Winter is turning to Spring in Swaziland. In other words, it’s moving from warm to hot. A young entrepreneur we met some months back has caught our eye with his latest design, a soft, comfy t-shirt busting at the seams with character. The continent of Africa is personified as a woman, with a vibrant headdress bordering the northwest coast. The message is inspirational, full of purpose, “Empower Women In Africa.” This powerful imagery and the subsequent conversations lead to a special treat, a tour of the shop where Kennedy Kamenga’s business, No Limit Apparel, goes from idea, to design to the brand’s next product. This brand, as I would come to find out, is changing lives one piece at a time.
Kennedy is originally from Zambia, though he moved with his family to Swaziland in 1980. Growing up, his father supported the family as a commercial printer. “We grew up in that environment, I knew paper very early.” In the perpetually unstable economy, however, it was always a challenge for the family to make ends meet. “When I went to university, I couldn’t finish because the family didn’t have the money to continue paying. At that point, I had to think of something.” As he thought and thought, he waited tables to meet his own basic needs. Then he came across an idea. “I had a passion for t-shirt printing. I loved seeing people wearing their own thing. I always used to wonder, how can they just print whatever they want?” He knew that he wanted to create something unique, and that learning how to screen print could eventually give him that opportunity. With the help of his father, he saved up, took the plunge and bought his first printing machine, it had four colors and two stations. “At first we were just doing individual orders. It was all word of mouth.” Kennedy kept trying things out, gradually developing an identity as a brand. Then he got a break that helped launch the company’s growth. “Our first big gig was with a company in South Africa, Mpumulanga, who wanted around 800 t-shirts printed” There was a catch, however. They wanted them in two days. “We worked for two days without stopping” he told me as he laughed at the memory in his characteristically good natured way. “We didn’t sleep and we barely had time to eat, but we got it done.”
The deal that gave Kennedy the capital to grow his business had apparently come together through a familiar channel, word of mouth. “I’ve been very fortunate in terms of making friends. It all came together because I had a friend who worked in the mines. I had printed a couple of t-shirts for him just messing around and he really liked what he saw so he convinced the company he worked for to give us the big order.” Before that big order Kennedy had been doing this as a side hustle, a way to earn some extra cash. Shortly afterward he decided to go all in on his passion project. Despite the growth of the business, his philosophy remains unchanged. “I do not compromise on quality. When you give someone a product, you make sure that they love it.” He says a huge percentage of his business to this day comes from word of mouth. A simple “where’d you get that?” can lead to a whole new relationship.
The creative process is alive and well, and plays out in a collaborative fashion at No Limit. The screen printing shop sits at the front of a complex of storage shed style buildings called Likusasa, which was built by Salesians in the area to provide young entrepreneurs a place to grow and ply their trade. A spirit of youth and optimism moves through it’s simple, concrete walls. Looking around, proudly, Kennedy told me “When I started this brand I wanted to create something that was local. Something not about the outside. Something that spoke to the hospitality and spirit of African people.” When Kennedy gets an idea he likes, he brings it to the brand’s designer and they work out the kinks together. “This business is fun. I always tell my team, play around, try new things, you never know what you might be capable of.”
When asked about the potential of his products moving to America, Kennedy thought for a minute. “You know what I love about you Americans? You guys are marketing powerhouses. Just the way you use social media and the way the rest of the world looks to you for fashion… it would be huge for our brand and our people to be in America. It hasn’t sunk in yet. I can tell you one thing though, I’m really excited.” From a passion project and side hustle, No Limit has grown to include a staff of 4 full time employees with the ability to employ up to 12 people at a time based on their orders. In a country with a youth (up to age 35) unemployment rate of close to 65%, this business and others like it are vital to the local economy. Every opportunity for a job is potentially life changing. The brand also donates a percentage of its profits to local leadership and empowerment programs, thus the inspiration for the latest shirt “Empower Women In Africa.” On picking out his team, Kennedy remarked, “I try to look for people in situations like mine. Maybe they’ve just come from university, maybe I have just seen them have a strong work ethic. I’ve learned that first you need passion, second you need patience, and third you’ve got to be good to people.” The new machine Kennedy works with today, 6 colors and 6 stations, was funded by a local factory who loved the work they were doing. “What you give out to the world, it comes back to you. I firmly believe that. A lot of things are a distraction, but keep going where you are going. Take a leap. Things will work out.” No Limit indeed.
A portion of the proceeds from all No Limit products sold in the United States will be contributed to leadership and empowerment training in Eswatini, (Swaziland) in southern Africa.