His passion for fashion started while in high school. But for Morris Njuguna Ndung’u, it was not until he completed high school and travelled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to visit a relative, that he realized that he also had a knack for entrepreneurship. During the visit, Morris often took time out to tour the streets and in one of his tours realized there was a shortage in the supply of encyclopedia revision textbooks in Dar es Salaam.
From the realization, the entrepreneur in him saw a business opportunity in which he started sourcing for the books in Kenya and going to sell them in Tanzania. He sold the books with a vision to raise enough capital which would enable him to start a business in his passion field of fashion. When his savings had totaled Sh27,000, Morris packed his bags and returned home to pursue his passion.
While still in high school, Morris had undertaken a fashion status research and had started getting an inclination for venturing into shoes business. He had also realized that a niche existed in the shoes business especially for young people. Before starting his business, he undertook further research and eventually settled for the shoes business niche.
“My research helped me to focus more on African shoes. I realized that most African shoes were being produced in West Africa and it then dawned on me that a niche in African shoes business exists in Kenya,” says the founder and CEO of VAAFRICA Group. The group specializes in the manufacture and selling of African shoes.
Why African Shoes?
The African shoe is inspired by the use of African fabric and textile in combination with other materials including leather. “The African Shoe was inspired by the famous Kitenge fabric but we have diversified to a bit of leather and other fabrics such as velvet, jute and jeans in our search for modernity and continuing adherence to ‘Africanness,” explains Morris.
VAAFRICA started production in a store in Kinoo on the outskirts of Nairobi but has since rented a house that is now equipped with machines including some for sewing and stitching the fabrics together and others for sandpapering, and softening the soles. The company has five employees involved in production and sources most of its raw materials, particularly for the soles and sole-making from Gikomba while the Kitenge fabrics are sourced from Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
For the firm, the youth and especially ladies are the main target market given their attachment to fashionable and comfortable shoes. “We regularly introduce different and attractive designs to attract and interest our customers,” state Morris. According to him VAAFRICA also has a male clientele who comprises about 35 per cent of the customers. Prices for the different designs range from Sh1,500 to Sh2,500.
The company markets its products through social media channels especially FaceBook. “We promote our shoes and related designs on our FaceBook page. Our distribution point is the shop at the Axiom One mall. Apart from individuals who buy directly from the shop, we also sell the shoes to wholesalers in Mombasa, Nakuru, Murang’a, Kisumu and Garissa,” explains Morris. Moreover, the company is able to sell to distributors in South Africa and across East Africa because it has earned the Kenya Bureau of Standards certification.
According to Morris, normal production is often guided by the type of shoes the company is promoting each particular season. When it started, the firm used to produce less than four pairs a day and about 100 pairs a month but today it produces 20 pairs a day and 500 to 600 pairs a month depending on demand and orders.
As a small and medium enterprise, VAAFRICA lacks expansion capital and was indeed established with personal savings. “I have cultivated personal discipline that enables me to plough all my profits into the business,” confesses Morris. Acceptance has also been a challenge with people being skeptical that VAAFRICA can manufacture shoes. Others have cast doubts on the shoes quality and durability. Yet, according to Morris, the shoes last for over twelve months depending on how customers mind them. “Our return customers and referrals have confirmed to us that the shoes are durable,” he avers.
Lack of equipment, most of which are unavailable locally has been another challenge. “Most of equipment used in shoe manufacturing is not locally available. These are only available overseas in countries such as China and are thus quite expensive to procure,” Morris explains. Lack of shoe manufacturing skills is yet another challenge but the passion in his employees is enabling them to learn and innovate.
Among the lessons that Morris has gained from the enterprise are the essence for an entrepreneur to be patient. “It pays to be patient and to conduct research so that one thoroughly understands the market. It’s also critical for one to understand his or her competition,” explains Morris.
VAAFRICA learnt the hard way that one should not be too trusting. “We used to send shoes to our customers and distributors on credit and some of them would default in payment. Consequently, all our clients now have to pay upfront before we can give out or deliver the shoes,” he states.
Despite being relatively young, VAAFRICA has realized some attainments that include growth of its workforce from two to five today. The four are involved in manufacturing while one is dedicated to deliveries. Production started in Nairobi but the company has been able to deliver shoes to different counties and is still committed to expanding its production and reach. “We have managed to sell shoes to models in the Caribbean and US and we today manufacture from a branded rented space from the store area that we occupied at our infancy,” he asserts.
The company has also been involved in some innovative measures. “We compete with big brands such as Nike and Adiddas so we have to innovate and search for unique fabrics that are fitting for modern times. We have partnered with Afrobertine, manufacturers of unique women’s handbags whose innovative colours and styles blend well with our shoes. We sell the shoes and bags to match and they also sell the bags and shoes to match,” Morris adds.
VAAFRICA is working to have a product that shall also match with men’s shoes in the near future. VAAFRICA is also keen to expand its display and collection shop at the Axiom One Mall and also reach a wider market and more supermarkets in the country. “We are endeavoring to patent the shoes we sell in Africa and overseas. We are also in touch with the Ethiopian founder of Sole Labels from whom we learn valuable lessons in the shoe manufacturing business,” adds Morris.
In the near future, VAAFRICA plans to provide shoe-making skills to selected and interested people along streets and in slums to help them become gainfully self-employed. Strategies are also in place to make the VAAFRICA Africa brand more popular and to increase production.
Morris appreciates the continuing support the company has received from customers and partners. “We thank all of you for embracing the African footwear. We shall continue giving you the best service and most innovative footwear. Those who are yet to wear our shoes should visit our shop to realize the gem they have been missing in their shoes racks,” Morris says further advising entrepreneurs not to despair in their ventures, to be patient and to take the initiative for business growth instead of only waiting for change to happen.
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