Gloria Kisilu, 27, is the founder of The Shaba studio, a virtual platform that has created a digital supply chain for rural communities making sisal craft products. She works with artisan communities in Kilifi,Kitui, Machakos and Taita Taveta
You mentioned your age and I saw a face of disbelief…
First of all, I am the last born of five siblings so it can be surprising to be this old, haha. But, I am honestly amazed at the growth and progress I have made at my age. I made a presentation at COP27 in Egypt, won a grant and here I am running a community focused business.
Where did the interest for communities come from?
My grandmother was a basket weaver and she used to rally women to meet and weave together. Despite working hard and playing by the rules, most never got ahead due to the low income they were making. There were always financial challenges standing in their way. (Tearing up) Sorry, this gets me emotional. With this background, I fine-tuned her idea to ensure that women we are working with receive decent work and economic growth, healthcare and created linkages that see them earning an income that commensurate the toil. This, while helping to conserve the environment.
Why the name, Shaba?
It means brass and is mostly used by communities for their crafts. It’s strong and durable.
Oh, I had Shaba National reserve on my mind….
Interestingly, I have never been there but I’ll make a point to visit.
What are some of the greatest lessons that running The Shaba has taught you?
It has been a journey of understanding my strengths and weaknesses. For instance, I know that I am not good with the aspect of HR but great in the customer side of things —talking to investors and potential customers.
Is there a relationship between environmental conservation and sisal?
A huge one, indeed. Sisal helps reduce soil erosion, it’s good for bee farming and is a drought resistant crop.
My role in conservation is directly linked to the use of sisal. We encourage farmers to plant more sisal around their farms and we buy from them. Sisal is biodegradable and is a non-timber forest product that they use for firewood and building. Further, sisal does not change the ecosystem where it is planted. Not only is it good for the environment, but also great for making products.
I have been working on a research paper on the value change of sisal and its link to bee conservation in that it flowers for a long period of time which is a great source of nectar, especially during the dry season
Knowing what you know about environmental conservation, what every day activities that we do irks you?
That we are not conscious buyers. Before choosing what bathing soap or lotion to pick from a supermarket aisle, do you read beyond the name tag? I have a sibling who buys a particular brand of soap because a portion of sales revenue goes into elephant conservation. This is a practice I picked from her—to support biodiversity even through my purchases.
Let’s talk about you and your sisters being in the same field of climate change and environmental conservation…
Haha, and I haven’t mentioned my brother who is into solar energy. To be honest, I have never thought about it because we are in different career paths. My parents are both teachers and I could attribute it to the fact that we were brought up as problem solvers.
Was 2022 a good year for start-ups?
In my experience, it was a really good one because we were able to fit into different spaces –tech, marketing. We got grants, financial and non- financial support from institutions such as TUI Care foundation.
Our solution applies the principles of a virtual factory allowing a decentralised, small-scale manufacturing system for handmade sisal products. Community groups through a smartphone are able to access our portal, receive orders, and check on payment through the Shaba App all in real-time.
What is your reflection of the year?
It was a learning year. I got to really learn a lot from people who took me up. I have many people who saw the potential in me and really supported the growth of The Shaba.
What mood are you bringing into 2023?
The vibe is building—my life and The Shaba.
I imagine that a running start-up is hard work and you have to sacrifice something. What is that that you have had to give up?
Many hours of sleep! In the past couple of months, we had many deadlines to meet and we are just a small team of three. Also, there’s time away from family and the emotional strain that comes with taking a start-up off the ground. But at the end of the day, no one’s job is easy. I possibly can’t do your job and you can’t do mine. I just ask for God’s grace to be sufficient.
At 27, what’s the best thing you’ve invested in?
Having the ability to learn from someone. As you grow older, it is possible to get arrogant or abrasive. When I am given a correction or critique, I really look into it, learn and grow.
What does success look like for you?
I would say getting people to understand and celebrate the aspect of African heritage, you know craft that is high quality and designed with purpose and functionality.
What keeps you grounded?
My walk with God. And this comes from understanding that I have no control over my life. Then my family especially my sisters can humble you really quick.
What makes you most alive?
When I have worked hard during the day, that moment I get to chill, relax or explore different parts of the country.