At one point, knitted clothes had exited the market and were regarded as old fashioned. But their return to catwalks around the world have opened up a world of business opportunities and so has the growing trend towards natural fibres.
That is how Ms Froydis Archer spotted the opportunity to start producing stylish knitwear for the Kenyan market.
Ms Archer had been running aid projects in Africa for years but in 2006, she established Mikono Knits as a way to use her creative skills and keen interest in fashion as well as a mean of creating sustainable employment for unskilled women.
“Knitting came to me as lightning from clear sky one day when I heard that knitting was a traditional skill in Kenya. I was a keen knitter myself when I was younger, and I knew immediately that this was something I could do,” she says.
Knitwear from Mikono Knits is stylish, bright and has the intricate textures that make its pieces look as if they have been crafted from some luxurious and fancy yarn — rather than the 100 per cent natural handspun local wool and cotton.
As the name suggests, Mikono Knits started with only hand knitting. Starting off small and with a few women, Ms Archer started adding touch of elegance to the knitting.
“Knitwear is not only about wrapping up warm in bulky woollen jumpers. Knits can also be fine and light, such as knitted dresses with crochet details or lacy, sexy tops perfect for an evening out,” she says.
The first business challenge was where to find natural yarn in a marketplace were only acrylic was readily available. Using acrylic was not an option and importing fibre would not suit the mission for her new venture. Back home in Norway, there was a huge variety of yarn available from wool, cotton, silk and mixed qualities.
Although she manages to get good quality cotton and handspun wool, this is still a constraint.
Two years after she opened shop, the company received its first important donation: two second-hand knitting machines.
“This enabled us to make much finer products using thin cotton thread. Today we use both machines, hand knitting, and also crochet. However each product is ‘handcrafted’ by one knitter only, and therefore each product is unique,” she says.
This year, Mikono Knits received another 10 manual knitting machines, which increased their productivity.
Ms Archer has been producing for brand labels, the biggest client being Edun, an ethical fashion brand that encourages working with African-based producers. It was started by Alison Hewson and her husband, U2 singer Bono.
Ms Archer is motivated by the fact that she is providing sustainable income to her employees.
“It also helps to pay the knitters a fair wage, as they know it is a high value product, and they feel pride in their work. Each product is labelled with a photo of the knitter who handcrafted the product,” says Ms Archer.
In addition, Mikono Knits also aims to provide a decent and safe working environment and flexible work hours.
For the last one year, Mikono Knits has been working from Marula Studios in Karen. The workshop usually has six women and when the orders are big there can be up to 20 knitters. Those that do hand knitting and crocheting can work from home, if they wish.
Ms Archer started the business to benefit unskilled women and to stay in business, she has to remind herself of this fact.
“Cash flow is a day-to-day challenge. Mikono Knits is only financed from profit from sales, and when we are short, I have to chip in with personal funds. This is how it is to be an entrepreneur. At the moment I have another day job at a foreign mission, to keep regular cash coming in,” she says.
To make Mikono Knits designs appealing, Ms Archer works with professional designers such as Nicolette Zwartkruis (based in Netherlands).
She explains that this gives her an edge in the export market.
“I see myself as more of an entrepreneur than a designer. Although I love fashion, my strength is to see opportunities, set things in motion and keep the overall strategy,” Ms Archer says.
Mikono Knits does two collections a year; warm woollen ponchos and cardigans for the autumn/winter collection and thinner cotton tops and dresses for spring/summer.
On export, it has not been easy competing with Asia, which has higher productivity and lower salaries.
Luckily, anything African is popular at the moment; so many customers are willing to pay a bit extra for the ‘handmade in Africa’ label.
The beads embellishments and leather dealings in some of the Mikono Knits products gives them an extra appeal.
For the local market, the products can be found at the Marula Studios in Karen, where customers are also allowed to see the work at the workshop. Selected items are also available at The Sustainable Shop at Galleria Shopping Mall in Langata, Nairobi.
The company also exhibits at various Nairobi Craft fairs such as Xmas Box, Soko Soko and Bargain Box.