It is a Wednesday morning when Grace Mwende, a jeweller, is scheduled to make a delivery to a client whose wedding is in the offing. She agrees to meet Enterprise at Nairobi’s Laico Regency hotel, which houses her studio, before embarking on her plan for the day.
Clasped in her hands are two beautiful red boxes holding sets of rings for a soon-to-be-married couple. On opening the boxes, the rings beam under natural lighting — the diamonds encircling the bride’s ring, priced about Sh200,000, add a touch of class to the double yellow gold band with the ruby gemstone topping it serving to lend it more colour and glitz.
“It is always exciting to deliver on a promise. I cannot wait to see the look on their faces,” says Ms Mwende as she explains that her business, Vavani Jewels, is a labour of love.
The 27-year-old started her venture after completing her degree at the University of Nairobi.
Ms Mwende had been admitted to study geology at the university in 2011, after failing to meet the marks for the architecture course which was her first choice.
Geology was an unfamiliar field and she remained unsure of the course until she was in third year when she got an opportunity to learn more about gemstones and a chance to specialise.
“In my first and second year we did general geology and I kept wondering what I am going to do with this course. And then I was made the Nairobi University Geology Student Association magazine editor which gave me the opportunity to interact with lecturers in various geology specialties like hydrology,” she says.
“While working on one of the magazine editions I asked one of the few lecturers who specialises in gemstones to allow me to take pictures of some of the precious stones for the magazine. They looked so pretty the way they shone under the light. I grew inquisitive about them and the lecturer told me it is something I could pursue if I was interested,” she says.
As the only student specialising in gemstones during her final two years of her study, Ms Mwende had to go the extra mile to do research and network widely to understand the dynamics of the local gemstones market.
This is how the student, then in her early 20s, met Majala Mlagui, a partner of the UoN’s department of physical sciences. Ms Mlagui, now the deputy governor Taita Taveta, was in the gemstone industry and she helped Ms Mwende to dive deeper into the sector.
Ms Mlagui had been impressed by Ms Mwende's presentation on sapphires. “Mlagui has a wealth of experience in gemstones and she took me under her wing when I finished school,” she says.
Attending Arusha international gem fair was an eye-opener for Ms Mwende.
“The things I saw at the fair amazed me. It was a whole big building full of gemstones in display — diamonds, tsavorites and sapphires name it. Even stones I didn’t know existed were there."
The trip to Arusha back in April 2016 marked the beginning of Vavani's future and charted the founder's path that has brought tears but more fulfillment and joys over the years.
Vavani now makes jewelry, mainly rings, necklaces and pendants.
“I didn’t start my business with a million shilling. I was running it from my pocket. I was still learning and made a number of mistakes that did not help the business,” Ms Mwende says of the tough learning curve as she set the foundation of her business. After months of no luck in the business, she got wind of The Association of Women in Energy and Extractives in Kenya (AWEIK). Immediately after joining the association, she was invited to attend a local gem fair.
“There was a fair, out of faith I took a booth and I had nothing to display. You know I was still dealing with this disappointing goldsmith who failed to deliver. I may have failed to sell anything but that occasion changed my business; I got to meet my current gem cutter and Kennedy Kamwathi, a businessman in the sector,” says Ms Mwende.
“Kamwathi told me ‘come and I will hold your hand’. He helped me to build my network, get good suppliers and an amazing gem cutter. His help change Vavani for better.”
She opened a shop on Ngong Road in 2017 to better market her business, or so she thought. On display were Kamwathi’s products, but the location and her inexperience in the sector did not work in her favour.
Business became unsustainable after a while and the shop closed after only six months. With no profits so far, the sector had proved unforgiving as she also suffered a myriad of disappointments from unreliable gemstones suppliers and cutters.
These series of unfortunate incidents compelled her to toy with the idea of quitting the business and seeking employment. But she managed to brush that aside and soldier on.
She, however, acknowledged that to succeed she had to change tack. She decided to outsource all other services and sell mainly through social media platform Instagram. She also settled on one employee, a goldsmith. Sponsored ads on Instagram soon earned her followers and customers with renowned clients giving her business the confidence it needed dearly.
This became a turning point for her and the business started to look up. The business has now grown immensely through referrals, and Ms Mwende says every day she meets at least one new client, making an order for engagement or wedding rings.
She has now passionately embarked on educating people on the importance of investing in precious metals and gemstones.
“People are not spending on jewelry because they don’t understand the market. Gold, for instance, is a form of currency, you can resell later and make a profit because time has proven that gold keeps appreciating especially with the rise in inflation. It is a store of wealth,” she says.