Lulu Kitololo

Arts, crafts, designs and films inspired by Africa are all the rage these days. And Africans in the diaspora, as well as non-Africans with an affinity for the continent, are supporting this ‘renaissance’ with their wallets.

On the continent itself, growing economies, a rising middle class and rapid urbanisation are helping the movement along.

Lulu Kitololo, 36, identified this trend back in 2014 and experimented with it, making art prints and greeting cards inspired by the continent. At the time, she was in the UK.

Today, that experiment has grown into Lulu Kitololo Studio, an emerging lifestyle brand that features Lulu’s vibrant illustrations on all sorts of stationery, gifts and accessories.

After testing the UK market through a series of fairs and markets, including at London’s world-famous Southbank Centre, featuring in a couple of independent boutiques and expanding her market through an online store, Lulu brought her brand home.

In 2016, she set up to a warm response. In the time since then, Lulu has exhibited at several of Nairobi’s major craft fairs, secured stockists in Nairobi and Lamu, fulfilled bulk corporate orders and created a limited edition line in collaboration with luxury bag brand, Sandstorm Kenya. 

She spoke to Hustle about what inspires her, the factors behind her growth and what it meant to win investment on KCB Lions’ Den last year.

I’m actually a communication designer by training (Photo: Instagram)

10 years ago, you quit your job as a graphic designer. Why?

I’m actually a communication designer by training. After working with various communications and advertising agencies, I decided to leave employment to start my business where I was primarily doing branding for clients.

I left my job partly because I wanted to have more freedom over the projects I worked on and the people that I worked with; and partly because I’m most productive in the morning and really late at night. I wanted to have autonomy over my work and to be able to explore different things.

Over the years, my branding business evolved as I figured out my niche and purpose in life. I started drawing again, which is something I really used to enjoy, and started incorporating that into my work and for clients.

At some point, I decided to start creating products with my illustrations on them to see how the market would respond, and that’s how Lulu Kitololo Studio came to be.

Are you running your art and design studio exclusively?

Well, among other things. Under Lulu Kitololo Studios, we do illustrations, branding and create murals for office spaces.

With the product line, we design and produce stationery and lifestyle products, including phone cases and kangas, all with my illustrations inspired by Africa.

I also run an online branding course, which I call Soulful Branding, and a biannual festival called Afri-Love Fest, which is all about celebrating creativity.

I’m also in partnership with business coach Danielle Anderson where we run a support group for women in business.

How much did you initially raise to go into business?

At some point, I decided to start creating products with my illustrations on them (Photo: Instagram)

I don’t have high overheads; I had my computer with me, and that’s all I really needed. And the money I got from my first project I channeled back to the business.

Looking back, if I were to do things over, I’d save more money so as to avoid that pressure of taking every project because you’re worried about money.

To raise more funding for the business, I went to KCB Lions’ Den in 2018 and pitched my product line to the investors.

I got a pledge of Sh1.5 million for 25 per cent of the business from Joanne Mwangi, which I accepted.

It’s been amazing working with her as she motivates me to look at the bigger picture and see opportunities that I was missing.

You started in the UK before bringing the business home in 2016; why this shift?

I always knew I wanted to come back home where my family is. Also, seeing how things had changed with the creative industry in Kenya made me make the move. I felt it was an exciting time to set up the business here and support fellow creatives.

You’ve lived in London and New York; how does the Kenyan creative scene compare?

I think there’s so much quality design that’s happening in Kenya that could sit anywhere in the world.

I left my job partly because I wanted to have more freedom over the projects I worked on (Photo: Instagram)

Actually, a lot of these international designers produce in Kenya, which is something a lot of people don’t know. So, things like quality no longer need to be a barrier. We can achieve world-class standards here.

However, the market for design products is growing but it isn’t as big as in London or New York, and that boils down to appreciation and training.

We need more people and institutions to train creatives here to that level. Culturally, we need to appreciate art and design just like we do law or medicine, which will see more people pursue the arts.

Do you have regrets about ditching employment for entrepreneurship?

It’s been tough a lot of the time. For SMEs, financing is a big thing. Sometimes there are things that you have a vision to do that you see the long-term potential of, but they need a lot of seed capital to actualise. That’s always been the challenge.

Something I’ve come to learn is that it’s important to hire people with the right mindset and on the same page as you, rather than someone with technical skills as these can be acquired with time.

What’s the highest-value project you’ve worked on so far?

I got a pledge of Sh1.5 million for 25 per cent of the business (Photo: Instagram)

There are two. The first one was an African Union campaign worth Sh6 million I did in 2013. It involved branding, printing and some website design. And then three years ago, I worked on some branding materials for an international forum and was paid about Sh6 million.

Where do you draw inspiration from, and do you ever get a creative block?

I draw a lot of inspiration from nature, which has interesting designs. I always say Africa is my muse. It has everything, from different cultures to different textiles, art and folklore. I don’t experience blocks as I have too many ideas. I think when you’re doing something that you’re passionate about, it becomes difficult to have blocks.

Also, there’s the bit about being true to oneself in the things that you’re doing, especially as creatives. It’s very easy to get to a place where you’re forced to take work that you’re not passionate about to pay the bills.

What’s your vision for the studio?

I’m building my brand to be an internationally recognised Kenyan one. I want to inspire people to live more creative lives. I want businesses and governments to appreciate how creativity can better shape things for us all.