Two years ago, Lily Nyariki was looking forward to retirement as the last chapter in her career as a librarian drew close.
Then one day while out on a walk in Eldoret town, she made a discovery that would open the next chapter of her entrepreneurial life.
She noticed that few bookshops stocked non-school books. This was baffling, especially for a town that hosts several higher learning institutions and she instantly knew she had spotted a market gap she was well-skilled to fill.
“I looked around the Eldoret market and realised that there was no bookshop that served outside the school market. Most of them were primary and high school books and I decided that I would set up this shop,” says the 67-year-old.
When she retired from her job at Moi University at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, she founded the Afri-reads, a general bookshop that deals with a wide range of books that include children's, motivational and set books.
To get the business on its feet, she used a Sh2 million seed capital. She used the money to source second-hand books from Nairobi and from the international market.
“I am lucky because the bulk of books I started with were on the ‘sell on return’ model. Our international business partner allowed us to sell on a return basis, save for the second-hand books I bought from Nairobi,” recounts Ms Nyariki.
Sell on return business model is an arrangement by which a retailer pays only for goods sold, returning those that are unsold to the wholesaler or manufacturer.
Ms Nyariki says that the initial reception was good and it showed in the sales.
People were really amazed. More often, they walked in and would tell me 'We never knew such a shop exists here in Eldoret',” she says.
Today, at any given time, there are 4,000 book titles in stock. Recently, she also diversified her product portfolio into African items such as kitenge, African dresses, Ankara, and kiondo.
“Books are also given as gifts. They are about our arts and culture, that is why it is good to mix books with our African artefacts,” she says, adding that most of the clientele is walk-ins while others prefer placing bulk orders.
Some of her clients come from as far as Kisumu, Bungoma, Nakuru, and Kitale. Occasionally, she receives inquiries from clients from Nairobi and even outside the country.
While most entrepreneurs falter when they venture into new industries, this has not been the case with Ms Nyariki who has leaned on her experience as a bookshop manager at the Moi University in Eldoret to navigate the book industry.
Most of the books in her collection come from the UK, India, and South Africa.
Like any other business, some of the challenges she has had to grapple with include an influx of pirated or counterfeited books, prohibitive licence fees, high shipping or courier costs and rent that eat into her profit margins.
“The books can be affordable in these [source] countries but transportation is expensive. For instance, the books may cost Sh50,000 but you pay a similar amount to transport them. This translates to the higher final cost,” says Ms Nyariki, who has employed three workers.
She also laments that there is a lack of a national book-reading policy to nurture a reading culture in Kenya. Recently, she helped to develop a book policy document for the Malawian government and hopes that Kenya will follow in its footsteps.
“A few people appreciate books as repositories of our knowledge and our culture. However, this is gradually changing. Recently, an elderly client bought books for his grandchildren worth Sh50,000,” she notes.
So what lessons has she learned from her business?
“It pays to follow through with your idea. If you have a vision, go ahead with it and work hard and sooner or later you will start seeing fruits. I remember most people were wondering if I would make it during the Covid-19 era, but things are looking up,” she says.
Besides that, she says, it is also important to find solutions to challenges.
“What I have learned from my mentor Tony Elumelu is about hard work. There is no other way to succeed other than to work hard. You really have to work towards getting solutions all the time," she says.