Wanjiku Njenga-Njue, 32, runs Shkwela Kiondo, a business that revolves around the sale of baskets made from sisal, yarn and recycled polythene. She tells Sylvia Wakhisi about her entrepreneurial journey and the lessons she has learnt.
I was born in Nanyuki and raised in Isiolo. My dad is a curio dealer and my mum a farmer. Our house was a curio itself. My three siblings and I grew up seeing wood carvings and batik paintings on our walls. I loved following my dad to his workplace so that I could feed my eyes on all the handmade products. I would get beads from my dad and make jewellery. This is where my creativity was cultivated. I went to school in Isiolo and literally schooled in the same compound from nursery school to secondary school; after primary school, I went to St Mary’s Girls Secondary School because my parents couldn’t afford to take me to Limuru Girls. After that, I joined St Mary’s Secretarial College and later studied law at the Kenya School of Professional Studies, now Mt Kenya University Law Campus. I always wanted to change the world. Having been raised in Isiolo, I felt like girls and women were not well aware of their civil, political, economic and social rights, and if they were, they were intimidated and could not speak up. Female genital mutilation and early marriages broke my heart. One term you’re in school with your classmate, the next term she comes back circumcised, others married off. At the age of 9, I honestly didn’t know much, but I knew it wasn’t right. These vices were unnecessary, damaging and illegal. I thought being a lawyer would help me stop that so I went on to study Law but could not further my studies because of financial challenges. Along the way, I learnt a lot about human rights and development. I started my journey in the NGO sector as a volunteer at Kenya Red Cross and got 7 years’ experience in humanitarian work. Fast forward to 2017, I wanted to go back to school to study Sociology. I got a job but the salary couldn’t do much for me so I decided to start something of my own.
At that time, plastic bag littering had got out of hand and the plastic ban was being enforced. I believe in conserving the environment, having implemented a Water and Sanitation Project and being a member of civil society organisations involved in policy formulation in matters climate change adaptation in Isiolo County. I knew this move was in the right direction to a cleaner Kenya so I wanted to be part of that vision. As much as I needed to make money, save and go back to school, I also needed to align my idea with my dream of empowering women. Law did not do that for me. I believed this kiondo business was the perfect idea.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
I talked to my husband who was supportive. He gladly gave me Sh20, 000 to start. I went to Kariokor Market and chose a variety of baskets. They sold out in three days! With the money I made, I bought more and sold more but after some time, I knew I had to make some improvements to the kiondo. Shkwela Kiondo had to be different from the other kiondos so I improved the leather and lining. Most people knew kiondos were just for shopping groceries or a handbag. I gave tips on my Facebook page on the many uses of a kiondo, including storage of clean shoes, inner garments, toys (this was good news for mums), books and magazines, picnic baskets, laundry baskets, planters (covering up your pot). These pieces doubled up as home décor. This greatly increased our sales. We basically retailed online, but due to customer demand, we had to get a retail space in the CBD.
RUNNING A START-UP:
It has not been easy. Financial constraints are a struggle because I am constantly improving my products, creating new designs and growing my business and that requires money. Loans from family and friends have really helped me. Banks are your friend when you are making deposits, not when you want to grow your start-up. But I’m taking it slow, a day at a time. Production is my biggest challenge — from weaving by women in Ukambani to the leather work by artisans. Sometimes we get big orders that overwhelm us and we have to work extra hard to furnish the orders in the agreed time. We have to strike a balance.
WHERE I AM NOW:
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I am looking forward to growth. My desire is to start working with women in my county of Isiolo and expanding to counties in Northern Kenya. Having worked in those areas as a humanitarian before, I understand their economic challenges. I recognise that growing sisal in, for example, Isiolo is farfetched at the moment, but it is a possibility. We could start with buying sisal from Ukambani and Taita, train the women in Merti or Oldonyiro in basket weaving and get market locally and internationally. I also have my eyes set on the camel hide in Northern Kenya. It would be great to have camel leather on my baskets.
If you are determined to do something and make it grow, go for it. Nothing should stop you. Monday is supposed to be my day off but it never happens. There is never really time to rest. I work continuously for three weeks and find time to travel and exhale for one, at least every month. My weekends are for planning and strategizing, but I make time for family (I have a four-year-old daughter) and friends. Do not fear competition. There are people who have been doing what you are doing for years. Just make sure what you give your clients is the best and you will remain relevant. Also, don’t worry about people stealing your designs. They can never steal your creativity. Your dreams and your visions, share them with God. He makes them a reality in His time.