Njoki Ndung’u is a fashion entrepreneur whose designs are making the right kind of noise.
At 26, she’s managed to turn her label, Njoki Ndung’u, into a business with a solid client base that brings in an average of Sh70,000 a week, or up to Sh100,000 when sales are good.
Njoki describes how she found herself in the fashion business despite graduating with a degree in development studies, and why you have to ‘steal like an artist’.
When did you know you had an eye for fashion?
As a child. I knew I had it in me when I’d help my siblings put pieces together. I would also try to wear makeup, but my parents were entirely against their underage girl wearing makeup.
What got you to think about this as a business?
After high school, I watched a lot of Gossip Girl and enjoyed One Tree Hill. Both TV shows have incredible scenes of upcoming fashionistas, especially in Gossip Girl where Jenny, a poor girl, tries to fit into a high-end school.
She had nothing but her skill and from the corner of her house, she started her fashion label. It’s amazing how what we watch, read or listen to can shape our destiny.
Plus, even if you finish school these days, a degree doesn’t guarantee you a job. And even if you have a job, a side hustle remains important. I’ve always felt fashion is the way to go for me. I’m happy with my decision.
I first studied community development at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and then went to the Catholic University of Eastern African for another degree in development studies. I’m passionate about gender issues, but fashion moves me. So I set up Njoki Ndung’u.
I love my freedom and hate routine. I was brought up in an entrepreneurial family, and I knew the problems of going into business would be there, but the rewards would be more significant. I love money (who doesn’t?); I wouldn’t be okay with just a 9 to 5 job.
How long would you say you’ve been in business?
I’d say I’ve been on the job since childhood, but serious business started two years ago.
Fashion in Kenya is growing. Kenyans are more aware of what they wear. They dress to look good and feel good, not just to cover up. People are willing to spend money on clothes. Dressing up is no longer for big occasions. I wish we had a Kenyan dress code though.
What are the challenges you’ve faced so far?
It’s hard to be self-employed. There is a big lie that’s put out there to make it look glamorous with hashtags like #girlboss.
The truth is, self-employment is 10 times harder than being employed. It’s not for the faint-hearted. It also requires a lot of hard work and patience.
I’ve had clients who didn’t trust me because I didn’t have a physical address and was online. Thank God I now have a physical store. The other challenge is penetrating the market – there’s a lot of corruption. I’m still perplexed at the idea that you have to pay to showcase your designs at some events.
If you have no connections, it takes a while to even get heard – but thank God for social media; it helps. I market most of my products on my Instagram, NjokiNdungu.ke, and deliver to clients wherever they may be across the globe.
That I didn’t start earlier!
Who inspires you?
People like Diana Opoti and Annabel Onyango. I get my ‘warrior spirit’ from Wanja Kibuki, although she’s not in the fashion industry.
We live in a society of ‘instant-everything’. You’re either are well-connected or come from a wealthy family. Seeing a normal girl with her degree working hard to be an agent of change is something I admire. I choose to be inspired by fellow women who make a positive impact on society.
How would you describe your style?
I’m more of a retro-inclined designer, though client orders dictate what I make. You can call my style retro-urban. I work with all kinds of fabric, but African print is closer to my heart because it’s vibrant and has a story. I merge African wear with a touch of the urban, which is westernised.
What does it take to open and run a business like this?
First, you need to want it bad enough. Speak your goals into existence and be gentle with yourself, especially if you’re doing the best you can.
Our journeys are very different and you need to embrace your mission and find the beauty in it. Stop comparing yourself to others and do your thing.
Garbage in garbage out. There’s an economic theory that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and average them, the resulting number will be pretty close to your income. This means you need the right kind of friends to push and support you.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I get my ideas from all over the place. If I see something I like, I work on it. If see a piece of fabric I love, I try to work with it. But just like all creative work, there’s an element of ‘theft’.
But you have to steal like an artist; don’t copy-paste. Merge different ideas that you love and create something of your own. There’s nothing new under the sun, the Bible says.
Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon is my current life dictionary. If you’re creative and haven’t read the book yet, you need to.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Collaborating with renowned brands and personalities, having stores around the globe, and industrially manufacturing ethnically Kenyan items. That means employing more people than I already have. Hopefully, I’ll also have settled with children and a husband of my own.
What has running Njoki Ndung’u taught you?
If someone doesn’t buy from you, it’s nothing personal.
We make mistakes; I’ve messed people up sometimes, but not intentionally.
It feels terrible but I’ve learned to be gentle with myself.
Last but not least, we say the client is always right, but don’t let them change your goals. Stay true to yourself.