Creative designer turns Kenyan social speak into lucrative T-shirt start-up

Peperuka founder Wangari Nyanjui at her Nairobi office last Thursday. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA
Peperuka founder Wangari Nyanjui at her Nairobi office last Thursday. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA 

Wangari Nyanjui is making money off colloquial expressions by printing and selling fridge magnets and T-shirts bearing such informal phrases such as ‘tuma na ya kutoa’ — meaning include withdrawal fees when sending mobile money.

The new range of designs dubbed “Kenyan Proverbs” celebrates the peculiar phrases that define Kenyans, says the budding entrepreneur.

Ms Nyanjui, a creative designer, says she had over a period of time noted Kenyans on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook make fun of particular expressions.

Like everyone else, she had a laugh, but immediately smelled business.

Last month, the first batch of T-shirts and fridge magnets with Kenyan sayings went on sale.


They included ‘Wacha niende nirudi’ (I’ll be back), ‘Stuck in traffic’, ‘I’m in a small meeting’, ‘Hii joto ni ya mvua’ (this heat is a precursor to rain), ‘Mine is just to say something small’, and ‘Are we together’?

“I am inspired by everyday life,” Ms Nyanjui, founder of Peperuka, told the Business Daily. “T-shirts are a great form of expression and conversation starter.”

Ms Nyanjui, 42, has also unveiled a clothing line under the ‘County Edition’ banner. Here, you will find designs such as Mombasa Raha, Kisumu Ber, Murang’a Texas, Nax Vegas, to name but a few.

Fridge magnets retail for Sh300 each while adult T-shirts cost Sh1,500 apiece. Kids wear go for Sh900 each.

The journey to set up Peperuka, which means ‘to soar’ in Swahili, started off 2006 when Ms Nyanjui returned to Kenya after staying in the US for more than a decade.

Ms Nyanjui graduated in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts — graphic design and packaging — from the ArtCenter College of Design, a private institution located in Pasadena, California.

She briefly worked for a local advertising and marketing agency before quitting to set up her own design firm christened Black Butterfly. Printing and designing T-shirts was a side hustle, she said.

Little did she know that it would soon become her mainstay. “I could not find T-shirts that I like,” she said referring to how other cities around the world have their unique T-shirt expressions such as ‘I love NY’ (New York).

Peperuka was registered in 2010 and an unlikely event the following year turned to be what would catapult the start up to fame. It was the death of Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai in September 2011.

“I posted on Facebook a design portrait of Wangari Maathai and I began getting a lot of enquiries,” she said, adding that she sold more than 100 T-shirts of the Nobel laureate.

She donate Sh50 out of every purchase of Wangari Maathai-themed products to the Green Belt Movement to plant a tree.

Peperuka groups its products into two categories: apparel and accessories. The latter group includes cushions which sell for Sh2,500 for the small ones and Sh4,000 for the large, fridge magnets, table runners, table mats, wall art, and floor rugs.

She is also designing note books, gift bags, hooks, door handles, phone and laptop stickers.

Each design is available in multiple formats hence one can acquire a complete range of Wangari Maathai in the form of T-shirts, fridge magnet, wall art.

Ms Nyanjui told Enterprise that she sells an average of 200 pieces of fridge magnets a month and about 100 T-shirts monthly, sales which tally to more than Sh200,000 every month.

“We sell double that during craft expos and pop us. Our business is mostly online,” she said. Peperuka now employs four persons, half as part-time and the other two on a fulltime basis.

Peperuka’s range of apparel are also available at KikoRomeo at Yaya Centre, Urban Africa Collective Lifestyle at The Hub Karen, and Marula Studios in the leafy suburb of Karen.

Another popular design by Peperuka is designed: ‘Me I Love Nairobi’ — a play on Kenyan speak mix-up of the two nouns ‘me’ and ‘I.’

Last year, Oscar award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o was sported donning the ‘Me I Love Nairobi’ T-shirt during a visit to Disneyland.
American R&B singer Ne-Yo also wore the ‘Me I Love Nairobi’ last August during a visit to Kenya.

Working capital

To access capital to finance growth of Peperuka, Ms Nyanjui said she had turned to Heva Fund, a facility which finances start-ups in the creative industry such as fashion, crafts, music and performance.

Ms Nyanjui has taken a Sh500,000 loan from the fund which she says will help provide working capital and purchase her own screen printing press. Heva Fund, founded in 2013, is supported by the Dutch government.

The entrepreneur has set up Peperuka Foundation, a social investing arm. She is currently training and mentoring girls at Seed of Hope in Dagoretti, Nairobi.

The girls are taught dressmaking and are taken through the rigours of entrepreneurship through coaching and mentoring. Two girls have graduated from the programme so far.

Ms Nyanjui is now eyeing the regional and diaspora market.

“There is a lot of interest from diaspora. We are exploring possibility of setting up a fulfilment centre in the US,” she said.

She also plans to begin making the T-shirts locally, as she currently orders some ready-made T-shirts from Bangladesh.

The organic cotton used in some of Peperuka’s products are sourced from Voi, Ms Nyanjui disclosed.