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The 'fundi' with a colourful, determined 'sole'

Friday February 21 2020

Humphrey Obell

Humphrey Obell poses with one of his bags at his workshop at Santack Estate on Ngong Road, Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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While still a third year student at the University of Nairobi, Humphrey Obell, 25, met a man who dramatically changed the course of his life.

“I was strolling around the school compound one day when I came across a fundi (craftsman) who made leather bags. I was interested in what he was doing so I approached him. I learnt that he once worked at Rift Valley Leathers limited, a company that produces leather items. He had put up the workshop after being fired from the company and I thought that was very impressive,” he says.

There and then, Humphrey volunteered to help him market his business. He opened Facebook and Instagram accounts for him and posted images of the bags he made. Whenever he was not in class, he would be at the fundi’s workshop either observing him as he worked on the bags or taking social media pictures for the social media accounts. After some time, he started helping the fundi purchase the raw materials he needed to make the bags from the market.

“After about six months, I thought of starting a shoe line in partnership with the fundi. However, I realised that he was focused only on making bags. We ended up parting ways because I really wanted to deal in shoes,” Humphrey says.

That marked the beginning of his journey into entrepreneurship. Through online research and how-to videos, Humphrey built on the skills he had learnt from the fundi, but he soon found out that there were no proper avenues where he could practice or perfect his skills.

“I watched several online tutorials and combined this knowledge with the skills I had learnt from observing the fundi while he was making bags. I realised that making shoes is not too difficult. Once I could design and stitch the shoes, all I needed was to get the measurements right,” he says.


However, Humphrey needed to come up with a good strategy fast, because he was still in school and lacked the financial resources he needed to buy machines and raw materials.

“Because I did not have enough capital, I obtained the raw materials such as denim and leather on credit. Denim cost Sh500 per metre, and then I got off-cuts of leather, not full pieces, at around Sh1,000. These I took to the fundis I had chosen to work with, and requested them to make the shoes and then allow me to pay them later. They agreed to this because I had already established a good rapport with them while I was volunteering for the bag seller,” he said.

From his first set of material, Humphrey got five pairs of shoes in different designs. He took photos of them using his mobile phone and posted them on social media. Before long, his followers started making orders.

“I asked my clients to pay as they order so that I could afford more raw materials to work on my next items,” he says.

Together with his fundis, Humphrey made and sold more pairs. By volunteering at the bag seller’s small enterprise, Humphrey had learnt how to reach potential clients. He knew which events to go to, what kind of items to make, who to target, and how to approach them.

He sold his first bag at Sh2,500, but this amount has now increased to between Sh3,500 and Sh10,000 depending on the design. His bags go for between Sh2,500 and Sh70,000, while wallets cost Sh2,000.

“I continued to learn from the fundis at Kibera where I started and after four months, it was time to set up my own workshop. The rent was around Sh6,000 a month in Kibera, and most of the raw materials were readily available.

“I got a machine at Sh12,000 with money loaned to me by my mother, and I got a fundi to help me do the stitch work. I needed more machines, but I just started with the little I had. I then registered my company — Leathafreek, in 2016,” he says.

Humphrey credits his big break to a pair of shoes he made for TV personality Larry Madowo.

“I once posted some of my shoes online and someone who worked with Larry told me that he wanted a pair. When I delivered the shoes, Larry took pictures and shared them on social media. He also introduced me to some of his friends and even mentioned my company on The Trend show which he hosted at the time. More TV personalities contacted me and placed orders, and this really helped me publicise my business,” he says

He now has five machines including the skiving machine for reducing the gauge of leather, Walking Foot for sewing light leather items, and the Twin Needle for double stitching. Their workshop on Ngong road has six employees.

“Our revenue has grown impressively, and we have clients from many parts of the world, including the US. Our biggest order in terms of volume was making 1,000 wallets for a local company.

I recently registered as a member of the Kenya National Trading Corporation Limited, a government entity that promotes wholesale and retail trade in the country,” he says.

Now that they are well established, Leathafreek also produces items for other upcoming companies that do not yet have the capacity to produce their own products. This is their biggest clientele, currently, although he still sells his shoes online.

“My greatest challenge has been to bring the best out of all my employees and get them to work towards the company’s mission.

“I am always willing to train all those I work with, as long as they are focused and disciplined. It is difficult to meet someone who is already skilled in making shoes and bags. I am planning to open a training facility to prove that indeed, one can make money through such craft. Sometimes the golden opportunities are right there in front of you.” he says.