Someone asked Felix Onyango if he could build a dollhouse for her daughter’s birthday. Even without knowing what he was being asked to do, his response was positive. He then logged onto Google to find out what a dollhouse was.
“It was a very simple thing that I could make,” says Mr Onyango, who went on to design a house which the client’s daughter loved. The client then shared the picture of the dollhouse online to promote his work.
This was the beginning of a journey that would see Mr Onyango set up his enterprise, Cardboard Creativity.
As a child, Mr Onyango’s father, a carpenter, did not allow him to play outside much. Holed up in his workshop, he learnt how to build nearly anything he could imagine out of cardboards.
When he quit his construction job, he made the miniature houses while he looked for another job.
Having dropped out of Kabete Polytechnic after a year of studying electrical engineering for lack of fees, he found it hard to secure a job.
“I had tried to apply for HELB (Higher Education Loans Board) loan, but it wasn’t coming through. I had to drop out due to lack of fees,” says Mr Onyango who has to pause and count on his fingers before he can say he is the fourth of nine children in his family.
Childhood friends prompted Mr Onyango to take photos of his houses and post them online with the IkoKaziKe hashtag.
“Hey good people, I made this piece of art with carton and also designed it myself but am currently unemployed. So help me find where I can put this good skills and talent to use #IkoKaziKe,” reads the tweet that was retweeted over 600 times.
He then joined Facebook in order to respond to inquiries he was getting about his work on the platform.
Now armed with cardboard, wood glue, paint and a bit of fabric, Mr Onyango spends his days at his workstation in the corner of his brother’s living room.
A soon-to-be ‘State House’ which he hopes will attract the eye of politicians is sprawled over his table. The area is littered with cardboard dust, a pen, a spanner and scissors.
“I don’t buy cardboard. I find out what time supermarkets and wholesale stores remove their boxes,” he says.
Although his father hopes his passion is a passing cloud, Mr Onyango’s mother is very supportive.
“One time, she found lots of boxes at her work place and called me to get them. Before I got there, the rubbish collectors arrived and took them. She followed them, grabbed them, packed them together and waited for me to arrive,” says Mr Onyango.
The wood glue costs Sh50, The paint Sh180 per half-litre and the fabric Sh40 per metre. To get the sticks, he simply walks around and breaks twigs. Mr Onyango faces a number of challenges in the business. He has particularly had bad experiences with some online clients. Some do not want to pay for the cardboard houses, which take him at least a week to make, and whose prices range from Sh2,000 to around Sh3,500. Sometimes, people offer him jobs only to disappear completely.
“One client told me to make a piece for him at half price, promising that he had many more projects for me. But he disappeared,” says Mr Onyango.
Mr Onyango hopes to learn to interpret architectural plans since a lot of his clients are interested in dummy representations of real houses.
“I learnt a bit of technical drawing in school and I am generally a fast learner. For example, I had never made a stacked roof before,” he says, pointing at the roof of the ‘State House’ structure.
Mr Onyango, who lives with his brother, hopes to grow his business until he is self-sufficient. Although he can earn as little as Sh6,000 a month, the entrepreneur says the business is promising.
He also wants to mentor other young people in the trade: It’s great to teach people. I don’t want to learn and succeed on my own. I want to lift other people too,” he says.