For me Kenya is a lot of things. Just a month ago the country was in a well-known but still frustrating halt. The reason was the Kenyan election that every time causes the whole country to hold the breath because of the horrifying violence in the aftermath of the 2007 elections. Kenya has a long way to go but as one of the African leading countries it has the potential for a bright future.
Personally, I see the massive gap between the wealthy and humble people as one of the biggest challenges in Kenya. Clearly one of the major questions is how to involve the ladder financially but also physically in society. On my way to find answers to that question I find myself in an Italian restaurant in the north of Nairobi.
“It’s OK to be just yourself, follow your dreams and listen to your heart.”
The garden is decorated with classical sculptures copying ancient Greek masters. While I am losing myself in the magical pattern of the cream rotating on top of my espresso Ivy Nitta the founder of Kiondoo Kulture approaches and the journey begins. It is a journey that guides us through weaving, rural engagement, business growth and passion.
Ivy Nitta is a graduate from law school that found herself in a regular job in a law firm without any passion. Soon she realised that her life needed to be different from the environment she was in at that point. Where her life would take her wasn’t clear from the beginning but that made her journey ever more exciting.
Seeing a woman selling beautiful traditional handmade handbags she got the idea to utilise the Kenyan tradition of Kiondoo bags to create unique products not for foreigners but majorly for Kenyans who are still hesitant towards local goods. In the production process she employs women from rural areas with the skills that are passed on from generation to generation. This is the story of Kiondoo Kulture.
Kiondoo bag heritage
So let’s start with you. You told me about your grandma and about some skills that you learned from her. Tell me about that because I still have it in my mind that it was your grandma that had the skills to do the bags.
Yeah, it is basically a skill that women have to make a kiondoo bag. So I used to see it when my great grandmother used to do it. She is really cool. So she has like … I can’t really see the plant around here but it is called Sisal so it’s kind of thorny. It looks kind of like an aloe Vera plant.
Yes, like a cactus.
Yeah, but it’s with thinner leaves. It basically has pulp inside and some fibres. So they take out the pulp and they leave out the fibres to dry. Then they weave.
I really like the bag (Check out the bags on Instagram).
Me too. I really like them. So this is what they do and I was like wow this is something so beautiful it shouldn’t go to waste. Another thing is that it is practiced mostly by old women. So you find girls like me would probably never get to learn it until we’re kind of old.
“But those women totally keep me going. They are so into it. They just give me so much life because of how much they like it.”
Ok, so it is not because the skills are getting lost?
Yeah, It’s just gone. Like why? What happened along the way that it’s not been passed along? So I thought it would be nice to incentivize young girls to learn it because they can earn some money when they are doing it.
When did you realize that you really can make money with it? When did you have your first customer?
I was a customer first. I used to see this lady along the road who sells. I used to get them from there. I was like “These are so pretty”. I was so happy that she was bringing in those bags. You know it is popular with muzungus like foreigners but for Kenyans not so much. So I was thinking how I can make it more desirable and more popular. So that is how I got into it initially just trying it.
What did the women think when you first approached them like the women from your community. What did they say? I mean did they say “Great!”?
They loved it so much. The market hasn’t been so responsive for Kiondoo Kulture. But those women totally keep me going. They are so into it. They just give me so much life because of how much they like it. They always call me: “So when do you have the next batches, when can we come?” The minute they hear that there is going to be a meeting… My grandmother has banned us from going to her house. She is like, “You guys cannot meet here!”. There are way too many women just coming because they want to be involved. So it has been very encouraging especially from there angle.
You also mentioned from the business angle it is not that encouraging? The market is not as big yet?
I’d just say it’s not responsive. I feel like … I don’t know. I am still doing my research on it. I started with my first sample product. Actually I wouldn’t say it’s not responsive but I was hoping to get orders before I produce. But every time I produce the bags go. So I wouldn’t say it’s not responsive. It just didn’t work how I envisioned it to work. Maybe I get there eventually once the brand is more popular.
How many women are involved right now? I mean I envision dozens of women coming to your grandmother’s house (laughs).
