How furniture man carves niche after touring China

Velmac Furniture's director Joseph Irungu during the interview. PHOTO | GITONGA MARETE | NMG
Velmac Furniture's director Joseph Irungu during the interview. PHOTO | GITONGA MARETE | NMG  

The Velmac Furniture showroom near Nyali Bridge features a variety of exquisite furniture.

Known for hardwood products but hidden somewhere in the sprawling Kisauni estate, it is not easy to tell that they are locally made.

Hard at work, specialists are busy with their tools designing and carving, turning the workshop into a beehive of activity.

As machines roar, and saws run against wood grains in the search for perfect cuts, the rest are busy with pencils sketching the next sofas.

A seven-seater sofa, for example, goes for about Sh150,000, revealing it targets high net worth individuals for clients.

“The challenge we have in the country is that the quality of furniture we produce is high yet people want to import products that don’t meet the standards,” says Joseph Irungu, owner of Velmac Furniture Limited.

But he is getting around this disdvantage through insisting on “exotic and unique designs.”

It has branches in Nairobi along Mombasa road.

Starting in 2006, he has since changed his view of the sector after visiting China in 2014 and witnessed how an entire city’s economy depended on making furniture.

“I realised that we can achieve a lot manufacturing furniture and this really inspired me. I thought, ‘Look, this is a serious business and if given proper attention we can move things’. That was when I decided I was going to invest all my resources in making of quality furniture,” he says.

Like other manufacturers, the high cost of electricity features as a threat to the business although the proprietor is finding alternatives in use of high pressure machines like a compressor to drill, run screw drivers, apply varnish, nail and stapling.

The machine has made work easier now; he makes 10 door shutters a week instead of one in three days he did manually.

During the post-election violence of 2008, he “lost everything” but a good relationship with suppliers helped him to restart.

“I lost goods worth more than Sh300,000; honest, I was devastated. But I told myself that giving up was the last thing I was going to do.”

A number of furniture dealers in Kenya import from China and Indonesia.

A report released by the Industrialisation and Enterprise ministry recently notes that furniture imports are stifling growth of the sector.

Funded by the World Bank Group, the report says furniture market in Kenya stood at about US$496 million (Sh52 billion) in sales in 2013, with a growth rate of 10 per cent over the past five years.

“Furniture imports stand at US$66 million (Sh6.9 billion) and constitute 13 per cent of the total market. Imports are taking an increasingly large portion of the Kenyan market, growing at a rate of 24 per cent between 2009 and 2013 while exports are growing more slowly at 10 per cent,” says the report.

The study recommends, among others, tighter institutional collaboration and establishing a centre of excellence to grow the sector.