Chebet Mutai was increasingly feeling unhappy with her job as an economist in a bank. While attending a women’s entrepreneur conference, she got the confidence to pursue her dream of opening a fashion house; Wazawazi.
In February, instead of going on a holiday, she took the opportunity to attend a Google event, Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship conference to change her life.
Out of the 50 women entrepreneurs, she was one of three who did not have a registered business. Her invite was on the premise of her running a side job of importing handbags, a business that had stalled.
“At the event one of the speakers asked ‘what is your passion?’ And most of women raised their hands because they knew where they wanted to be,” she says.
When she went back home, she was stressed because she had to ask herself how she could turn her passion for clothes into a viable business.
Starting a fashion business in the current environment was not going to be easy. Competition was fierce and her idea for using kitenge had to be different as it is a popular designer’s fabric.
She wanted her business to make a positive social impact and build a profitable venture.
“I met a lady at the conference who asked me what I was passionate about? I said ‘clothes which are kitenge-inspired but everyone is doing it’. She said to me to just do it, for there is enough market for everyone,’’ she says.
Wazawazi (a combination of two Swahili words to mean open mindedness) began officially in May 2012, after three months of contextualising, researching and talking to people.
She knew that it would give her a flexible time to be a mother. The business would also give her chance to have project that provides fair wage. She used her savings to buy the equipment and rent a space for the workshop.
At the workshop along Ngong Road, they are three full time and two part-time employees to fill the growing number of orders. “I recently hired a fashion designer. The company has reached a point where I can’t do everything by myself,” says Ms Mutai.
Wazawazi designs are usually geared to the tastes and preferences of the current marketplace. They can either be a full kitenge blazer or dress or just few details or kitenge lining.
This goes too for the canvas bags with the kitenge details which are also a big seller; they can be found at the gift shop at Sankara Hotel, Westlands. To see more of the designs, the Facebook page ‘Wazawazi’ or website ‘wazawazi.co.ke.’
She has since joined Kenya Federation for Alternative Trade (KFAT), the Kenyan chapter of the Fairtrade, as she knows the whole world is sensitive to fair business practices like environmental conservation and fair wages.
Wazawazi was not her first business. A few years prior to it she had been importing handbags from Dubai, but stopped in 2011 when the dollar exchange rate rose to an all time high of Sh120.
Another problem was that it was not big enough to rake in the desired profits. She would bring in 200 twice a year when ideally it should have been every two months.
“I was selling to the same people. I could predict who would buy the bags and you need to have new stock to have them interested in buying,” she says.
Ms Mutai learnt one lesson in running the business when it comes to sourcing for raw materials she has to do it herself. She had a friend doing it and it was not working well.
When her contract at the bank ended in June, she dedicated all her time and energy into building the business. Although her savings greatly assisted with the start of the business, she still needed to make it over that growth curve for some profit.
“My savings just finished overnight and the company is not yet making money, that thing they say business fail after the first year is true. So am selling my car to give my business the capital it needs,” she says.
So far her focus has been her immediate contacts, but with her participation in the Kitenge Festival (in October) her business opened to a new circle of people.
“Stepping out [Kitenge Festival] was a good move because it is the target market I wanted,” she says.
Her target is the middle and upper class as she says she is investing in her good skill sets and it does not come cheap.
Wazawazi offers quality and good customer service. “Wazawazi prides in producing well-cut comfortable clothes. People think kitenge cannot be sewn well but we can do good symmetrical lines that is why I hired a pattern cutter,” says Ms Mutai.
The idea to later export blazers and chiffon free-size tops both with Kitenge details. Ms Mutai says that it would mean hiring more people which is a good thing as it will create the positive social impact that is one of the cores of the fashion house.