Chebet Mutai tells African stories with leather bags

Monday December 18 2017

Chebet Mutai of the Wazawazi brand.

Chebet Mutai of the Wazawazi brand. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

By MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
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Before Chebet Mutai founded Wazawazi and started making high-styled leather bags, she was a trained economist who worked as a consultant at the World Bank.

“It was while I was at the World Bank that I saw that Africa needed more entrepreneurs and more manufacturing to solve some of our continent’s major problems, like unemployment among our youth,” says Chebet who became an entrepreneur herself in 2012.

She’s been on a learning curve ever since. Initially, she went into fashion design. But it didn’t take her long to realise the way she really wanted to go was into specialising in high-styled leather bags.

OPEN-MINDED

“I design all my bags,” she told the Business Daily. But beyond the designs, Ms Chebet knew she would need to set up a workshop. At first, her bags were made in her house. But gradually, as interest in her designs picked up, she realised she’d need a bigger place.

It took some time for her to find that space. But then friends introduced her to the Jamhuri Showgrounds where there were vacant spaces that seemed vast. They had high ceilings and plenty of room for the sort of set up she hoped to establish as her business grew.

By then, her brand name, Wazawazi had been born and her branded bags were breaking into the local leather goods market. “I made up the name ‘wazawazi’ using two Kiswahili words,” she explains. “It basically means ‘open-minded’ since waza means ‘to think’ and wazi means ‘to be open’.”

Being ‘open-minded’ is the way Ms Chebet feels more people ought to be. It’s also the way she sees increasing numbers of young Africans thinking about what they want to do and be in the wider world today.

“I’d also like the world to be open-minded enough to recognise and appreciate where Africa is going because modern Africans are moving fast and setting trends that are exciting and innovative,” she adds.

Wazawazi makes everything from leather backpacks and clutch bags to change purses and laptop or tablet leather cases. But one thing Wazawazi is definitely not, emphasises Chebet, is a leather tannery.

One of Chebet's creations. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

One of Chebet's creations. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

“There are plenty of excellent tanneries in Kenya already. It’s from them that we get our leather and then create our bags.”

When Ms Chebet went into business, she initially promoted her bags by word of mouth. That had worked well for the first couple of years, especially as her former World Bank friends have become some of her best clients.

But she no longer counts on casual contacts. Instead, she’s found it’s quite useful to attend trade fairs and commercial conferences where she can meet people, particularly those who can help her distribute her bags and establish broader, more global networks. Thus far, she’s attended trade fairs everywhere from Hong Kong and Frankfurt to Las Vegas and New York.

TELL OUR OWN STORIES

But as keen as she is for Waziwazi to go global, Ms Chebet is also concerned about addressing some of the challenges she identified in the region way back when she was at World Bank.

Issues like training of young people in entrepreneurship and helping to eradicate unemployment are still close to her heart. Her workshop is one arena where she’s doing what she can for the youth who come to her looking for work.

Just a year ago, Ms Chebet also opened a Wazawazi shop in Nairobi’s Valley Arcade. It is from there that she wants to do more than just sell her stylish bags.

“I’d like the shop to be a space where creativity can flourish, where other artists can bring their artistic expressions, be they in the shape of visual art, jewellery, music, fashion or even books,” she says.

“I’d like that space to serve fellow storytellers, since I feel the time has come for Africans to share their stories, and not for others to tell our stories for us.”

To her, the region is moving fast into the future and the rest of the world isn’t necessarily aware of how enlightened, progressive and pace-setting young Africans are.

“That’s why we need to be the ones to tell our stories of modern Africa.” Ultimately, that’s what Chebet wants ‘Wazawazi’ to be and do.