Along the stretch of Ngong Road near Dagoretti Corner is a group of furniture makers trying to rekindle interest in furniture and items made from papyrus as they endeavour to revive a largely unappreciated craft.
Using a product many consider a weed, the craftsemen make a variety of products, including beds, chairs, magazine racks, shelves and storage baskets.
The craftsmen say their products offer consumers an option apart from the traditional wooden, metallic or plastic ones. The say they also want to reduce wood harvesting, which is a threat to forest cover and fuels climate change.
Charles Okech, the proprietor of Jaduong’ Weavers, says he learnt his craft in the early ’70s from a friend in Mombasa before returning to his village in Ugenya, Siaya County, where he ventured into carpentry.
He moved to Nairobi in 1983 since carpentry was booming in the city at the time. However, as he grew older and could no longer do the demanding physical work required in carpentry, his love for a craft he had abandoned for a long time was rekindled.
In 2004, Oketch opened a workshop in Karen before moving to the expansive are known as Lenana. Then there were only three craftsmen in the area but now there are more than 10, he says.
Using papyrus, some sponge, a metal frame and fabric, Jaduong’, as he is popularly known, can make a variety of household items with remarkable dexterity. It takes him a week to make a three-piece suite.
He says the furniture is comfortable, durable, easy to refurbish and a break from the usual.
“I don’t regret venturing into this business. Carpentry is more lucrative but is energy-sapping and involves many processes, which is difficult at my age.”
He, however, regrets that the furniture does not move fast “since most Africans do not appreciate art and complain that the items are too expensive”. So the items are bought mainly by Whites, although some rich Africans have also started buying them.
A few metres down the road we find Samwel Ochieng’ at his workshop; it is bigger than Okech’s.
Like Okech, Ochieng’ regrets that papyrus furniture is still largely bought by Whites.
“I learnt this craft from my parents, who were also weavers,” he offers. “After they went back home, we (he and a colleague Allan Odhiambo) took over the business and revamped it in 2010 and can now make money from it.”
The papyrus, which they get from western Kenya, come in rolls comprising 30 bunches, cost between Sh5,000 and Sh6,000. For the sponge and fabric, they go to Gikomba Market.
Ochieng’ says it takes him a day and five bunches of papyrus to make a chair. The fabric he uses depends on the customer’s preference. A chair retails at Sh6,000; a five-seater suit that takes about a week to complete costs Sh20,000, while a 6x6 bed goes for Sh25,000.
He points out that Ngong Road is an ideal location since it is frequently used by the city’s rich, as well as Whites living in Karen.
Further ahead towards Karen is another weaver, Vincent Msango of Vincent Weavers, who migrated to Nairobi from Western Kenya in 2005.
“I learnt to weave from my parents; it is a family craft. I opened my first business in Western then came to Nairobi and worked for other people as I honed my skills and saved to raise enough capital to venture out on my own,” says Msango.
After gaining experience, he set up Vincent Weavers three years ago with the Sh50,000 he had raised and now makes a variety of items.
“I sell a sofa set for Sh25,000, a dog basket for Sh3,000, and a baby chair for Sh3,000,” he offers, adding that African furniture is going to be the next big thing because the pieces are portable, durable, easy to repair, and take up little space.
Business is good during the tourist high season, Ochieng’ says, adding that their location next to Ngong Road is an advantage since they are easily visible to customers.
Still, they all three agree that it will take a while for their products to truly catch on and rival wooden ones.
Among the challenges they face are competition from Chinese furniture, difficulty in getting materials, low sales, and a shortage of weavers. They say that plastic furniture from China is the greatest threat.
“The Chinese make plastic furniture on a large scale and sell it cheaply. They are taking over because theirs is smoother and cheaper, so some customers prefer them to ours,” says Ochieng’.
“Getting and transporting the reeds are also still very costly. I get my reeds from Busia and Kisumu, and many of areas where they used to grow have been turned into maize plantations, so we fear that soon we might not have any raw material,” Msango adds.