From home-based outdoors furniture maker to exporterThursday September 15 2022
The clangour of steel and aluminium being shaped into furniture fill the air. Over five fabricators are at work at Core Industries located in Nairobi’s Syokimau.
Metres of differently coloured high-density polyethylene strips are meticulously woven in what would result in outdoor furniture pieces used in verandas, balconies, or backyards.
“We currently make at least 30 furniture pieces per day,” says Maina Kirubi, the director and founder of Core Industries.
Mr Kirubi has been in the outdoor furniture manufacturing business for six years now. The business was not his first call. It found him, he says.
When he went to China to pursue a Master of Arts degree in Development Finance, he came back with more than a certificate. He had learned Chinese and was privy to China’s massive cottage industry, gaining valuable exposure, and knowledge that would help him start and grow his business.
It was these skills that would become the building blocks of his entrepreneurial journey.
“I’d always been interested in Asia for long hence opted to study there as people scrambled for spots in Europe. After I came back, my uncle decided to venture into the hospitality industry. Over a chat, he asked me to help him import furniture from China,” Mr Kirubi says.
Already endowed with the know-how, he embarked on the mission only to find that importing would be extremely expensive. Instead of allowing that to discourage him, he quickly saw an opportunity.
“I compared the cost of importing the furniture versus the raw materials and discovered that it would be cheaper to manufacture locally,” the entrepreneur recalls.
Starting in his backyard with his uncle’s order, Core Industries currently manufactures tables, swings, seats, day beds, parasols, and even flower pots.
Their main clients are institutions like hotels and offices, individuals, and furniture resellers locally. The company also exports to Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and soon Malawi. To complete the outdoor look, he also sells waterproof turf grass.
In its birth stages, he faced many challenges, including getting Kenyans to buy locally-made products.
“This was because of the belief that imported products are better quality as opposed to those made in Kenya,” he says.
To work around this, they went on an aggressive marketing campaign, which included lowering prices to woo customers.
There was also a lack of skilled labour as well as access to finance to run the business which is capital intensive as it requires machinery and raw materials.
“Our investment here is in the millions of shillings, we got the money from credit facilities in Kenya. Most of it was used to buy the machinery,” he says.
All Core Industries products begin their life as dull-looking metal bars – steel or aluminium.
“Aluminium is lightweight and excellent for making furniture for use in humid areas like the Coast region because corrosion is minimal compared to steel,” he says.
Together with his team which consists of 20 weavers and five fabricators, they come up with a design.
“Designs can be created by me, the client, or in partnership with the client,” he says, adding that one can be as creative as possible. So far, they’ve made furniture that resembles gourds, cups, and flowers among others.
The bars are then cut and bent into the specified design, then coated with paint to prevent rusting. Upon drying, weavers work their magic, tempered glass is affixed, if it is a table, and the waterproof product is ready for sale.
Most of the raw materials are imported from China where the furniture manufacturer entered into a supply agreement. Knowing the Chinese language, he says, has also put him ahead in business.
However, steel and aluminium are supplied by local traders.
The outdoor furniture market size has grown over the years, thanks to changing needs and lifestyles of homeowners and diners. Outdoor dining and entertainment became a big thing, especially after the pandemic. Hotels and Kenyans working from home opted to dine and work at their patios and backyards, fuelling the demand for waterproof furniture.
Does he struggle to get a market?
“Offering a two-year warranty has gone a long way in boosting customer confidence,” he says.
His entrepreneurship journey has, however, not been all rosy. “Finding weavers remains an impediment,” he says.
“This work requires patience and dexterity, skills and attitudes that are hard to find. Therefore, we invest a lot of our resources in training weavers to ensure the delivery of a good, quality product. We've also experienced poaching of already trained staff,” he adds.
Another challenge is the high cost of doing business.
“We pay a very high tax for importing raw materials yet they can’t be easily found here,” he says. “A small thing like the day bed springs can hold your product at ransom because its shipment has been delayed.”
These notwithstanding, he hopes to expand the business since it has already outgrown its current space.
“We’re also looking to manufacture some of the imported items that we require regularly. This way, we can create more employment opportunities,” he says.
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