Photography

An avid swimmer, her daughter, Ira Nanjala, was on a swim team. In an effort to simplify changing after class and help her daughter stay warm, Lopes made her a one-piece, zip-up gown made from toweling material. It just happened also to be quite cool, colorful, and fun, and the next thing she knew, everyone at the pool wanted one. “First the coaches ordered some for the team. Then the mums wanted them and from then on everything started. I never really planned it to be a business, I didn’t even know how to start a business, but everyone loved it and the demand grew and everything just fell into place.”

Lopes set up a workshop in the back of her house and asked her mother, a seamstress who was staying with her at the time, to help her. Her family chipped in for the supplies, brightly colored 100% cotton velour toweling material sourced from Botswana and South Africa. Ira Nanjala even came up with the name: “They soak up the water in a cuddly way … so why not Soakuddly?”

Femtech_graduationHer first batch sold out immediately and she invested all the profits back into buying more material and equipment and – when more orders came in – business training to help grow Soakuddly Beach & Swimming Pool Hoodies to the next level. Lopes signed up for FemTech training helping women understand how to run a business using technology, a program sponsored by the government of Finland. “That was easily the best 500 Namibian dollars I ever spent! We got so much knowledge. The friendships we developed, the mentors who helped and still help with the business strategy … it was an amazing life-changing experience for me.”

Lopes relies heavily on the support of other women. Her sister, a lawyer, provides legal aid and fellow FemTech graduates help each other out. “We just support each other. Tanya Stroh, a graphic designer, helped me redesign all the advertising and promotional material I’m using. This is where friendship comes into play. We just help each other in any way we can.”

Photo courtesy of Joyous Love Photography
Photo courtesy of Joyous Love Photography

Lopes has hired a creative young woman from a fashion design school to help out and come up with new designs. She is still translating to supplement her income but has plans to open her “own special place” with a workshop on the premises where customers can select the patterns and see Soakkies being made. She also has ideas for new products in the range such as toweled flip flops. While her market is mainly local, she does have beach-going clients in Angola and Mozambique, and – after export training she is currently taking, facilitated by the Namibia Trade Forum and funded by the Ministry of Trade and Industry – she has her sights set higher, “Starting next year, I am hopeful I will be able to ramp up the exports especially through the website. Clients will be able to design and order their own Soakkies directly.”

Photo courtesy of Joyous Love Photography
Photo courtesy of Joyous Love Photography

Up to now, Lopes has self-funded the business but at some point a loan will be necessary, especially if she is to invest in machinery or look to an outside supplier to increase production. Luckily Namibia has special loan programs for women entrepreneurs, but sometimes the work that lies ahead can seem overwhelming especially as demand increases. Regardless, Lopes is realistic: “Like all start-ups, I’m faced with every kind of challenge imaginable. I deal with them as best as I can within my limits and most of the time beyond them. Every single day is a learning curve, which I embrace knowing that the future will compensate for all the effort I put in and downfalls I go through now,” she explains optimistically.

Despite the hurdles Lopes says she faces as an “African businesswoman with limited resources”, she is confident of her success. “I believe in my product, it’s unique and it has great potential. This is what keeps me going and overcoming everyday doubts and fears. Of course I want my product on the selves and everyone to have a Soakuddly, but I believe I’m already successful because I wanted to change my life, my circumstances, and I have done this. I grabbed opportunity and didn’t wait for it to come to me.”

Tips from Monica Lopes:
  • Be close to those who see potential in what you want to do, they will take your hand and walk with you along the way
  • Don’t let fear stop you, it happened to me a lot. I was afraid of success and even had nightmares about being successful
  • Don’t take steps further than your foot

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