While visiting Malindi in 2017, Caroline Ng’ang’a, 37, came across various artisans and could not help being impressed by the quality of their products. After interacting with them, she realised that each of them faced different challenges in pursuit of their craft, with a number of them singling out poor product development, poor designs and a fair market.
This interaction inspired a business idea that would make their work easier and help them find a solution for the challenges they were experiencing.
She started her startup, Crafts with Meaning, a social enterprise based in Nairobi which looks after the artisans’ welfare, showing them how to earn a fair living using their talents and the raw materials available within their environment.
“The artisans were talented weavers, but made little to no income from their talent. They needed support to design their products better, to do high quality value addition and to market these products across the world, converting their talents into successful businesses,” says Caroline.
Crafts with Meaning creates and manufactures products “inspired by the African spirit”, as Caroline puts it, for everyday use. The products include home décor accessories, corporate merchandise and lifestyle items such as bags, wallets and belts. They do the manufacturing at their workshop in Nairobi and also collaborate with producers from seven counties in Kenya. They also have a footing in Kampala, Uganda.
When she started her venture, Caroline’s aim was to bridge local artisans with access to a better market for their products, spurring their economic growth within their rural communities.
“We provide a better market for merchandise produced by various local artisan groups across the country and beyond East Africa,” she explains.
With some personal savings and seed capital of Sh3 million extended to her by a mentor who believed in the potential of the idea, the business turnover has grown to over Sh10 million.
“The reception in the market was good. This prompted me to recruit more artisans. Later, I met a group of wood carvers from Mombasa County who formed a cooperative with over 400 members before expanding to seven other counties and later getting into Uganda.”
So far, the business has created opportunities for more than 300 artisans in Kenya and a team of 22 women based in Uganda - this group designs and makes home décor products.
“Our partners do not require help in form of aid and donations. What they need is reliable business partners to take their talents to the next level, which can be difficult. They are happy we came through to help them with that,” she says.
The business sources the raw materials from the localities where the artisans live. These include sisal, reeds, the doum palm and other natural fibers. Other raw materials such as fabrics and leather are sourced from local millers and tanneries, with very few being imported.
“Our production process is made up of two components, one that is done by our artisan partners in their homes, followed by the value addition process that is carried out at our factory in Nairobi.”
Caroline adds that they design the products to be made by the artisans and then send the designs to the production groups for execution, even though some products are manufactured fully at the Nairobi workshop.
“We mostly sell to corporates, though we also distribute to the retail market through our retail outlets, known as Atisano. Some of our products can be found in partner outlets and gift shops. We are stocked at a select number of Naivas supermarket branches, onntheway outlets, shopzetu.com, sky.garden and the giraffe center gift shop.’’
Currently, Crafts with Meaning has over 50 stock keeping units and is growing every day. Their products range in price from Sh300 to Sh25, 000 and include bags, home decor, corporate merchandise and lifestyle accessories.
The businesswoman points out that the pricing depends on the product at hand, the effort and value created by the artisan and the value addition done at the workshop.
The products are hand-woven.
Home decorations such as wall hangings include ‘star eye bowls’ wall décor which sells for Sh10, 500, mixed bowls wall decor and red and blue bowl wall hanging which cost Sh8, 500 respectively.
House sandals, designed using the signature Maasai shuka, sell at Sh1,000, canvas tote bags at Sh3,500 and tote bags at Sh3,000 while leather sling bags cost up to Sh5,000. The popular Kiondo sling bags cost Sh4, 000.
They also sell laundry baskets, coasters, placemats and throw pillows.
Besides this, they produce conference and corporate merchandise such as branded bags, laptop sleeves, pouches and an assortment of handmade gift items and gift packages and items made from leather made using a wide range of fabrics.
The artisans are paid a negotiated rate per piece depending on size and design of the product, a wage which they discuss openly during meetings with the groups.
“We are empowering them economically by providing a ready market, besides enabling the artisans to showcase their products to our clientele. In return, we pay them a fair wage that allows them a comfortable living.”
The company has adopted customer solution based sales and marketing approaches and uses various marketing platforms to sell their products. Apart from a shop located at The Well in Karen, they market their products through social media platforms and local exhibitions. They also have a market in the US and Germany.
The startup has a couple of boutique stores in the US that stock their hand-woven home decor products such as baskets and hand-woven tidies produced by artisans from Turkana County.
While they have served over 1,000 retail and corporate clients and have sold tens of thousands of individual and bulk products, organisations such as the World Bank Group, Magical Kenya, UN Women, United Women Sacco, Pharmaceutical Society of Kenya and The Stanford University in the US are among the few brands that have sampled their products.
The company, which has employed 20 full-time staff that work alongside over 300 artisans to provide their clients with premium quality products, have had their fair share of challenges.
“At the beginning, working capital was a challenge, no bank was willing to believe in a dream that had not been actualised. This has been resolved as the business grew and we have now been able to access capital from grants and commercial facilities.”
Another challenge has been the raw quality of accessories they find in the local market for use in the manufacturing process. To overcome this challenge, Caroline says that they import some of these accessories from specific manufacturers.”
These include zippers, some specialised fabrics and metallic accessories. Another major challenge has been the scarcity of specialised technical workforce such as tailors and leather technicians. This, they have resolved by internally training and retaining young upcoming trainees in this field.
They, however, say a significant challenge has been the standardisation of products made by different artisans.
“Most of the artisans have had the skill passed down through family generations, as such, everyone has their work accent. Strict standardisation of products to meet, for example, export certification, is a challenge we are actively working on.”
Apart from having several awards to her name, in 2020, Caroline received a grant from the World Bank through MbeleNaBiz business plan competition, and initiative of the government of Kenya, while in 2022, the business received grant funding from Citi Bank Foundation and recently won a business pitch competition and price money from Stanbic Bank Foundation and the United States African Development Foundation.
An accountant by training and a statistics degree holder from the University of Nairobi and a MBA from USIU-Africa, Caroline’s greatest point of pride and impact is the lives her startup is transforming in the villages where they work through expanded income to their artisan partners.
“We are currently enjoying significant growth with our current product lines and will continue to build on that. We are also looking to introduce a new line in the next two years and hopefully move some of our manufacturing to a rural town,” she offers.