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College art turns into clothing firm

By Peter Theuri | Jan 12th 2022 | 4 min read
By Peter Theuri | January 12th 2022

Savannah Apparel owner Laban Totona [Courtesy]

While in his third year at the Multimedia University of Kenya where he was studying electrical and telecommunications engineering, Laban Totona started a clothings firm.

The brand, Savannah Apparel, sells hoodies, jackets, t-shirts, shorts, sweatpants and headwear.

It started as an activity for self-fulfilment where Totona, then 20, branded his own clothes. But around 2018, friends started showing interest in his skill and also wanted their clothes branded.

“Between 2019 and 2020, I thought about seriously turning it into a business,” he says, and took the idea to social media.

Totona - who says his ability to make new friends who “naturally turn out to be my clients and supporters” is his best business trait - was joined by his current business partner, Naserian Kimorgo, later in the trade.

Followers into customers 

The two jointly run Savannah Apparel, whose following on Instagram and Facebook often translates into sales.

“Both Instagram and Facebook push traffic to our WhatsApp business account, which is where we get most of our orders,” says Totona.

“We also have a website which clearly describes us, the products we sell and also directs clients to our physical shop on Accra road in Nairobi’s central business district.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic held the economy by the scruff of its neck and threatened livelihoods, e-commerce was taunted as the solution. But it did not work for everyone.

Business people bid to harness the power of social media to make sales and while some were successful, others found little refuge there. Totona was among the fortunate lot.

Still, customer traffic was affected by the pandemic as reduced earnings hurt sales.

“The pandemic had a drastic effect on sales as they declined to as low as 30 per cent of normal (pre-pandemic) figures,” he says.

When he was drawn into the fashion industry, first as a mere enthusiast and then as a businessman, Totona did not expect to be as immersed in the art as he is today.

Brand name 

But how did he come up with the name Savannah and what effect does it have on the business?

“Savannah is a culture, a vibe, a movement,” he says. “Our beloved country Kenya is in the Savannah region.” Savannah is home to our famous wildlife, and Kenya is our home, which means, therefore, that Savannah is our home.

“We should wear Savannah at all times, unapologetically!”

Savannah Apparel has three professional tailors, two graphic designers and three staff in the branding workshop, a photographer and over 20 sales people working on commission.

Totona says the firm is dedicated to providing quality services while offering timely delivery and deals.

He speaks of success in the online business line, and many would love to try their hand in it. But just how hard is it to operate online shops?

While the biggest complaint about online markets originates from buyers, who claim they do not receive what they order or that they have been conned in other ways, sellers have their pains as well.

E-commerce vs physical shopping 

Globally, after what looked like the start of a shift into e-commerce, a lot of people have gone back to in-person buying. This is for different reasons, the least of them being unwillingness to accept change.

“I’d rather do it myself, since as I shopped online there are instances where I didn’t get what I ordered,” Michelle Atieno, a student, recently told Enterprise.

“I ordered air pods but when I received the package, there was only one. And it wasn’t working properly, I couldn’t charge it.”

Lucy Ngina was not ready for online buying yet, more so because she cannot buy without haggling over the price.

“You cannot bargain online. There, it is fixed. That is why it is always easier to buy in person. The price goes down most of the time,” she said.

Others spoke about the connection they have with the shopkeeper that can allow them credit at any time.

But sellers also have problems of their own with e-commerce.

“Most clients are not sure of their sizes,” says Totona. “They will then complain when they make orders for apparel that does not fit them.”

“Others place orders but fail to pick up their products.”

But online business, says the young chief executive, will be an all-round market for literally everything in the coming years, and “is easy and efficient to monitor compared to physical selling”.

Customer base 

Most of Savannah’s customers are adults, with 70 per cent of the customers female. An estimated 80 per cent of the customers are in the working class while the rest are students.

In a month, Savannah Apparel sell up to 80 hoodies, 100 t-shirts, 70 sweatpants, 80 sweat shorts, 100 head wears, 80 polo shirts, 50 customs, 30 bomber jackets and 30 college jackets.

The clothes’ prices range from Sh500 for headwear to Sh2,500 for hoodies. With a loyal online clientele at the start of the business, and consistency in the quality offering, referrals keep coming.

“Online following mostly translates to sales through social influence. The volume of sales is also dependent on how often we post,” says Totona.

“Most of our customers are referrals. Our quality products tend to attract more clients who refer us to other clients to try our products and the cycle continues.

“We also strive to maintain our original customers through various incentives such as discounts and free professional photography.”

He wants to make Savannah the leading local fashion place, “a go-to place for shopping while naturally infiltrating markets outside Kenya”.

Foraying into online selling, after all, is all about making friends, gaining their loyalty by providing quality, and being consistent.

Totona feels he has found a way to do it.

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