Fady Rostom: Clothing brand owner who owns and wears only one T-shirt

ARK Africa chief executive Fady Rostom during the interview at his office in Nairobi on June 5, 2024.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

Fady Rostom won’t reveal himself easily. He hides behind a curtain of withering self-deprecation and truly atrocious dad jokes. His tongue remains in cheek, wearing his witticism on his sleeves. He won’t let you in until he is sure you understand what being in entails.

Inside his world is a world of art where the analytical left brain and the creative right brain are combined to build powerful brands. Twenty years ago, he and his partners co-founded ARK Africa, a design, strategy, and innovation company.

Around the same time, he started Bonk, an apparel, accessories, and stationery brand that you might know for its quality t-shirts. It started on the back of youth and rebellion, to show big brands that young local entrepreneurs can also make great quality products. “And anyway,” he adds, “every designer, at some point in their lives, seeks to make a t-shirt.”

The brand has endured, or as Faddy puts it modestly, it “washes its own face.”

He’s a juggler of rubber and porcelain balls. Some fall. Some can’t be allowed to fall. “The rest can fall and bounce back,” he says. “But the fatherhood ball can’t fall.”

When did you realise you had this great blessing to create, that you were doing things differently with your imagination?

I always liked art as a child. My mom was an architect even though she didn’t practise architecture. But you could always see how she employed design and art around the house. She had the art for it. It was always very methodical.

She’s an inventor and she was always solving domestic problems by drawing the solutions first: how do you solve the problem of a banging door by using design? How can a cheese strainer be improved to be more efficient? Little hacks like that. I watched her doing all this and was influenced by the ingenuity of it all. I was mostly attracted to architecture even though I eventually studied civil engineering at the University of Nairobi.

And your dad?

My mzee was a professor in engineering, so he is super analytical. Engineering is very systematic in terms of how you solve problems. To be creative you have to be curious, and see normal things differently. You have to almost be okay with geeking out and following your intuition, questioning things, and being observant because those are the ingredients for creativity.

Were you an odd child?

Nothing has changed. [Chuckle] I don't think I was noticeably odd. We - my older brother and I - didn’t grow up in a household you'd imagine we did; creative and full of artistic expressions. Our home was very quiet and very strict. With mzee being an academician, academics, order, and discipline took precedence. Our time was structured and accounted for to the last minute; time to study for 55 minutes and then a five-minute break. This task is for an hour, 30 minutes break. It was military. We only realised there was a flaw in this system when mzee told us that God gave us holidays so we could study. [Chuckles] That’s when we said, ' Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right'. [Laughter] But yes, we studied hard and art was just the most fun subject for me. When I was 17, my dad loaned me money to go to New York for three months. There I lived in hostels, did odd jobs, and made enough money to come back with a bicycle, a computer that I would use to start design, and enough money to pay him back. Thankfully he refunded me half the money. That trip taught me independence and how to create my path.

You are Egyptian by descent, how did your parents end up here?

I think by plane. [Grin] Anyway, so Dad came to set up the surveying and photogrammetry department at the University of Nairobi in the early 70s. It was a short two-year contract and he ended up renewing it 20 times. At some point, he went back to meet my mom and bring her back, probably in the same aircraft.

Are you curious about Egypt?

You know, they call us the Third Culture kids because even though you identify the place you have grown up as home, you still stand out as being from somewhere else. When I go to Egypt I can relate with a few things but I always feel more like a foreigner there despite being able to blend in. I have relatives back there.

What do you think is very Egyptian about you?

I like bread. Bread is a staple in Egypt. I love bread. Carbs are fun, they are delicious. So, the word for bread in Egyptian is aish baladi, which coincidentally or not, is also the meaning for “life.” So yes, bread is serious stuff.

ARK Africa chief executive Fady Rostom during the interview at his office in Nairobi on June 5, 2024.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

What is the one thing you are really good at…apart from your unique dad jokes, of course.

I enjoy figuring stuff out. I like understanding the root causes of things and making sense of complexities. This is what we have found ourselves doing for the better part of the last two decades at Ark Africa; taking in a lot of information or challenges, finding the patterns and creating clarity. You could say my strength is strategy. And strategy is either problem-driven or inventive, a gut feeling, an impulse. Imagine the people at Apple who said, ‘Typing on these Blackberrys is problematic, let’s have a touch screen.’ Someone must have said, 'Touchscreen? Never going to work.' Now imagine another room where someone asked, ' How can we have a faster horse?' And someone - Henry Ford - must have said, ' Why a horse, can’t we build a car?' Someone in the room: 'A what?' So, one of these examples is solving a problem and the other is inventive.

