I bet on art and got investors to buy into my idea

Peter Safari, during an interview with The Standard. [David Njaaga,Standard]
The Internet has undoubtedly changed how we live, read, watch our favourite shows and even how we shop. Almost anything can be acquired from the comfort of one’s home.

Capitalising on this growing trend is Safari Peter Wanje, who runs an online art platform, Sephrin Art.

At 23, Safari has managed to build a website that will host several artists looking to grow their brand and increase sales.

Though still in its beta stages, Safari got an investment offer of Sh1.5 million from Olive Gachara on the TV show, KCB Lions’ Den. Safari takes Hustle through the vision he has for Sephrin Art.

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It’s difficult to get investment, especially if an idea is not off the ground yet, so how did you do it?

I think art is something that everyone loves. It’s timeless. But the trouble with art in Kenya has been accessibility. Artists find it challenging to get their art noticed, and art lovers find it challenging to discover good art. My idea, Sephrin Art, was just about bringing those two groups of people together in the most convenient way – an online platform.

How did you come up with the idea?

I studied mecatronic engineering in university. During my course, I was trying to find a way to make some extra money. I really liked art, so I decided to paint some pieces and sell them to my friends. I sold my first piece for about Sh2,500 but the truth is, I wasn’t very impressed with my own work. I figured if my work, which wasn’t very good, fetched Sh2,500, then I could make much more money if I sold professional art.

I couldn’t afford and didn’t even want to go the traditional way of a physical gallery, so I decided to build an online platform. This was in 2015.

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How long did it take to build the platform?

Is a website ever complete? I’m still working on it. But the initial build, from concept to beta testing, took me about two years. I was studying and building the site at the same time. I made some really good headway during the university strike in early 2017. When we were sent home, all I did was work on the site. I’d wake up at around 7am and work till 8pm, with just food breaks in between.

How much did it cost you to build the site?

The cost came to about Sh60,000 altogether. That includes Internet costs and initial hosting charges.

How does Sephrin Art work?

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We take pictures of artwork from various artists, and then host the pieces on our website. It’s essentially an auction, think eBay. Each piece of art has an opening price and a closing date for buyers to place their bids. The person with the highest bid at closing time gets the piece of art. We don’t hold art pieces, we leave them with the artist. When a piece is sold, we collect it from the artist and ship to the customer.

How many artists do you have working with you right now?

About 10 to 15. The site is still under beta testing, so we haven’t gone live or started selling yet.

What’s the price range of the pieces you’re selling?

Currently, the cheapest piece of art we have is Sh25,000, while the most expensive is Sh120,000. We take a commission from all works sold.

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How do you source for the art?

Most artists know each other or hang out together. I was introduced to the director of Google Kenya who has a love for art and runs an art exhibition every Saturday at Nairobi’s Dusit called Den Pop-Up Gallery. I’ve met or been referred to very many artists at that gallery and other galleries like it.

You got a Sh1.5 million investment offer for your business. Tell us about your experience on Lions’ Den.

When I first applied to be considered, I didn’t think I’d get chosen. But I had a good business plan, thanks to an organisation called Aiducation International, which aims to empower young people to achieve their dreams and build sustainable careers. This organisation sponsored me through high school, and I’ve attended business courses and trainings with them. This really helped my pitch in the Den.

Did that make it easier to withstand the pressure of the Den?

I got through my pitch okay, but I was so frazzled that after completing the pitch, I forgot to ask for any money. I just stood there. The Lions had to prompt me to tell them how much money I wanted and for what equity. Now I think it’s funny. Then? I thought I had ruined my chances. I’m glad it worked out alright.

You turned down the Sh1.5 million, though. What was the thinking behind this?

Yes, I didn’t take the money in the end, but after the show, Aiducation International approached me. I had sent them a proposal before Lions’ Den seeking funding, but they hadn’t come through yet.

When they saw me on the show, they called me. They offered me Sh475,000 in exchange for 10 per cent equity. Olive Gachara had offered the Sh1.5 million in exchange for 40 per cent equity. I decided to go with Aiducation. Olive, however, has remained a mentor and working with her truly inspires me.

Why would you take the lower offer?

Aiducation reworked my budget. I realised I didn’t need to rent a premises at the onset since it was an online business and I could work from home. I had also given myself a salary in the original ask, but Aiducation convinced me I could slowly build the business to the point where it paid for itself.

With those two costs removed, the budget came down to Sh475,000. Most of that went to hosting the site and other administrative costs of running the business.

You’re now working on Sephrin full time. What do your parents think about that, given that you studied to do something else?

I’d told them at an early age that I never planned to be employed. When I was in Form 3, a gentleman came to my school to give a motivational talk on careers. He was running his own business and making millions of shillings. I remember thinking that that’s what I want, and I went home that day and told my parents.

Of course they were worried, but we struck a deal that if I completed a degree in university, I would have their blessing to pursue a business venture of my choice.

Do you believe art has a future in Kenya?

Yes, art has always had a future. The problem is that in the past, very few artists were encouraged to follow their passion. My generation is blessed that we now live in a country where you don’t have to have a 9-5 job if that’s not what interests you. Kenya has grown enough economically for anyone to pursue any career. So the number of artists pursuing art as a livelihood is growing. Most of the artists we are working with are aged between 21 and 35.

When do you go live?

Early this year, with a projected turnover for Year 1 being Sh4 million.

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Sephrin ArtSafari Peter WanjeKCB Lions’ DenHustle