At Nairobi's Industrial Area, a maker of fabrics and other home furnishings is becoming the success story of a Kenyan designer taking handwoven textile to the next level.
The rhythmic sounds of weaving loom hard at Siafu Home, winding thread on spindles, and an unmistakable human presence takes you back thousands of years to a time when people made clothes themselves predominantly in hand-woven natural fibres.
As in the days of the old, this large room is filled with energetic men and women who take metres and metres of spools of differently coloured cotton yarn, and with great dexterity over pleasant chatter, weave it into beautiful fabric.
These fabrics, each with a story, are then used to create unique, soulful things that fill Kenyan homes – from throw pillows, cushions, curtains, and napkins to bed linens, bathroom rags, and apparel, and upholstery.
Siafu Home is a handloom textile manufacturer that works with weavers to create fabric from organic cotton. Their mission is to bring back and surpass the glory of the textile industry that was once upon a time a thriving industry in Kenya.
Siafu was founded by two women, Gladys Macharia and Niccola Milnes, a US-based Canadian who is living in Kenya. Ms Macharia, the co-founder of Siafu Home, describes their work as timeless, handmade magic.
Timeless because the weaving textiles stretch back eons; handmade magic because they work with people, not machines, to make items that create a sense of belonging and purpose.
“The textile industry is one of the oldest manufacturing industries of all time. They were a form of communication and expression. So fundamental were they that they were used for trade before cash came into the picture,” Ms Macharia says.
“There’s an amazing story behind every hand-loomed fabric made in Siafu Home. We’re proud to showcase Kenya’s beautiful fabrics made in Kenya, by Kenyans, to Kenyans and the rest of the world.”
The lure of creating things began early in her life which she describes as “nomadic.” She was born in Kitale but grew up in Lodwar, a place rich in culture and expression which was nothing short of elegant.
As she played in the sand with her nomadic tribe neighbours, she admired how beautifully adorned they were in their traditional regalia. “They lived in the middle of nowhere yet looked absolutely pristine. Their bodies were canvases on which they communicated who they were and what they were about,” the 36-year-old says.
“From them, I learnt how to create things without having much.” Years later, she would be walking the streets of Florence, Italy, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Fashion and Design. After graduating, she was scouted by an internationally known Italian designer Ermanno Scervino working with him for two years, managing embroidery.
She, later on, went back to school to study gemology and goldsmithing. Armed with education and enviable experience, she returned home to start a bespoke jewellery line. This work threw her deep into the world of local artisans made up of jewellers, metal, and bead artists among others.
Their interactions were further deepened while M. Macharia was consulting for Ethical Fashion as a local artisan connoisseur. Ms Macharia met Rose, a weaver, who not only taught her how to weave but also exposed her to the failing textile industry, which was going down with centuries of history, skills and livelihoods with it.
Kenya has a huge appetite for imports which undermine the local industry leading to joblessness. Together with Rose’s team, they spent hours unravelling and weaving back fabrics borrowed from friends and strangers trying to find out the weaving techniques of days past.
She also met her would-be co-founder. “Niccola’s home in the US would be a display of Kenyan goodies crafted by these artisans. Many inquiries later, we decided to team up and export these items to the US. The crafts were well received, leading to an increase in orders,” the artist recalls.
They shipped all manner of handmade crafts from here to the world. Eventually, the two women decided to settle on just one product: fabrics, under the brand name, Siafu Home. Siafu is an ode to the black ants that are always working together tirelessly to feed the great queen.
They are the ants, the great queen, and the consumer. Ms Macharia chose to work with fabrics because it’s the thread that has tied the different aspects of her life as an artist and creator together.
“It was also one of our best-selling item. Furthermore, similar to the way the nomadic tribes I’d grown up around used their bodies to express themselves, textiles are a great way to express oneself, therefore showing the world the beautiful fabrics that can be created in Kenya. Hence as an opportunity to breathe life again into the dying textile industry,” the entrepreneur says.
In October 2021, the work began bootstrapped by the two founders. Barely a year old, Siafu’s inventory and manpower have grown. From two to 14 handlooms produce about 2,000 metres of fabric a month. Their half-year turnover is in the millions, “and the best part is that we have no loans.”
From one employer they now have 23 that include veteran weavers like Peter Karanja, who has been a weaver for 32 years. A chance encounter with a weaver launched him into the craft that has laboriously supported his family. “This has been a journey in which I have known no rest because income has been little forcing me to work,” he says.
“I have found rest at Siafu. The pay is good such that I can feed my family of four and have some money left to save.” According to her, their rapid expansion has been fuelled by the local business leaders who are keen on supporting Kenyan brands that produce quality products.
Their main buyers are camps, hotels and lodges and local individuals and residents, who partner with them to produce their design of choice. The brand also exports to the US. As a designer, Ms Macharia also designs seats and couches for homes and offices.
“The pandemic showed us how cut off we can be from the world. Importers faced many challenges during Covid-19; high shipping costs, high duty fees and delays in shipping. Businesses are now seeing the wisdom in investing home.”
The demand from the hospitality industry is also driven by the fact that through the fabrics, they can tell a deeper Kenyan story. Siafu Home is also working with fashion designers to create a unique fabric that they can use to design clothes.
“Another great thing about textiles is that the product markets itself. People will see and feel the product for themselves while in people’s homes, lodges and offices and a little later, they call to place an order,” she says. Several steps are taken from thread to fabric.
Ms Macharia is the chief fabric designer. Once the design has been finalised, a technical drawing is made and shared with the weavers. Following the design, the required yarns are assembled and a test sample is done to see if the result will look good.
If okayed, the production is run and the end product is ready for sale. Textiles are produced in three different grade. Heavy duty fabrics best for upholstery and curtains, light fabric for table clothes, bad lines, napkins, and light-weight fabrics for use in apparel.
Recently, Siafu established their own dyeing space that will allow them to expand their colour options. But the business has not been all rosy as it has been hampered by a lack of raw materials due to falling local organic cotton yarn production, logistical challenges since they’re forced to import yarn from Uganda and unavailability of weavers.
However, they are keen on bringing up a new generation of weavers such as Shirlene Chelimo, a fourth-year student studying Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts.
“We did weaving as a unit in school, which I enjoyed. I’m glad to have the opportunity to grow my skills here at Siafu. I hope to make a career out of it,” Ms Chelimo says adding, “I’ve also found weaving to be very therapeutic.”
In the next five years, it’s Ms Macharia’s dream to have expanded to using electrical looms and employ more people. “There’s a huge demand for local made textiles here and abroad. We can turn from importers into exporters one piece of fabric at a time.”