Did naming this company ARK have anything to do with Noah from the Old Testament?

Despite our youthful looks, we wear old hats because we started this company 19 years ago. In 2006 I was building websites and software for the Radio Africa Group where I met Mwangi Kirubi, one of my co-founders. We got wind that Equity Bank had just changed from a building society to a bank and wanted to grow into other regions in Kenya. They were not seen as a posh bank and so the fancy agencies weren’t too keen to work with them.

They wanted a campaign, a documentary. We teamed up with another guy called Angelo Kinyua (no longer with the company) and did the job. Our company name came from our names, Angelo, Rostom, Kirubi. We started doing advertising for two years before we moved on to this deeper world of design and strategy. We now sit in a unique space, bang in the middle of management consulting and ad agencies. This space is called strategy and innovation.

Why did you start Bonk?

I needed a hobby. The hobby became a business. It was also founded on the premise of youth, a rebellious product to show the big brands that I didn’t have to have big muscles to make high-quality merchandise. Also, every designer at some point in their lives wants to make a t-shirt. It's done well, surprisingly. It’s still here, and it washes its own face. It keeps us in touch with pop culture, what’s cool. It also helps us experiment with product design.

Each time I have met you, you have been in a blue T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. It’s either that’s all you wear or you own just that one T-shirt and those jeans.

[Laughs] I don’t have any other clothes, Biko, it's just these. So, my son's classmate who's six years old also noticed the same thing. He was like, ‘Why are you always in that t-shirt?' [Chuckles] The beauty of wearing the same colours every day is that my mornings are not marked by me asking myself that one question; what should I wear? As my wife says, I'm the most complicated, simple man she knows. The downside is that nosy journalists always ask if I have other clothes.

How has fatherhood shifted your life?

Its greatest effect has been on my girth and hairline. Our son is six, our daughter is three and a half. Fatherhood is delightful, fantastic, and exhausting. These little humans who are full of energy and mischief and who you would do anything for. You see them grow and you see yourselves in them. It's very fulfilling. They have taught me patience and moderation. I spent a lot of time cycling before my children came but once we got our first born, I stopped.

From the start, we made a very intentional decision to be present for our children; so no live-in nanny. We wash and cook for them. Yes, we love hardship, it's a small price to pay for the reward, which is being present to watch them grow. When they grow up I will get back on the bike. I see life as juggling many balls, some that can fall and bounce back others that can’t. Raising children is a ball you don’t want falling because they won’t bounce back. Everything else can.

Did you have to get on an aircraft to Egypt to get a wife like your mzee?

[Laughs] No, she's from here.

What is your most noticeable eccentrism?

I might have OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] only that I prefer to call it OCE: the E is enjoyment. I like precision. If something is marginally off at work, or anywhere, I will notice it and I enjoy correcting it.

I like improving things and it’s not limited to the aesthetic or the optical alignment, I mean everything! As a society, we have fallen into this trap of celebrating mediocrity. We get potholes, someone comes with stones and crashes them in there, and the road is fixed. We are happy. That road won't last two weeks. We have to be tough on ourselves and be more demanding. Comfort zones are dangerous.

Our society can’t evolve when we refuse to want better for ourselves. Take something as how we behave in public queues, skipping a queue reflects how we deal with and think of each other. Overlapping on roads at the expense of other patient road users is a sign of a lack of integrity. And if you are that kind of person who lacks integrity on the roads there is little chance you will be a different person at work or home.

What are you currently improving in your life at 42?

Sleep. We're just out of the phase where the children wake up a few times a night. So sleep is gold. I got a new pillow, that’s how serious this is, Biko. I’m also trying to get a new balance at work. We are almost 20 years old, we do both the structured analytical side but we also have the creative side and so we're finding good harmony in what we call creative strategy. I'm also trying to improve my role here, which is working less in the business and more on the business.

What‘s the one thing you'd change in life now?

Seeing how you reacted to my wardrobe? Maybe have some more colour in my wardrobe.

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