Kenyan textiles can compete with the best

Monday February 29 2016

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While in school, Wandia Gichuru always aspired to work independently.

Now, through sheer determination, hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit, she is living her dream.

She is the founder of Vivo, a clothing design and manufacturing firm that is set to compete with the best in the market. Ms Gichuru has worked creatively in the textile industry for the past five years focusing on women’s wear.

With no prior training in textiles, she overcome a steep learning curve and now wants to scale and compete with the likes of Spanish clothing and accessories retail giant Zara. To cut a long story short, she has succeeded widely.  

After graduating with an economics degree from University of Western Ontario in Canada, she began her working career as a banker at Citi Bank in Nairobi. She quit the job a few years later to join the University of Cape Town for an MBA degree. 

She then became a corporate woman for 20 years in a career spanning the World Bank, the UN and the British Department for International Development (DFID). Once again, she quit a well-paying job at DFID to found Vivo with four other relatives and friends.

She tells me that this new brand has great potential, and has been growing by between 30 to 50 per cent year-to-year, with seven outlets in Nairobi and Mombasa at present. The demand is so good that she is actively seeking space in Nairobi’s city centre. Online sales are on the rise and the local logistics firms have not let her down, always meeting her customer needs on time.

The author with Wandia Gichuru at Vivo. PHOTO |

The author with Wandia Gichuru at Vivo. PHOTO | COURTESY

Although she did everything by herself at the beginning, just like many start-ups, she quickly learnt to hire professionals and appointed a board of directors to help her run the enterprise. 

As a result, the company has grown to 40 employees and is looking to expand its retail network. She is very aware that if she wants to be a real big player in the market, she must outsource production and focus company energies on retail.

Her main challenge, however, is finding the right skills at all levels. The death of polytechnics in the country has hampered the expansion of mid-level skill sets, a challenge also echoed by my earlier interviewee, Ciiru Waweru at Funkidz. 

It is absurd to seek these skills outside the country when we have so many unemployed youths inside it. The few with the necessary training are unable to use modern computer-assisted manufacturing in virtually all forms of manufacturing.

Sadly, she tells me that existing colleges are teaching from the old sketchbooks. They need to wake up to today’s digital realities and urgently upgrade their curriculum to include computer-assisted techniques. 

To expand the textile industry, there is a dire need for textile design studios for knitting, weaving or printing, to provide foundations for design and technology that can provide for textile design development. 

The textile industry and universities that offer textile engineering training like Moi University must make these investments. Such facilities would enable wider product development for people like Ms Gichuru.

Through its loyalty program, Vivo gathers customer data and uses it to plan for production. At the touch of a button, she can tell you which colour and design of dress sells the most. 

This information is relayed to production and procurement to reduce the purchase of slow-moving items or increase purchases of fast-moving ones. She could do more with the data, for example, by using it do decide where the next outlet should be built. 

She is also yet to install a better and affordable cloud-based Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system to guarantee the security of her data resource. Automating her entire branch network is her biggest agenda and this will pay off hugely, since it will help to manage costs better and aid innovate on the business model. 

However, she has to do this urgently, given that global retail giants are targeting Kenya’s increasing middle-income earners. After the food industry, where new enterprises are springing up, retail is next considering that new malls are mushrooming all over the country. You just need to look at the tenant lists at the Hub and Two Rivers to know the future retail landscape.

Wandia’s strategy of using imported Jersey fabric has paid off because she does not need to produce all sorts of sizes to cover the entire diversity of womenfolk. Jersey is a stretchy material, so one size of the three from her production line can fit a wide range of sizes, sometimes up to four. 

She is also aware that the fashion industry can be dicey, which keeps her awake most of the time, knowing that while scaling up she must carefully increase her product line. She has had to read widely to know the trends and has leveraged social media, started to build the brand and recruited brand ambassadors.  

Although I did not probe into Wandia’s private life, I gathered that she keeps herself fit with a dose of yoga every morning, obviously while wearing Vivo Activewear. Some of her poses would scare the best-trained acrobats. While not at work, her two adorable daughters keep her busy.

Ms Gichuru, and a yoga pose. PHOTO | COURTESY

Ms Gichuru, and a yoga pose. PHOTO | COURTESY

There is abundant opportunity in the women’s wear line of business, and eliminating mitumba (used clothing) from our market is not so far-fetched. 

Since no one willingly wants to suffer the indignity of wearing used clothes, the clothing market in Kenya is good in the long term and Wandia is confident her high-quality product is affordably priced to give Kenyans the dignity they deserve. She prefers joint ventures to franchising although both models are good since they do not necessarily stretch the capacities of a central management team. 

Although there are a few challenges, such as pilferage and low margins, the retail business has a great potential. Technology is playing a major role in creating the necessary efficiencies that make the enterprises viable. 

There is, however, a great need for policy intervention. Kenya still has high poverty and unemployment, and reduced foreign exchange earnings due to exports of primary products with no value added, leading to slower economic growth.

The government came up with a long-term Vision 2030 in order to cope with these challenges, but the economy will have to grow consistently at more than 10 per cent annually in order for this vision to be achieved. 

Private sector players like Vivo have come through with investments in industrial production but we are not listening what industry needs to scale their enterprises. Issues like skills requirement should have been addressed. 

We shall never address the lack of productive employment opportunities and falling of real wages in nearly all the sectors of the economy if we do not re-skill or prepare new graduates for digital job requirements. 

There is not a single sector that is not using technology yet we are allowing young people to graduate without any exposure to manufacturing technology while universities and colleges rake in huge amounts of money from fees. These funds are rarely used to provide much-needed instructional resources.

Training institutions must, as part of branding, ensure that no one goes through a graduation ceremony without having been exposed to the necessary technologies of their respective trade.

The government has continued to react positively by facilitating SMEs (especially the creation of the SME Authority) to generate sustainable employment and income by formulating various policies to address constraints affecting the enterprises, but implementation of some policies remain a challenge. 

Since we have people taking their own risk in the textile industry, relevant institutions should be out there trying to develop the required resources to make our country competitive. 

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.