For me right now I have 30 women. I had 30 for the last batch I did. I also feel really moved by them when they do it and I really want to push it. But I also have to look at it from a business perspective. As much as I want to support them I have to be able to make it sustainable.
You are not an NGO, you are a social business. That is clearly not the same thing. Apart from the women, how did you develop the market? I mean you said you were your first customer. How did you get new customers?
I just did a lot of social media reaching out, advertising on social media, putting word out there, loads of pictures, and loads of articles on various platforms just to get word out there from different angles. Trying to target different markets and getting different angles as much as I could. Also a lot of word of mouth… most of my customers have been family and friends. So I haven’t had a stranger yet. I mean like someone who doesn’t know me. You know like: “I saw your product on …”.
You mentioned locals. You also want to develop the domestic market. Do you think that there is somehow a trend that the market is going to change? So far on my trip I spoke to a few fashion designers and they all say it is always the foreigners who buy the African attire or other local products. But when it comes to the locals they kind of always shy away. So what is your experience so far? Is it somehow changing?
I still want to stick to the locals. My idea from the beginning was never to target foreigners but now that I’m in the market which basically is foreign. Everybody is like: “Have you considered exporting? Have you considered a market in America or in Europe?”. That is all really good I mean if that is where the money is then go there. But really my intention from the beginning was to sell it to locals. But then there is now the whole issue. What I do I have luxury bags. I use the best materials. I strive for really good quality. A lot of people already know where to get this so they are like why am I gonna pay that much to get this product. That is a challenge.
How much does a bag cost? What is the price range? Since you’re talking about luxury products I now think of a Gucci Bag that costs like $2000.
I’m not yet on the range of Gucci. But I hope to be (laughs). But right now my range is between $60 and $300. That is my range depending on size and finishing. There are a bunch of things.
How is the bag related to you as a person? Did you always have this kind of artisan, creative mind? Or is it literally that you just found out about your great grandmother and you wanted to do just not let it die?
Of course there is that. But how this came and how this all connected together was because I studied law. But then when I was practicing it I really just didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy it. I wasn’t happy. So I knew I’m creative, I like fashion, I like design so I wanted to do something that is more involving and more creative. So when I thought about the type of business that I want to run I put all those things together and then this just came up. For the bags I have to travel looking for materials, I get to create different designs and I have the impact on society based on the sourcing from the women. So that was like the perfect product for me. It was all win-win.
And the Kiondoo tradition is a Kenyan tradition or is it an African tradition in East Africa? Where does it actually originate from?
IN: I think it is African tradition and it is popular in a lot of African cultures because a lot of tribes especially with the weaving … OK, maybe the modern and this one with yarn … I have seen it in Mexico also. They have this type. They have this yarn only. They don’t use this sisal. So Kiondoo I would say is unique to Kenya. It is just a thing. But I think the whole basket weaving is an African tradition. It is something that has always existed with just different materials what is locally available from palm trees to banana leaves.
Little word game
OK, so let’s play a little word game. I just give you a word and you give me your thoughts about it. So let’s start. The first one is Kenyan elections.
Kenyan elections… wow. Pass (laughs)!
That is also an answer (laughs). The next one is Tanzania.
The thing I like about Tanzania is first of all Swahili. They speak like really pure Swahili like their accent is so beautiful. I like their culture it is very respectful and gentle, polite, easy going. I like Tanzania.
The next word is Mountains.
I like mountains. I like looking at mountains. I never tried climbing a mountain (laughs). Generally, I think they are pretty awesome. I like the view of the sunrise or sunset. But I’m yet to climb one. I find them pretty scary, huge and overwhelming.
It gives you a good feeling. I think in general there are the mountain people and the lake/water people. Or you are both. Ok, the next one is Nairobi traffic.
The worst (laughs). It’s just the worst, Nairobi traffic. That is actually one of the reasons I really hated to go to work. In the morning like 6 or 7am there is traffic… in the evening. It just feels like just a rat race so I just hate it. I find it in any way I can avoid it… I’d ride a bike, I’d walk, and anything just to not be stuck in traffic.
The next one is free time.
It equals “ME-time” (laughs). I think for me that developed more lately. What I feel is my passion even now when I’m working it’s pleasurable. It feels like I’m doing what I would be doing in my free time if I was in another world. It’s kind of me right now… free time is me time.
