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Kenyan teacher Nancy Obonyo makes waves in Bangkok with online fashion store

Nancy Obonyo runs Nalelek Collection, an online clothing brand, in Bangkok, Thailand [Courtesy]

Like every graduate leaving university, Nancy Obonyo, 32, was optimistic about finding a job.  

However, the grim reality of the unemployment crisis in Kenya hit after she knocked on countless doors without any success in security a job.

After two frustrating years, Nancy packed her bags and left for Bangkok, Thailand, to study for a Master’s degree. She would later land a teaching job at a primary school there before the investment bug bit her. 

She talks to Money Maker about juggling her teaching job and running Nalelek Collection, an online clothing brand, in a foreign land.

How did you end up in Thailand? 

After failing to land a job for about one-and-a-half years after my undergraduate studies, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree with the hopes that I’d be more employable. I first landed a job as a market research analyst at a start-up in Bangkok. It didn’t pay much and later I looked for a teaching job, which I hold up to now. 

How did the business idea come about?

I’ve always wanted to own a business, something that I would run on my terms. I have also always believed that one source of income is not enough, and even in my school days I often thought of something to do on the side. Before settling on a clothing brand, I had considered several products such as diffusers, scented candles and essential oils, but I wanted a product that I could easily get here (Thailand) and would be appreciated back home. 

How did you arrive at the choice of the name for your business?

Nalelek is a Maasai word that means simple. Our collections are simple but elegant, casual and chic. You can wear them to the office on a Friday and later meet the girls for a drink in the evening. It has been two years since I started the business. 

Who is your target and how do you market your products?

My target market is mainly ladies between the ages of 24 and 34. I pay for social media advertising to reach a wider client base and also enlist the services of social media influencers to help market the business. 

Why did you settle for ladies’ clothes?

As you might be aware, women are more fashion-conscious compared to men. They are more deliberate about what they wear, unlike men who practically wear anything no matter the occasion. But with time, the business will be all-inclusive. 

What are the challenges of selling your products online, and how do you deal with them?

There are quite many challenges, but the most common ones are people ordering and not following through to make the payment. Some people don’t know their exact sizes and so we occasionally get returns. Others are sceptical about online shopping because of bad experiences they may have had elsewhere.

Sourcing in Thailand and shipping to Kenya is also a challenge because we experience delays such as those caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Then there are online fraudsters who open parody accounts to fleece unsuspecting customers. Having a verified account helps. 

Is Kenya your only market currently?

I sell worldwide but Kenya, as well as other East African Community countries, has been my focus market.  

What business lessons have you learnt along the way?

You have to be patient, persistent and ready to put in the work. How you deal with customers is important because it determines if they will keep on coming back or not and even get you referrals. To grow, you should always look to learn new things. Fashion is very dynamic, and so should you. Unless you fail first, you won’t be able to learn what works and what doesn’t.  

Any investment decisions that you regret?

Soon after starting Nalelek, I started a kitenge brand targeting the Asian market. It didn’t quite pick up despite the huge outlay. In hindsight, it would have been better to first study the market. That was blind business faith! 

How do you address customers’ complaints?

I have only had about three cases arising from mismatched sizes so far. In all of the cases, we offer an item swap as well as a full refund in case the customer is not satisfied. 

Any advice to anyone looking to get into your line of business?

If you have a business idea, don’t wait for the perfect time, just start. Be willing to learn and ask for advice, but know what to take up and what not to. Also, always do market research before you embark on any business. Try to be unique and not copy others who have been successful; be you.

 

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