How shopping gone sour gave birth to thriving Nairobi furniture firm

Dignity Furniture CEO Rajesh Harji Arjan Kerai during the interview at his office in Nairobi on November 29, 2022. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

For Rajesh Kerai, furniture has always been a central part of comfortable living — at home and workplace.

But as the Dignity Furniture CEO sourced furniture for his office and home about six years ago, he discovered that what he was looking for was either not readily available or was too expensive for his liking. That triggered an idea.

And that idea became a reality when he opened Dignity Furniture to supply homes and offices with imported furniture at affordable prices.

The start-up established relations with suppliers in China developed a business plan and embarked on sourcing for capital.

Together with his business partner, they borrowed loans from friends and added their savings to raise Sh3 million — the initial capital they required to set up their first showroom in Lang’ata, Nairobi.

Dignity Furniture store in Nairobi. The furniture enterprise was founded by Rajesh Kerai. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

That first shop—2000 square feet in size — was a holding area for customers that wanted to view the furniture in stock. Their main target was supplying supermarkets that would pay after 90 days, a conversion period that did not work well for the startup.

“We didn’t have the money to start in the beginning, we asked friends and family for loans and added whatever we had saved from our salaries and opened our first shop in Lang’ata. We were able to convert the inventory in a week selling to offices and corporates as we had a waiting market. This earned us trust from our suppliers overseas,” says Mr Rajesh.

That way, they stayed in business even with delayed payments from the supermarkets they had supplied to.

Sometimes they received stocks before paying for them because of the cordial ties they enjoy with their suppliers. This helped them increase their imports and clients.

Like many startups, they began without a proper organisational structure. They went in like your next-door tuck-shop operators and found themselves doing everything, from receiving goods at the warehouse to marketing to accounting and recruitment, name it.

Their team of four would soon be overwhelmed and had to lay down structures to ease the running of their business.

“We discovered as soon as we had started that we were overworking and the long-term effect of that would affect our business.

“The other thing we found out was that we needed a leader for the business, someone who had hands on the management side of the business. Managing staff, especially, was a critical thing. I became the person to do that,” says Mr Rajesh.

Making business decisions like the amount of inventory to import was another challenge they encountered.

“You can’t predict how fast stocks will move. At times you will stay with a piece of furniture for weeks other times you sell faster than you had anticipated.”

To deal with this, Mr Rajesh and the team settled on importing in bulk.

“We receive large quantities of stocks per consignment and store them in our warehouse. This helps, especially when there is a delay in the procurement process either in part or whole. Importing in bulk also saves freight costs and might attract discounts. To be able to sell at the prices we sell, we must buy in bulk to allow us to negotiate for better prices. We learned the hard way during the pandemic. We had placed a large order when China closed its borders. For weeks, we were sustained by the remaining stock we had in our warehouse.

“We are also alive of the fact that disasters can occur, natural or otherwise, for example, recently one of our main supplier’s factories in China, burned down if we had no backup in our stores we would have been out of business as we looked for another supplier.

From the initial team of four, they now have 60 employees. They have three showrooms in the city — Lang’ata, Thika Road and Mlolongo.

Their newest addition is set to be opened today, on Ojijo Road in Parklands, Nairobi.

They now also stock locally made furniture.

“We partner with local carpenters for wood and MDF furniture like dining sets, coffee tables, beds etc. Our biggest challenge, however, with this is the turnaround time.

“One dining set can take up to two weeks to make. A similar set would only take two to three days elsewhere. Wood is also very expensive and as such, the final product becomes expensive. Remember our target market remains — affordable furniture,” he says.

Having been in business this far, what makes Mr Rajesh proud when he looks at his business?

“I am proud of walking into offices, and I can point at things we have supplied,” he says.

As CEO, he contends with the fact that time is a precious resource. And he barely affords to waste it. His life runs on clocks. Any slight wastage of time ruins an entire day.

“I get to work at 7 am daily. With Nairobi traffic, that means I must leave the house an hour before that. I sign in like everyone else. With this, I create a culture of time consciousness in the workplace. This also allows me to create time for my family. I used to miss a lot of family functions because I was always working. Now I balance my time well,” says the entrepreneur.

The lesson he has learned.

“Always take all the opportunities you chance upon. You never know what will push you to the next level. Be available and ready to grab and run with all the chances you meet.”

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