Jacinta Kioko at her shop in Karen, Nairobi. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO
Diaspora:How designer carved out a niche in local, foreign markets
After 12 years of studying and working in the United States, Jacinta Kioko moved back to Kenya with her family in 2005.
She had one mission — to set up a home décor and accessories store. But it wasn’t as easy as she had thought. She had no idea where to start.
Eventually, she opted for employment. Kioko, who has a Masters in Visual Arts from William Paterson University in the US, took up a job as as a graphic designer at a local advertising agency in 2006. After working for a year, the long hours wore on her. Besides, she still wanted to pursue her dream of setting up her business.
She took up another job as a product designer for a local crafts store to create a new line of contemporary soapstone home accessories. This task, to her surprise, came to her so easily.
“Soapstone just fell into my lap. It’s an organic product; you can do pretty much anything with soapstone,” she says.
After a few months, she revived her dream of opening her business. Still, it was not a walk in the park but the obstacles she faced forced her to show more determination.
In 2008, she walked into Spinners Web, a local crafts and home accessories store and inquired if they would be willing to take her pieces for sale at the shop. And Lady Luck smiled on her. Jacqueline Resley, the founder and chief executive of the store, accepted to meet and talk to her. Kioko considers Resley her mentor and credits her for the success of her business.
“Resley was so encouraging; she gave me so many ideas and answered my questions.” At the end of the meeting, Resley offered Kioko three shelves to showcase her products at the Spinners Web shop located in Spring Valley, Nairobi.
And that was the birth of Niro Collections. Kioko named it after her children.
Nine years later, Niro Collections has three stores across Nairobi and also supplies to US and UK retail stores.
What is an average day like for you?
It’s not an average eight to five job. I mix it up with some personal errands, like pick up the kids from school, go for yoga and then go to the workshop to see what stock needs to be sent to stores based on deliveries of our products from Kisii. Then we weigh the products (we pay artisans by weight) and unpack the product for quality checks. On Mondays, we send out new orders to artisans, specifying the quantities, designs and colours and revert on any feedback of samples sent to me. Artisans also get a weekly invoice for any new orders and payments for the previous week.
How many people do you employ?
Direct workers are 15. That is two who help with administration and product quality control and 13 producers who can manage a full order; they carve, paint and design the accessories. I have worked with some of them for nine years; it’s been growth of an amazing partnership.
What inspires your designs?
Some of it is through a lot of reading. Going through old literature; I love vintage art and designs, architecture, which I research on the internet. I also look at old African beadwork and fabric making books. I also attend a lot of Art and Photography exhibitions. At times I get inspiration from a single pattern and create designs. At times, it comes to me in my sleep. I always have a notebook next to my bed.
How did you fund your enterprise?
Niro Collections is 100 per cent self-funded; through my savings, contributions from my husband, siblings and mother. I also freelance as a graphic designer.
How long was it before the business started building a cash flow?
It took five years for the business to pick up, but I couldn’t pay myself a full salary. Still, it’s a bit of a struggle because it’s hard to get access financing like other industries. You only get funding when you have collateral that financial institutions see as viable assets.
How do you market your products? Having my products at Spinner’s Web has been my main source of marketing; people call me once they’ve seen my work there. It has been heavily word of mouth advertising. In 2014, I attended every craft fair in Kenya; I have been to Gilgil, Naivasha and across Nairobi.
How did you tap into the international market?
They found me at the craft shows that I constantly attended. These companies head hunt at craft fairs. I now supply some stores in the US and UK. Most of my designs are used at events like weddings. I also get orders online through my website.
Where can people get your products?
You can find them at Spinner’s Web in Spring Valley, Lang’ata Link in Karen, just opposite the Kenya School of Law, and the Craft Shop at Yaya Centre, all in Nairobi. You can also order through my website; www.nirocollections.com.
What are some of the challenges you face?
Pricing my products was a challenge; it’s only four years ago that I got a hang of it. I was constantly running at a loss. Resley was very instrumental in helping me with my pricing.
What’s your advice to young artisans who want to turn their craft into a business?
You need to have a very clear vision of where you want to go beyond making one-off pieces. It’s a bad sign if your only customers are your family. You need to put yourself out there, fundraise money to set up a stand and attend a craft show. That is where your market is and you will get immediate response from your consumers.
But your sales also need to be more than the investment of your stand. You need to also expand beyond craft shows; you have to go where people will buy your products.