Phoebe Ouma spends a lot of her time with a pencil between her fingers, sketching women and clothing she finds interesting.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, she says she has always been artistic.
“I have always been drawing,” she told CNN. “It is a thing I have been good at.”
Ouma, 23, is fascinated by African women and the fashion industry, and often pieces together illustrations of African brands that inspire her.
She became conscious of the need to tell stories of African women when she was in high school.
“I had this folder in high school where I used to keep some of my drawings. Most of my models had white complexions and I didn’t realize I was doing this until someone pointed it out,” she said.
According to Ouma, she subconsciously picked up illustrating white people from reading magazines that didn’t represent people who looked like her.
She would later decide to make a conscious effort to share stories of women who had the same skin color, and experiences similar to hers.
“I made up my mind that whenever I put my work out for people to see, I would be intentional about making it reflect some of me,” she said.
In 2019, she started publicly sharing stories and sketches of women from different parts of the continent, drawing inspiration from people and places she visits.
In one of her illustrations, Ouma describes the women in Kericho, a town in Kenya famous for its tea farms.
“I used to go to the village during the holidays and we’d usually drive by the tea fields in Kericho. It looked so beautiful to me, and there are a lot of women who work on the tea fields,” she told CNN.
The illustration references tea as a huge part of Kenyan culture and the women who drink the tea, which is produced by other women on the farms.
Ouma says she is also fascinated by fashion from across the continent.
She started illustrating brands from Africa because she struggled to find African illustrators telling stories about the fashion industry.
“During fashion weeks, you see illustrators from all over the world sharing stories through their work. And you see fashion houses getting their stories told.
“But when we have our own fashion weeks, I feel like I cannot find enough content about it. People are not using illustrations,” she said.
A graduate of fashion design and marketing at the University of Machakos in Kenya, Ouma now recreates designs from brands she finds interesting.
She says she’s interested in re-enacting the work of designers who portray African print and culture in ways that non-Africans can relate to.
“Sometimes it is not the brand that has reached out to collaborate with me, sometimes I am the one who wants to tell their story,” she said.
In 2018, she recreated one of the designs from Cameroon-based fashion brand Maison D’Afie, citing the brand’s ability to connect with a much wider audience outside Africa as inspiration.
Ouma says the dress references the stylish Sawa tribe from Cameroon’s coastal region, and its green colors reflect the rainforest around the area in which the tribe lives.
“I think it is interesting the way they put it in a modern way because they are letting people see Africa in a way that it has never been seen before,” she said.
“As much as we appreciate the traditional things for Africa, we want other people to enjoy the culture with us,” she added.
Ouma, who now illustrates full time, says people sometimes underestimate the work she does.
“One of the challenges has been finding people who see the value in what you do. They think it’s the same as paying to use a picture online, they don’t understand that illustrations are custom-made for specific stories,” she said.
In the next few years, Ouma wants to be more present in Africa’s fashion industry, sketching for her favorite designers from across the continent.
“Eventually, I will get to designing clothes full time… but I want my illustrations to tell stories so I watch videos and read books about it so that I can become better,” she said.