Look out for these young  upcoming designers

Young upcoming designers to look out for from left: Cynthia Allela, Steve Thairu, Moraa Nyaribo and Ian Abraham. PHOTO| ANTHONY OMUYA

What you need to know:

  • The four spent five months designing and creating a shoe line in a competition that involved intense mentorship, training and networking.
  • The winning shoe design will be reproduced in a limited collection that will be sold at selected Bata outlets in Kenya. 
  • The winners were unveiled on Friday last week, and myNetwork was there to capture it all.

International shoemaker, Bata, recently organised an apprenticeship programme where young emerging designers were required to conceptualise and create an original shoe design.

There were tens of applications, and after a rigorous vetting process, four students from two universities made the cut to the final shortlist of four.

The four spent five months designing and creating a shoe line in a competition that involved intense mentorship, training and networking.

The winning shoe design will be reproduced in a limited collection that will be sold at selected Bata outlets in Kenya. 

The winners were unveiled on Friday last week, and myNetwork was there to capture it all. What features made their designs stand out? To what extent did the apprenticeship influence them as upcoming designers and what is the way forward for the young creatives? Here are their stories.


winner of the project

Master’s design student at the University of Nairobi.

Cynthia’s design took the trophy and won her Sh50, 000. She demonstrated her creative acumen by designing an adaptable design that can be altered to assume different forms. Her creation will be produced as a limited collection, and will be sold in select Bata outlets countrywide.

“The inspiration behind this shoe was the fact that most young people don’t have money to buy many pairs of shoes. Also, if you are travelling, you don’t have to carry different pairs of shoes because this one pair can be flipped, taken apart and worn in different forms to suit various occasions,” she explains.

Cynthia believes she took the top prize home thanks to the skills gained in university and during the apprenticeship.

“I feel more confident about being a product designer; being able to create designs that can compete locally and on the international stage,” she says.

“I grew up with art and craft. My elder sister is a graphics designer and an animator, while my mother often applied do-it-yourself (DIY) skills in her cookery, knitting, and in creating an assortment of household decorations.”

These factors combined, she points out, influenced her choice of course to study. Besides shoes, Cynthia also designs furniture using waste material such as metal frames and wood.

“Functionality is my primary focus in design. I make furniture such as coffee tables and bed boards whose shape, size and appearance can be altered depending on the intended use and space available. It is an extension of the design ideology that form should follow function,” she explains.

She adds,

“Design is a very fascinating area. I take pleasure in developing a concept, analysing the material and seeing the prototype go through several stages of reviews. It’s exciting how after designing and making a product, it turns out to be a mirror of your personality. To me, design is inherent.”

For her, working for the continent’s biggest shoemaking company would be a dream come true.

“I look forward to growing as a product designer beyond one product projects to design products in multiple areas and on a large scale basis,” she says.

In the meantime, Cynthia hopes to explore the entire design spectrum to see what opportunities lie therein for her.

“I also would like to pass on my design skills to other young people through mentorship and teaching at a design school,” she says.



Final year student of arts and design at the University of Nairobi.

Steve describes himself as eccentric, and so are his designs. His boots and sandals project came fourth in the competition. His inspiration for the sandals came from a personal experience which he describes as “nasty”.

 “I was visiting the Nairobi National Park and had worn closed shoes on a day that would become very hot. I was so uncomfortable, I almost left my shoes in the bush. With this experience in mind, I designed open shoes that are hardy and can therefore withstand strenuous outdoor activity such as hiking and long walks.”

“I love concerts, but sometimes you go out on a rainy night and can’t have fun with wet shoes. I designed the boots with partygoers in mind. They are stylish and light enough to dance in while keeping you warm,” he explains.

Steve initially wanted to study interior design. Along the way however, he developed an inclination towards creating garments.

“It fascinates me to create something that has not been seen before or something that can be seen through fresh eyes,” he says.

He has two collections to his name, one of them a school project he did in his third year at university. 

“I love androgyny. I create clothing items that represent gender fluidity and neutrality. I am convinced that fashion should not entirely be dictated by rules of femininity or masculinity,” he explains.

His first collection, Fluid, features jumpsuits, pants, jackets, t-shirts and caps “that can be worn by both men and women”.

“The collection was liked more by women than men though. I did not get male models to showcase the pieces for me, so I showcased them myself,” he says.

Does the hesitation by men to adopt his designs bother him?

“Not at all. Fashion gives you freedom, in that if you don’t like certain items, someone else will, and they will look chic in them. Fashion is also about image and the confidence the intended image creates in the wearer. You cannot be elegant in outfits that you don’t like,” he argues.

His latest project, a collection called Jumbo, was inspired by the fast-declining number of elephants on the continent. 

He explains,

“The collection comprises a print that features delicate details of an elephant. It would be disheartening to see these intellectual and mighty animals go to extinction.”

And now he has a shoe to his name.

“Shoemaking is an exciting experience. Shoes appeal to different people in different ways. The maker has to be conscious of this fact as they make various models. It was sensational to create my first shoe.”

Besides the shoemaking skills he got, Steve also values the interaction he had with fellow participants, as well as the guests that were brought in to speak to them.

“I particularly liked Jackson Biko, from whom I drew inspiration about important virtues in life such as consistency,” he recalls. Gaining more practical experience in fashion design is Steve’s main goal after school. He would like to intern with a major fashion brand to learn as much as he can from them. On developments on the local fashion scene, Steve has this to say:

“Kenyans are increasingly becoming more fashion conscious and receptive to fashion trends, ideas and technology, which is a good thing for fashion designers.”

His main concern though is the lack of what he terms as a reliable local fashion calendar.