Nightlife… I love the Nairobi nightlife. I really love it. I was addicted to it at some point like seriously, currently not so much.
Not so much more a change of lifestyle. I wanted to be more centered not so much into alcohol and being out at night because it prevents me from a productive next day.
Home is where the heart is. I still at home with my parents. It’s ok for now but I’m at a place where I want my own home for myself and my own family. So I’m looking to make that happen very soon. Somewhere that I can call home that’s my style with my own rules. It’s funny that this should come up right now because I was actually really seriously thinking about it today and just how I’d like it to be. So I was envisioning various aspects of my home like the bed, the furniture, the kind of energy I want to run there and it is all white.
Final one… Travelling.
I love to travel. I like to travel alone to just experiment. Isn’t that weird (laughs)? I just like to see things because I’m very impressionable and sometimes I go with the crowd a bit too much. I really want to experience things for myself on my own and see how that feels for me and how that makes me feel. I like travel especially when it is by myself. But I also like being picked up from the airport. I don’t like to find my way. That’s kind of what is good about coming home. When you are in another country you kind of have to figure things out. But when you are coming home there is the special treat that someone waits for like family or other familiar faces.
Imagine yourself you are a successful social entrepreneur and you having a speech at your former high school. What would you tell the students?
Have confidence in your dreams and follow them. I know it is such a cliché but it can never be said enough. Because at that age we are always so impressionable and young and we care what other people think; what do the parents say and what are the teachers saying? Everybody is just giving you an opinion you should be like this you should be like that. So I really like to encourage young people because that is what I feel I didn’t get. As much as nobody told me this nobody really developed my passion and my dreams and told me to believe in it and follow it. I always felt I might not be good enough. Maybe it is not enough. You know such a thinking.
“Can I just watch that mountain and not climb it?”
So you unnecessarily struggled because people just misguide you?
Not necessarily but nobody even said anything about it. Nobody said it’s OK to follow your dreams. It’s OK who you are. So that is the message I would give. It’s OK to be just yourself, follow your dreams and listen to your heart.
What are the next milestones for Kiondoo Kulture?
So many (laughs)? It looks like there is a mountain in front of you?
Can I just watch that mountain and not climb it (laughs)? So I really want to expand and get in-house production. I still outsource my production. Currently I moved from the guy I used to work with to another guy who has a much bigger capacity which is ok. He is into mass production so he’s bigger. But still I want to get my own machine and my own space where I just employ somebody and we can do some of the work in-house. So it’s basically just expansion and growth. I was thinking making about 10 million Schillings a year. It doesn’t seem too much. 10 million Kenyan Schillings is about 100 thousand dollars in a year. I think it’s OK between where we are right now and next year I want to get there. After that I want to get a masters.
Another thing I’m also curious about is that you mentioned that you employ 30 women in the local community. With the revenues coming are you planning to offer some additional programs? What ideas do you have to further build on the community and the existing skills?
For them my main plan is to build a community centre. So they can just a space to work from and also for other people to come. Because at the time they have to go to a market which is kind of far like 50 km away. It is quite far. So to have a community centre close to where they live and then they can display things there with a local shop. That is my vision. I also focus a lot on health. Moreover, I want to offer short courses for self-improvement.
Business in Kenya
I know you are Kenyan and you are born and also lived in Kenya. How is Kenya as a business environment?
I think doing business here is fairly easy but there are always challenges especially with the government, the Kenyan Revenue Authority. I haven’t come through any issues but I’m just bracing myself for all this. It looks like it’s going to be so scary. Also, I’m scared … the Kenyan market tends to not be so unique it’s not just a Kenyan problem. Whereby you start a business it’s your own idea then when guys see that you’re successful they start copying you and do the exact same thing you’re doing. There is not so much creativity flowing around. It is the whole topic about copyrights. My business is nothing that you can easily patent. For me I think in business my biggest fear is how to keep the originality of the brand, the designs and things like that.
Interviewed by Marlon
Interested in reaching out to Ivy? Connect with Kiondoo Kulture on Facebook or talk to her directly +254722899191