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Turning weed into fortune

BETTING
By | January 20th 2010

The exquisite table is made from water hyacinth. The weed has been woven to create a tantalising finish on the furniture with a thick and shinny glass top.

There are several varieties of furniture, which include sofa sets, corner shelves, lampshades and their stands, coffee and dining tables and chairs.

Ms Edith Kerubo left formal employment to start a furniture-making venture. She uses the water hyacinth as raw material

A woman entrepreneur in Nyalenda, Kisumu has turned the noxious weed—which has made fishing activities along Lake Victoria difficult—into a raw material to make elegant and durable products.

Meet Edith Kerubo, the proprietor of Wafts and Crafts. She says MPs and hotel owners are some of her clients.

"Cecily Mbarire (Assistant minister for Tourism) was among the first to buy from me when I started the enterprise in late 2004. Then later I secured a tender for Masai Mara Sopa Lodges," says Ms Kerubo, who is in her early 30s.

Kerubo made more than 60 lounge chairs for the lodge, which were her first big order.

The process of accessing the hyacinth up to completion of furniture is involving.

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"I first collect the raw material from Kongou area in Nyakach District from suppliers, who harvest it from the lake, and cut off the roots and leaves. The stems that remain are split into different sizes, treated with a preservative, dried and finally twisted into ropes then packed into sacks," she explains.

Final sketch

She has five employees—a welder, carpenter, two weavers and a cushion maker.

"To ensure increased efficiency, I pay them per item and a bonus once they complete an agreed number of pieces," says Kerubo, who is trained in Information Technology.

She adds: "The welder and carpenter come up with the frames before I bring them here for weaving. We work as a system after I have developed the designs."

She also discusses various designs with clients before embarking on the final sketch of the products.

Kerubo says she acquired design skills through practice and learning how hyacinth is used to make similar furniture in Asian countries such as Thailand.

"In fact, in Thailand they are planting the hyacinth due to a high demand for its products."

Kerubo says she does all her work on order, with most of them taking an average of two months.

After completion of her studies in 2000, Kerubo worked in Nairobi for slightly over two years before she relocated to the lakeside town.

"I worked in Kisumu for two firms before I started the business. At first, I thought of making furniture from papyrus, but a water hyacinth researcher I met changed my mind."

The researcher, Mike Muchilwa, told her she would come up with better furniture by using the hyacinth.

"Muchilwa also introduced me to some of the artisans who were trained at Kisumu Innovation Centre," she says.

The entrepreneur opened a shop near Nairobi’s Village market after realising she would secure more clients at the capital city.

Not long ago, she completed an order for a newly established upscale restaurant in Kisumu. Family Kitchen’s General Manager Jennifer Chweya says their furniture was designed and made to particular specifications.

Ms Edith Kerubo at her workshop in Nyalenda, Kisumu. She has five employees, including a welder and cushion maker. Photos: James Keyi/Standard

"Many clients often compliment us on the furniture," say Mrs Chweya.

Products costly

To ensure durability of the products, a preservative, pinotex, is applied to them. And to give the furniture a shinny finish, a varnish is applied.

However, the entrepreneur faces a number of challenges.

"I am competing with all forms of furniture makers who use papyrus, sea grass and wood. They are cheaper, and this makes prospective buyers to shy away from my products," argues Kerubo, who says her products may seem costly, but this is due to the process they undergo to ensure uniqueness and durability.

She says sometimes she has to contend with erratic supply of hyacinth from Nyakach. The suppliers engage in other activities such as farming and fishing and do not harvest the weed.

Kerubo argues that the weed can drastically reduce poverty in Nyanza Province. "The many jobless youth can harvest the plant to make a living," she concludes.

 

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