This article was originally published by Qazini, an online media platform that is seeking to drive systemic change in our societies through empowering storytelling.
In 2017, two young women did a ballsy thing: they started a shoe business. Not only did they sell shoes, but they also made them. Njeri Mbote, then a fresh graduate, was introduced to the shoe business by a friend and was fascinated. Like Julius Yego who learned how to throw a javelin through YouTube, Njeri made good use of tutorials on the internet and learned the art of shoe designing.
She says it was very important for her company VaaKenya, which is based in Greenfield, Donholm, to have started in this manner, from scratch, not unlike the Silicon Valley garage startups which now rule the world. The advantage, she says, of starting from scratch is you get to build your own systems, your own company culture, and you get to learn on the job. As Njeri was learning how to design shoes, her friend and partner Daisy Riri was learning how to market VaaKenya and transform it into a brand.
The pair of unlikely business partners would forge a strong synergy that would propel the startup forward, through the valley of death that is the first year of a business; and two years later, in 2019, VaaKenya received its first funding. Njeri Mbote, an articulate young woman, states she would not have it any other way. In entrepreneurship, she says, the mistake many people make is thinking you have to start with a lot of capital. What’s important is for an entrepreneur to have clarity on what their business needs at each step of the way. She says had they gotten the funding at the beginning, they would have squandered it. But in the course of those initial two years of building their company, Njeri and Daisy learned a great deal and grew their capacity. So when they got the funding in 2019, they were ready, understood what the business needed, and also knew what to do with the money.
Another thing Njeri is proud of is the company’s humble beginnings in the informal sector. Starting in Jua Kali gave the company what scholar Nassim Taleb has in a book of that title called “skin in the game”. It means that VaaKenya was built on a foundation of practicality, not theory or idealism, just as the first aeroplane was built by bicycle repairmen and not engineers.
The informal sector was the perfect learning laboratory for a from-scratch startup. However, this too posed its challenges: it was hard to find skilled artisans, since the ones they started out with were “entrenched in the informal sector where attention to details and skill is not a priority.”
The challenge for the young company was to find people they could train from scratch and instil in them the work ethic and high standards required to make their startup a successful business. Daisy Riri explains VaaKenya’s hiring philosophy as: always pick attitude over talent. Because though you can bridge an employee’s skill deficit by investing in training, fixing someone’s attitude is not easy. That’s why, Daisy concludes, the first set of employees a company hires should have the right attitude, because they will set the culture and policies, and determine the future of the company.
Unsurprisingly, as the motivational speaker cliché goes, they started their shoe business with one pair of shoes. Njeri Mbote made the first pair, sold it, and that was the beginning. From this first experiment, Njeri learned the cost of making a pair of shoes, materials needed, materials management, and tested her shoe designing skills in a practical way. She was hooked.
Initially, Njeri graciously admits, that their shoes were not high quality. But they still found buyers. And this is where she expresses an interesting point of view: “Most people in entrepreneurship build and then expect people to come, and that is not the way it is supposed to be. First, get the people, then build with them.”
With the hard-won wisdom of experience, Daisy Riri advises young businesses to avoid over-reliance on capital. Because if you focus too much on capital at the beginning, you risk becoming the kind of entrepreneur that solves all their problems with capital, thereby creating a company that isn’t capital-efficient.
The two would-be entrepreneurs in the early days raised Sh100,000 from their personal networks, which Daisy says was just enough to allow them to experiment and figure out their “why”. You get the sense that having room to experiment and develop on their own terms is very important to Daisy and Njeri.
For that reason, VaaKenya has been content with slow but steady growth, playing the long game. To quote Daisy: “Start small, think big. It gives you room to dance, experiment, make mistakes and fail forward. You can start big with your second or third business. But with your first business, start small. Start with one product, one prototype, and get a market fit for it. When you start small, your failures are things you can wake up from, dust yourself, and keep going. But when you start big and then you fail, it will be a major fail and you might become depressed.”
Despite at some point losing their first workshop at Jericho Market, Njeri and Daisy refused to give up. You could say losing that workshop was the point in the movie when the hero is justified to give up and go back home. Fortunately, they did not, and today VaaKenya has lifted itself up from its jua kali beginnings and is now a limited liability company.
