What you need to know:
- Soi is the founder and CEO of Soi Design Studio, a bespoke furniture studio that specialises in unique wooden pieces.
- She specialises in the production of rustic furniture, her pet raw material being recycled pallets.
Growing up, Catherine Soi, 36, aspired to be a journalist, and after completing secondary school she did join college to study journalism. She would, however, drop out before completing her studies due to lack of school fees.
In an effort to make ends meet, she tried out a number of ventures before settling on carpentry, which she was familiar with having watched some of relatives at work. She even knew the materials she would use to make her furniture - pallets.
Now, a carpenter who has made a name for herself in this sector, she is making a handsome living from the trade which was born by chance out of the hardship that she went through as she struggled to make ends meet without formal qualification.
Her search for a suitable business to go into begun in 2003 when it became clear that she would not complete college and achieve her dream career. She tried her hand on a number of jobs, including agribusiness, growing and selling potatoes in Bomet County, a venture that did not do so well.
At some point, she got a job manning an M-Pesa shop, and later carried out sales for a phone manufacturer, but both jobs came to a frustrating end.
In 2017, desperate for money, she decided to sell her seats, which she had made herself using pallets. She posted it on social media, hoping for a quick sale, and was surprised by the number of people who showed interest in it. What if she made such seats for sale? She thought to herself. This is how her business idea came about.
Soi is the founder and CEO of Soi Design Studio, a bespoke furniture studio that specialises in unique wooden pieces that are made from recycled pallets that “augment and compliment urban lifestyle”.
She operates from her three-bedroom home in Ogango estate, Kisumu, a space that she rents for Sh30,000 per month. She specialises in the production of rustic furniture, her pet raw material being pallets.
“We make furniture using recycled wood, this way, we play our role to save the environment,” she explains, saying that when she begun the business, she found a place where she bought a pallet at Sh250 a piece.
“I bought eight pieces and made a seven-seater with them, a project that took me six days. After completion, I posted them on Instagram – they were bought the same day, and I also received four orders whose deposits were paid by noon that same day,” she says.
She made Sh28,000 from that sale.
Soi learnt carpentry from her grandfather and uncles who were carpenters. She found that handling hammers, saws and other tools came naturally to her.
“I went for pallets because they were the most easily available materials for me at the time. I, however, had no idea that the one seat I was making for myself would turn out to be a business that would later sustain me and my four children,” she says.
From making household furniture such as seats, tables and beds for home owners, Soi now makes commercial furniture for businesses such as hotels and offices.
“I supply and deliver furniture all over the country, though most of my clients are in Kisumu,” she says.
“My first big job was at Club Da Place in Kisumu. They paid me Sh500,000 for a project, and after delivering on that, more people started taking me seriously,” she says.
A set of seven seater seats costs Sh30,000 to Sh80,000 depending on the material used and where it is being delivered while a 6 x 6 bed costs Sh28,000 to Sh60,000 while the cost of a table goes from Sh5,000 depending on size and design.
Commercial furniture costs between Sh150,000 to Sh800,000 depending on the number of pieces and design and accessories. She has managed to capture her clientele’s attention with her ability to play around with different designs, making her products unique.
The internet has proved to be a very useful tool in her design process. Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are some of the platforms that she uses to check out different designs and also to share her work with enthusiasts and potential customers.
“Lately, I have been doing a lot more original designs. I just sit down and draw sketches until I find something that looks good, then I build it,” she explains.
Most of her clients come from social media. Her main clients are Kenyans living abroad who mostly buy to furnish their Kenyan homes and people she describes as “lovers of nature.” Her most fast-moving creations right now are bar counters and furniture for restaurants as well as seats for individuals.
“Not everybody finds this stuff fancy, you have to have the taste for it, you have to love the cracks and the burns,” she comments.
Three years into the business, she says that what keeps her going other than the passion for what she does is the support she gets from friends, who, even though they do not always buy, consistently leave encouraging comments on her social media posts.
The biggest turning point in her business, she says, came when she won the BLAZE award, presented by BLAZE by Safaricom in 2018.
“They helped me to understand that my business was a separate entity from myself. I learnt how to handle my finances and keep the business money separate from my own, and also how to keep proper records and how to do client pitches,” she says.
She was also nominated for the Lake Basin Business Leaders’ Awards under the category of Best Female Run Enterprise in 2019.
She has been invited and enrolled in social entrepreneurs’ accelerator programmes such as YGAP, an international development organisation that supports early-stage social impact ventures with locally-led solutions to local problems as well as and Nosotras Women Connecting. Additionally, she has gone through secondment programmes for small business leaders in Kenya sponsored by the UK Kenya tech hub.
If there was one thing she knows today that she wishes she knew when starting out, she says it would be the importance of having a properly registered business with all the statutory documents and records in place.
Her business currently employs 17 people, 10 women and seven men Depending on the workload, she sometimes takes on board four casual workers.
“Being a male-dominated industry, I am motivated when I see more women venturing into carpentry, and I make a point of employing more women in my company. I want to create decent work and economic growth for women across the country by also expanding my value chain to major cities in the country,” she says.
She also works with women from various minority groups, teaching them what she does and what she has learnt so far in her entrepreneurship journey. Her main challenge is getting good carpenters, and since the style is unique, she needs to train them how to make her kind of furniture.
The cost of equipment she uses is also high. She has also struggled to earn her clients’ trust, given the fact that she is a woman – her experience is that it takes a lot of convincing to convince a new client to entrust her with a job.
The project she is working on at the moment is setting up a carpentry training center for young girls who have been unable to get white collar jobs, hence creating employment for them.