Walking into the little shop on Nairobi’s busy Tom Mboya Street feels like stepping into a candy store. But only that they are not selling candy.
It is yarns of different colours, sizes, textures, and weights, made not just from sheep; some are made from plant stock, wood pulp, and others from synthetic fibres, such as nylon. It is a knitters’ playground.
The entrepreneur behind these unique yarns is Joan Aoko Bwire, a 30-year-old who is trying to reposition herself in an old trade, commonly associated with grandmothers and cat ladies.
But knitting and crocheting have made a comeback and turned into a hobby for young Kenyans seeking mental calmness in intertwining thread. And it is this crop of buyers that is boosting sales at Osona Yarn.
Ms Bwire started the business three years ago.
“As the world collapsed inward in 2020 and gatherings dwindled and commutes were eliminated, many of us found ourselves trapped inside with a lot of time on our hands. Some spent that time on baking, and animal crossing games, among others. Some got a ball of yarn,” she says.
She started a Facebook page.
“We’re like 30,000 women doing knits and crocheting. It is very therapeutic, it engages your mind, and eases depressive moods. I also started teaching people how to crochet on my YouTube channel and got a lot of clients,” she says.
Then she opened an online shop.
“We started selling different types of yarns. I source some yarns from the local market, but the local market manufactures acrylic yarn alone which limits buyers to a specific kind. That’s why I import some from China, Turkey, the US, and the UK,” she says.
Ms Bwire says the yarn market is really good, despite competition from shops located in the city’s downtown streets.
As demand for her yarn grew, she decided to open a physical store to reach more buyers.
“I moved my business to a physical shop on February 2021. I wanted customers to come and experience the goodness of yarn, see and touch the colourful yarns, and so far so good, the sales have gone up,” she says.
Ms Bwire’s love for yarn started at an early age. At 9, she learned the art of intertwining wool to make something slightly meaningful, a craft that she learned from her mother.
While toying with career aspirations after completing her International Relations and Diplomacy course, she “felt empty and the only thing she knew will feed her soul and that she was so good at was hand artistry.”
“I picked the art of crocheting from my late mum. I remember I would watch her sew and knit, it became a hobby which later I decided to monetise. I have always been passionate about entrepreneurship. When I was 10 years old, I used to plait hair and get paid for it. Entrepreneurship never left me even when I grew up that’s why I decided to fully venture into it and create jobs for other people,” she says.
She gave up the security and benefits of a corporate job and entered a risky world, but one that had enormous appeal.
Just like many entrepreneurs, she craved autonomy, responsibility for her success, and most importantly, to earn from what she loved most.
“I graduated in 2015, I worked a little bit in the corporate world. Two years down the line, I decided to turn my hobby into a business,” she adds.
She says that knitting, a 1980s pastime, is making a comeback.
“At the moment, everyone is so excited to do it because they can get something out of it. And many parents are encouraging it and also the CBC [competency-based curriculum] has helped a lot. When you look at fashion trends, there is a recycling of the bygone era. The current generation has enhanced it and with technology, there is so much one can do from different designs,” Ms Bwire says.
As the business grows, so is the diversity of customers. When she started the business, she only had female customers.
“We are seeing men are also starting to buy yarns, 90 percent of my clients are female while the 10 percent are male, something that we have not seen in years,” she says, adding that she plans to launch a men’s yarn range.
Like any other business, she says Osona Yarn has faced some challenges.
“There is high taxation, and because I import most of my products, I have to grapple with import delays, and as much as there is a growth in the market some people are still sceptical of knitted designs,” she said.
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Does she see carrying on the business for years to come?
“Crocheting is a skill I return to throughout my life. I pick up yarn and a needle now and then, even when I'm anxious to calm down my mind. I made my wedding dress out of yarns, and I intend to pass down this skill to my generation,” she says.