Agent of change: the big returns to find gold in leather products

Early afternoon in one of Nairobi’s most popular malls, I’m lost. I arrived for an interview but I don’t know where to find the woman I owe an interview to.

I approach a woman in a floral green short-sleeved kitenge dress and begin to engage her. Habari yako (how are you)? ” I say. Nzuri sana, asante (I’m fine, thank you),” she responds quickly, then asks if I’m the author of the bird stories agency.

“I’m Chebet Mutai,” she said, extending her hand to greet me. Mutai, 38, is a former World Bank economic consultant turned fashionista, entrepreneur and founder of WazaWazi – two Kiswahili words that have been combined to mean “to be open-minded”.

Mutai leads me to his WazaWazi shop on the ground floor of the arcade. The store is adjacent to a busy cafe – well located to attract regular foot traffic. It’s dazzling; leather products of all kinds and colors are exhibited; what stands out are the bags of different models, sizes, colors and brands.

I am introduced to the ‘Kittony Bag’, named after veteran politician Zipporah Kittony, the ‘Makosewe Bag’, named after late media personality Grace Makosewe, the ‘Luoch Bag’ dedicated to Kenyan stylist Connie Aluoch and the “Wangari Ladies Work Tote in honor of the late Nobel Laureate and environmentalist, Wangari Maathai.

The owner, who looks much younger than 38, is the founder and managing director of WazaWazi Fashion, a value-added leather processing company and sister company, WazaWazi Safari Travel, a company that touts local tourism. “for those with an adventurous spirit”. and love for Africa’s heritage.

Leather backpacks, handbags, clutches, leather laptop cases, beaded bags on display. PHOTO/net

Mutai grew up in Nakuru, central Kenya, where her parents worked in the civil service. After studying Economics and French at Kenyatta University, she was lucky enough to land a top job at the World Bank.

Flying around Africa as a development consultant, however, Chebet realized that many of the issues plaguing the continent were the same no matter what country she was in.

Expensive trips, no transformation

According to Mutai, when she did the math, she realized that even her flights, which were intended to help Africa’s development, were unnecessarily expensive and not transforming lives.

“Work-related flights would cost around $5,000, including logistics and administrative costs; the figure would almost double; it just didn’t make sense,” Chebet said.

“The cost of logistics and administration was higher than the impact of what we were doing as development workers,” she adds.

Sitting to discuss her decision to become her own boss, she recalled the bold decision to quit a well-paying job and venture into leather goods – a sector that had been devastated across Africa, after China suffered “opening up to the world” in the 1980s and began to flood African markets with finished products. This story, however, was not going to stop him. In 2013, after selling his personal car, Mutai invested his savings in starting his new business. “I had just over $4,300 and had a partner who bought the machinery – and that’s how I started,” Mutai says.

“During the first three months of manufacturing, life was tough. Even my friends didn’t ask me what I was doing, and that’s where I learned that the life of an entrepreneur is lonely,” she added.

Ironically, she says travel catalyzed her transformation into entrepreneurship. Mutai decided to start a business that would allow her to create jobs to fight the scourge of unemployment, which she saw as a significant challenge on the continent. A secondary commotion had given him a glimpse of what would be needed.

Africans can make a difference

“As I loved clothes and fashion, I imported the items, the bags, from Dubai, I thought, ‘let me start a fashion business and create jobs, and that’s why I started this business,” Mutai explained.

On her social media page, she says, “I believe that change in Africa must be driven by job creation by progressive Africans on the ground with a passion for the development of the African continent – Africans who are crazy enough to think that they can change. things.”

Mutai explained that his secret to success was quality – “quality, quality and quality!” “Quality is a way of life. It’s not something you do in the end. It’s something you do every step of the way,” she said.

According to Isaac Noor, Managing Director of the Kenya Leather Development Council (KLDC), a state-owned company established to strengthen the local leather industry, Kenya exports 90% of its leather in raw (semi-processed wet blue) form. On the other hand, only 10% is exported in the form of finished products.

Currently, the global leather industry is estimated at US$150 billion, with Africa accounting for only 4%. Kenya controls less than one percent of this market, with sales of around $181,700,000.

Mutai felt that it could help rebalance the disproportionate amount of raw product sales, by bringing quality finished products to the local market. The company uses social media, but word of mouth, Mutai said, brings in the most sales.

Adding value and changing mindset

The company sources its leather exclusively from one of 16 tanneries in Kenya, which is home to the third largest herd in Africa. While the leather sector in Kenya contributes around 0.3% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it is widely recognized that it could contribute much more – if the value could be added locally.

However, it also requires a change of mentality among local buyers. A loyal WazaWazi customer is Mada Group of Hotels owner Sukhdev Kavr Mahajan, 80.

“I started doing business in Kenya in 1972,” Mahajan said at his boutique office, also based with WaziWazi, in Valley Arcade.

“WazaWazi’s products are exceptionally made. And the leather is authentic and natural, ”she added, in support of her neighbor.

As Mutai insisted that we visit the company’s factory at the capital’s Jamhuri Showground, the company’s delivery cyclists were called in to provide transport, cutting the journey time by well over an hour. just over 15 minutes. The factory is a world of leather backpacks, purses, clutches, leather laptop and tablet cases, beaded leather belts and jackets. Mutai employs 16 people in its factory. “I have made a conscious decision that as Africans, we need to stop theorizing about the change needed, because obvious poverty is pervasive. As individuals, we need to step in to alleviate the depressing situation. Because only then can we lift more people out of poverty as a continent,” she said.

Evelyn Ndelio, 50, is one of his employees and tells how Chebet has not only transformed her life, but also that of many other members of her Maasai community. The Maasai are herders and a vital source of hides and skins for WazaWazi operations.

Maasai women are known for their artistry in beadwork – and Ndelio is one of those who do beadwork on bags and other products.

“Chebet sent emissaries to our village in our ancestral county of Kajiado, looking for women who knew beadwork. And 10 of us volunteered to come to Nairobi to work for her,” Ndelio explained, wearing a colorful traditional Maasai dress.

“Since then, our lives have greatly improved, as we receive a reasonable monthly salary, a rare occurrence in the past,” she added.

Chebet admits that the business environment is getting tougher every day due to resource constraints, cost of doing business and unfair competition from cheap imports.

“When I started the business, the local banking ecosystem was reluctant to lend money to budding entrepreneurs with solid business ideas, but lacked tangible assets to serve as collateral,” Chebet said.

However, it has managed to build a discerning global customer base, which maintains its operations even when the going gets tough. And despite the speed bumps, Mutai’s attention is firmly fixed on the road ahead.

For her, just having the opportunity to provide training to young Africans and show them opportunities is more than enough to justify the entrepreneurial path she has taken. “Your goal is your endgame. It’s your legacy. So if you start working on your goal, you’re building your legacy every day. Ease is a bigger threat to your progress than difficulty, so keep going. Keep working until you win,” she said conclusively.

Source: Bird Stories Agency


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Rozella J. Cook