VaaKenya has a lofty goal: to dignify African feet. A common refrain in the company’s marketing texts is that African feet are different from European/American feet, and that unfortunately most shoes are not made with African feet in mind. All VaaKenya materials are locally sourced, so wearing the finished product is truly “kuvaa Kenya”. Njeri explains: “Most people relate local products with low quality, but we are changing that narrative. The one thing people should know is we are the biggest producers of raw materials in Africa. Our leather leaves here, goes abroad, shoes are manufactured, and then brought back to us at ten times the price. How about we just buy our raw materials ourselves, make our products ourselves, and consume our products ourselves?”
Another oft-repeated narrative in VaaKenya’s messaging is the story of Daisy Riri’s outlier shoe size. Before she met Njeri and co-founded VaaKenya, Daisy had a problem finding shoes big enough for her feet. The company, therefore, offers the convenient service of designing custom-made shoes for their customers, which means people with large feet or small feet no longer have to worry about finding shoes. This must be what dignifying African feet means—for what can be more undignifying for an adult than having to buy one’s shoes from the children’s section!
Daisy is the bubbly one, Njeri, the reserved one. The dynamic between the two seems mysterious to an outsider looking in. How can two people who appear so different in demeanour collaborate successfully? Daisy explains:
“Do not start a business alone. It is hard. Partners help you get through the parts you cannot get through alone. Find business partners that are the polar opposite of who you are as a person.”
Njeri is the shoe designer and the bubbly Daisy, naturally, is in charge of marketing and public relations, a job that she does so well that this writer has for the last two years thought she is the CEO of VaaKenya.
But in fact, it is the calm, steady Njeri with her steely resolve that is the captain of the ship. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of talking to her either on phone, in person, or by text, to realize that she is a boss. She speaks with authority, finality, and clarity. She is logical and her reasoning is well thought out.
Daisy breaks down the dynamic: “Njeri is extremely keen on details. She knows how to deliver. And I’m the opposite—I get tired with projects. I start with enthusiasm but once I figure out the strategies, the results we are looking for, and the outcomes, I tire of the entire project.”
Daisy has the candour of a confessional poet, a rare quality in aspiring capitalists. Not many people would look at themselves in the mirror and report their findings with such honesty. But then, Daisy is something of a force of nature. Watching her on her YouTube channel Bitter Entrepreneur, one can’t help but feel taken into her confidence. She makes you feel relaxed. Perhaps it is her honesty that makes her so. Honesty and trust are qualities many brands are trying to cultivate (often superficially) in this age of social media. Daisy Riri does not have to struggle to do it, which is part of what makes her so well-suited for her role as VaaKenya’s designated brand-builder.
The two young women are so obsessed with their vision that they laughingly admit work-life balance does not exist for them. When they are not working, they are probably also working.
Njeri says, “I need people to understand. Entrepreneurship is not a money spree. It is anything but that. When you get into entrepreneurship, do something you have a passion for, that’s what will keep you going. Because you will get broke, you will get frustrated, you will go through so many emotions that your passion is the only thing that will keep you going.”
For Daisy Riri, running a business has been such a life-draining ordeal that she started calling herself “the Bitter Entrepreneur”. She says, “I am a self-proclaimed Bitter Entrepreneur. Because starting a business in Kenya is extremely hard, and running it even harder, and growing it … chest pains.” Her YouTube channel, though it hasn’t yet attracted the following it deserves, is a treasure trove of information about entrepreneurship while also being a brilliant way to market VaaKenya to customers and possibly investors.
Daisy and Njeri are playing the long game. In the internet age, communication is a must-have skill, and as a brand that has grown on the internet and does most of its business online, it makes perfect sense that both Daisy and Njeri have YouTube channels. VaaKenya is also on TikTok. Daisy explains: “When building a business, build a brand. Your brand is the identity that your customers, clients, and partners will interact with. Use technology, tap into online resources. With a strong brand online, people might believe you are bigger than you are. That’s marketing. Like us when we started, in Jericho Market, people didn’t know we were in Jericho Market because of how we presented ourselves online.”
VaaKenya has come a long way from its informal sector roots, but it still has a long way to go. As Njeri says, “We have set the right structures to propel us to success. We have a long way to go, but the progress is commendable.” Daisy is of the opinion that though they are not yet a success, they are exactly where they wanted to be at this point of the journey. She points out that VaaKenya is now a full-fledged e-commerce company—and they recently hired their first in-house engineer. In addition, VaaKenya currently has 6 permanent employees and is in partnership with seven workshops. Not a bad place to be for a dream that started in a Jericho Market workshop.