When he is not working on c a fashion brand he created while in university, Joel Meshak, 24, is creating digital art, which he sells over the internet.
That might sound straightforward, but it is not, because the art he creates, being not in physical form, might never be downloaded and printed to be hung up on a wall. Meshak’s creative visual work is available as Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) and is stored on a blockchain, a digital ledger of sorts that cannot be changed.
“Unofficially, I started designing clothes in 2015 as a hobby before deciding to start the brand “Naivaa” in 2017. What started as this inherent need to design my own clothes so I could stand out turned into an avenue for me to express positive messages and champion for social change through an established fashion business,’’ he explains.
During the first two years of launching his business, Meshak was focused on building his brand, producing ma fund collections from profits made by the business.”
Naivaa product prices range between Sh1, 000 and Sh5, 000: baseball caps and chains go for Sh1, 000, while hoodies range from Sh3, 000 to Sh5, 000 depending on the material, design and customisations requested.
“To date, we have sold between 500 and 700 products since we started. Most of our collections consist of carefully curated limited pieces that convey a specific message,” he further explains, adding that since he outsources most of the expertise when it comes to different products, he engages different sources for each product.
“The leather we use is locally sourced, so is the upcycled brass we use. As for some of our t-shirts and hoodies, we bring them in from the UK because we need them to comprise of at least 80 percent cotton for the direct-to-garment printing method we use.”
Meshak says that the business capitalises on social media to reach its target market, specifically Instagram, where they use creative concept videos for their marketing campaigns.
“I directed the videos and designed the artwork. I slowly gained traction on social media platforms and begun making sales because people were connected to the messages we would spread through our pieces.”
He says that a campaign during the launch of their dark brown hoodies called Chokoleti, which was about body positivity, encouraging people to be comfortable in their own skin, went mini-viral on Twitter and Instagram.
At the moment, Meshak does not have any employees as when he needs to outsource certain services, he either hires or signs short-term agreements.
“I have been able to create awareness on certain social issues and introduced a new design language that represents Nairobi in a positive way to shed light on the creative industry,” he says, adding that through his campaigns, Naivaa has created opportunities for models, photographers and other artists to not only earn from his craft, but also gain experience and learn from him.
As for his other business, digital art, just like a physical art piece, there are many steps to creating and finally selling digital art pieces, which he says are inspired by his personal, business and social life. He creates them through photography and videography, his aim to celebrate black culture.
“There is the conceptualisation and idea phase, research and collection of materials, actual execution of the work, marketing and then distribution. I use most of the apps in the Adobe Suite: Photoshop, Illustrator, Lightroom and Premier Pro to bring the ideas for my digital mixed media collages to life.’’
Once he has created the work, he mints it – this describes the process of uploading the work to the Ethereum Blockchain, after which he pays to list it for sale by setting a minimum price that sets off a 24-hour auction.
“The value of an NFT is determined by utility of the specific project and reputation of the artist posting the work. The fact that ownership can be verified when it is posted to the Ethereum blockchain means that you can prove the origin and authenticity of the asset by looking at the logs of recorded transactions,’’ he explains.
“Currently, I have NFTs in two different platforms, Open Sea and Foundation. In case someone sets off the digital auction and wins it, cryptocurrency is transferred to your digital wallet as payment for the piece. Right now we mostly use the digital coin Ethereum.”
After receiving it in his digital wallet, Meshak has the option of reinvesting in cryptocurrency, other artists’ NFTs or trading for fiat (normal physical currency) via M-PESA.
While they have been around for a while, NFTs caught the attention of Kenyans in 2021 when it was reported that record-breaking marathoner Eliud Kipchoge had sold his NFTs for Sh4 million.
“I had not heard about NFTs before 2021. The biggest motivation was seeing other people making money through digital art. But with time I realised there’s so much more: you get connections, you meet new artists, you get to see people’s stories and you generally build an actual community online.”
Meshak points out that NFTs open up a variety of opportunities for artists to get enfranchised and earn a living by having their work bought since it is open to a global market of interested parties.
“The youth can eventually use this avenue to bring innovation to their different sectors of expertise, not just art. We have young emerging artists in Kenya who are part of the “Mbogi ya NFT” Twitter group who are doing amazing music NFTs, photography and building virtual worlds in the metaverse.”
Meshak is passionate about integrating innovation in his fashion design. He aspires to continue finding better and more sustainable ways of expressing his brand design language.
“I am working with a 3D artist to visualise some of my products and sell them as limited edition NFTs. Collectors of these pieces will receive perks such as early access to future physical collections and exclusive content as well,’’ he says, and adds that they are looking into integrating immersive Augmented Reality experiences to their next line of graphic T-shirts.
In 2021, Meshak was one of the 21 emerging digital artists of African heritage featured by the African art collective, Cyber Baat, which launched its inaugural exhibition "Distorted Realities" in Dakar Senegal.
“I was nominated for FOYA African Fashionpreneur of the Year, Under 30 Category in 2021 and finished in the top 3 nominees from Kenya. In 2019, the German Agency for International Cooperation, (GIZ) selected me as one of 30 brand owners in Africa, and in 2018 I was among the 5 business owners selected as part of the Fashion Product Lab 3.0 by Metta Nairobi.”
Meshak hopes to increase Naivaa’s reach to East and Central Africa within the next two years and have at least two flagship stores in Kenya.