Christine Atieno-Kihara, 27, entered the bag business when her flour distribution business washed away, leaving her broke. She speaks to Florence Bett-Kinyatti.
“I knew exactly what I wanted when I started my business: I wanted to design and manufacture affordable, faux leather handbags for women in Africa. I didn’t want to use pure leather because it’s a costly luxurious material. Faux leather also has a shorter product life in comparison, but when it’s high grade like ours and the bag is well cared for, it can run the miles. I wanted to sell them for Sh500 so we could compete with the bags imported from China.
“The idea for Afro Bertine was born in December 2014, out of desperation for cash. It had been a difficult year for me – that October, when my son was three months old, a successful unga supply business I’d been running in Kamulu for a year collapsed. We’d been supplying grade-one maize meal flour to supermarkets, distributors and wholesalers across the country; the unga was called Kikwetu.
"There’d been a flood in Kamulu and the roof of the maize plant caved in: I lost my machinery, several gunias of maize and bags of flour ready for dispatch. I don’t remember the total value of the loss; I’ve kept it in the deepest darkest part of my mind because I don’t like to think about it. But it was a huge and bitter loss.
"Insurance didn’t compensate me. I chopped off my hair in frustration. What worsened our situation is that my husband’s contract at work wasn’t renewed.
“My friends ask how I kept from falling into depression; I tell them it’s because everything was in the hands of God. It still is.
“That December, we had only Sh1,000 to celebrate Christmas. We didn’t even pay rent. What kept us going was the cash I was expecting from the supermarkets I’d been supplying to – their payment terms had been credit, never cash-on-delivery.
"One mistake I’d made in my unga business – one I’m not repeating in Afro Bertine – was that I never saved any cash. I didn’t even pay myself a salary; all what remained after settling expenses, I ploughed back to finance our growth.
“After my husband and I brainstormed on the handbag idea, I bought a few metres of faux leather from a supplier on Ngong Road and a Juke sewing machine from one of my old acquaintances. I paid him the only Sh20,000 I had and promised to pay the 50 per cent balance over time.
"Then I went to YouTube and watched all the tutorial videos I could find about how to make leather handbags and how to use a sewing machine. Most of them were using pure leather, though, so I developed my own hacks on how to use faux leather.
"We made our first bag in January 2015. We called the design ‘Sunny’.
“The bag was a bit stiff and the stitching wasn’t very good but I was proud of it. It has a lot of sentimental value, I can’t sell it to anyone. I made a couple more in different designs then took them to the street hawkers in the CBD to sell for Sh500. They went like hot cakes.
"I designed more bags and got two more employees to help me. We were making about 10 pieces a day and by May, 70 to 100 pieces. My bags caught the eye of one of the largest handbag distributors in town; he asked me to take him some bags. I was thrilled! But after inspecting them, he said our quality wasn’t up to his standard. His words stung me to my soul and I returned home in hot tears.
“We started getting a lot of feedback from our customers about little aspects of the bags to improve. I learned that my customers didn’t want cheap bags – they were willing to pay Sh750 to get better stoppers and stronger zippers, cleaner finishing and stronger leather in different colours. My customers taught me the art of listening. We stitched our logo on the body of the bag because we had several imitators who didn’t give a mind to quality.
“My business took a complete turnaround in January 2017, when we released the ‘Queen Bag’ – it’s made of polyester canvas with a screen print of an African woman in a turban. It retailed at Sh650 and was an instant hit. We were selling about 80 to 100 pieces a day. The ‘Queen Bag’ is what prompted me to get more employees and move production from home to our workshop in Utawala.
"I also got a full scholarship for an entrepreneurship programme with Mbugua Rose Foundation. I’d gotten into self-employment immediately after my diploma in aeronautical engineering with the East Africa School of Aviation, in 2013 – all what I knew about running a business I’d picked up from making costly mistakes along the way.
“The programme also taught me how to scale up, have an efficient team of only 17, manage the costs of importing our leather and fittings from China. I appreciated the potential and value in my business. It also reminded me that you lose nothing when you pursue what you love.”