“There are too many fashion exhibitions in Nairobi whose calendar is almost unpredictable, and so a number of Kenyan designers find it more convenient to showcase their fashion products at the Kampala Fashion Week, which has a strict calendar.”

To keep abreast of fashion trends and his journey through fashion, follow Steve on Instagram @houseofthairu and House of Thairu on Facebook.



Fourth year Fashion and Textiles major at the University of Nairobi’s School of arts and design.

oraa’s  shoe project, Cacti Comfy, was second runners-up.

“This shoe was inspired by the need for comfort, especially while walking along uneven and potholed sidewalks in Nairobi. The platform and low heel minimises the chance of tumbling,” she explains.

As a young designer, Moraa envisions fashion products that are of higher quality but also cheaper. She buys plain fabrics and makes a print out of them. From this, she designs women’s tops, jackets and dresses and pants.

“My mother is also a designer, and often guides me through the work besides allowing me to operate from, and sell my wares at her shop. I support myself with ease at school from what I earn,” she says.

Moraa has two collections, Lakota and Omoroti.

“Omoroti means dreamer in my native Gusii language, and features delicate embroidery, pleats, and hand-cut leather vines on mainly cotton and silk crepe fabric,” she says.  

She explains,

“My garments are designed for free-spirited, playful and confident women. The pieces are flowy, colourful and tend to flatter the woman’s body. Through them, the wearer can express their mood, style and attitude.”

Her interest is in eco-friendly fashion.

“Most fashion products are made of fabrics such as synthetic fibres that are non-biodegradable and which pollute the environment,” she says. 

 She adds,

“Fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil, according to EcoWatch. Synthetic fibres pollute the environment and aren’t sustainable. Manufacture and dyeing of fabrics is also chemically intensive,” says Moraa.

According to her, fashion designers must think out of the box and adopt methods that promote sustainable fashion.

“Designers have the power to sway their clientele through their products. From used bottles, rubber and even scrap metal, we can make cheaper and more comfortable fashion products,” she adds.

In a low-income country like Kenya, Moraa observes, the bulk of clothing items are cheap imports of mostly poor quality, which leaves consumers without much of a choice but to buy what is churned out by fashion manufacturers.

“We can flip our fashion industry on its head by making garments and shoes from biodegradable fabrics such as recycled cotton. This is a form of slow fashion, but it is better to sell fewer units and conserve the environment,” she argues. 

While apprenticing with Bata was eye-opening, Moraa is not keen on designing shoes, citing capacity challenges.

“It takes a lot of time to make a shoe than it takes to conceptualise, design and make apparel. I will, therefore, work on my brand, Nyabame Nyaribo, a slow fashion line, after school,” she says. 

She also intends to enrol for a Master’s degree in textile surface design.

“This field essentially encompasses the colouring, patterning, and structuring of woven, knitted or printed fibre fabrics. I could also go into fashion business management if an opportunity comes around,” she says. 

Moraa observes that government subsidies would boost local designers to make more affordable quality clothes “so that our local clothing market is not choked by imported used clothes.”

She observes,

“If Kenyans can appreciate the local cloth-making craft, I believe local designers have the capacity to satisfy our market need.”



Fourth year student of product design at Technical University of Kenya (TUK).

Ian took the first runner-up prize of Sh30, 000.

“I am a creator, artist and entertainer. Design helps me to express myself. Product design specifically allows me to show off my thought processes. I relate to people through design,” says Ian.

He has studied motion, interior, graphics and product design. Out of these four dimensions of design, he chose to pursue product design. Product design incorporates all the other forms of design, which enables me to be versatile in my work,” he explains.

He adds,

“When you design a product, you must be able to advertise it through posters or other media. Skills in interactive or motion design therefore come in handy in making such presentations.”

Customer relations is the most important lesson Ian learnt from the just ended apprenticeship.

“Selling a shoe is not as easy as it may seem. Selling a prototype shoe especially is very difficult. People exhibit a varied sense of fashion, and this has to be taken into account in the design process,” he says, adding that the pricing of any item must also be reasonable.  

Skills in digital reproduction of designs is the latest gem in Ian’s bag, something he admits he lacked before the apprenticeship.

“I have designed dummy cars, accessories and tech appliances. I make something new every week for fun or as a job,” he says.

His biggest design job so far was a contract to design the logo for Kenya Copyright Board last year. He earned Sh100, 000.

 “I have also done five intro videos for vloggers and start-ups who pay between Sh10, 000 to Sh20, 000 for a 20 seconds video. I also design posters and flyers mostly for events.”

Ian has also toyed with apparel design, which he abandoned when he realised that it was not his forte. He finds inspiration to design from almost every experience in his life.

“I also love photography, videography, film-making, marketing and music, all which have an element or two of design,” he says.

So what is the way forward for him after this engagement?

“I will stick to product design because I love to try out new things. Product design is a very wide field with a lot to do and learn,” he points out.



“Bata Designers Apprenticeship programme was a win-win experience for all and an exciting learning experience for the company and the participating student designers,” says Esther Kute, product development manager at Bata Kenya.

Esther was the project lead of the apprenticeship, which ran from September 2017 to January this year.

“This was not just a competition, but also a mentorship programme. The students got to learn about other facets of design and understand the intricacies of the sphere of design,” she says, adding that the project’s aim was to offer the participants hands-on experience of the working processes in a fashion and retail brand, from designing, product development, manufacturing, retail sales to styling, aspects that design schools may not necessarily offer.

The programme is an ongoing one, and will, in fact, be held annually. It targets undergraduate students and recent graduates in the areas of fashion, textile and product design. For this project, the shoemaker liaised with design schools, who forwarded names of their best students.

“By engaging young people and trying to understand their preferences, businesses such as ours are able to design and make products that appeal to their taste.”


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