The Jamhuri Wear Company label may be a household name among T-shirt lovers in many urban centres in Kenya, but its founder, Jeffrey Kimathi, wants to push the brand a notch higher.
â€œWe donâ€™t want to be known as just a T-shirt company, we want to be known as an innovative company, forward thinkers, and always opening up new frontiers,â€ he says.
To begin with, the companyâ€™s name was shortened to JW. He explains that JW is easier to pronounce and remember than the lengthy Jamhuri Wear Company.
Returning from the United States two years ago after living there for 12 years, Mr Kimathi says that he was in search of something new. He describes it as looking at Kenya with a new eye and seeing many possibilities.
The return also put him at the centre of the worldâ€™s next frontier; Africa.
â€œI want to get in on the ground floor. I do not want to play catch-up. Africa is at the ground floor now, so letâ€™s build it,â€ says the man who started the company 12 years ago.
As he moved his T-shirt business to Kenya so did the Jamhuri Wear Company headquarters shift from New York to Nairobi. Mr Kimathi began by learning and understanding the market to find his niche. At this point he realised that he needed a new product and so put T-shirt production on hold.
He travelled around east Africaâ€™s major cities including Kampala, Dar es Salaam, and Addis Ababa. Along the way, he realised that his luggage bag did not cut him out as African, nor did it celebrate his culture.
Having grown up around his motherâ€™s African artifacts export business kept Mr Kimathi in close proximity with the kiondo, particularly the one made from baobab tree bark fibre. He observed luggage bags on his east Africa journey and realised that most needed a re-design. This gave birth to his first luggage bag collection called Buyu. â€œBuyu was born out of a need. One thing I know about design is that it has to be honest. So, being honest with myself and coming back home was key to the birth of the product,â€ he says.
The Buyu luggage bag is made from baobab back fibre and leather. Mr Kimathi launched the product two months ago. The collection includes a weekend bag, pouch, and iPad cover.
â€œI want to push this product to the entire world. Itâ€™s tougher than canvas, softer than sisal, waterproof, cutting it is very hard and itâ€™s fire resistant to a certain level. The dye in it is natural; made from soil, charcoal, and leaves,â€ says Mr Kimathi.
He sources the material from women groups in Tseikuru in Eastern Province, about 500km from Nairobi. Weaved by hand, to supplement farming, it takes about three months to produce four feet of the fabric. Mr Kimathi says that he canâ€™t tell the women who supply the raw material to stop farming and take up weaving full time in order to raise raw material supply for him. â€œI want to respect the tradition,â€ he says, â€œevery bag is an art because the woman who weaves it by hand never replicates design in the four feet of material.â€
Mr Kimathi launched Buyu in New York to see how the outside market reacts to it. The local market has reacted positively as well; enquiries on emails keep flooding in and hotels have made orders for their gift shops, he says.
Mr Kimathiâ€™s business is not immune to challenges facing the local fashion industry, mainly lack of distribution channels and manufacturing on a small-scale.
At the beginning, he says, he planned to open a clothing boutique and use it to showcase African fashion and use it as a platform for others to excel. But he was asked to pay a hefty â€œgoodwillâ€, a concept he did not understand. He put the plan on hold. â€œI think the more the idea waits, the sharper it becomesâ€.
Another hurdle is that there are very few boutiques in the country that serve as outlets for local fashion designersâ€™ clothing and accessories.
Mr Kimathi turned to selling online at heritage1960.com and buyuluggage.tumblr.com.
He is looking for more points of distribution. To solve the manufacturing hurdle, he sought help from Export Processing Zone based firms one of which said that it needed a minimum order of 5,000 pieces. He declined the offer because â€˜â€˜too many Buyu products in the market would deplete the coolness factor of the brand.â€™â€™ He turned to a local workshop that specialises in making bags. â€œI do not believe in target markets. I believe in life style progress. Life is all about ambition, betterment… you can buy or get anything you want. If you appreciate a product, it is for you, buy it,â€ he says.
Buyu, he says, is a lifestyle product that focuses mainly on life, he says.
The Kenyan art and design industry harbours a â€œclique-likeâ€ mentality, he says.
â€œWe have closed ourselves to other markets because we think being tight and guarded is what will keep our ideas from being stolen,â€ says Mr Kimathi.
The industry, he says, needs to grow networks and make great quality products that can compete on the world market.
â€œAfrica needs to find its voice through the luxury goods market. We need to refine our labour force to be able to compete, teach better trade skills. We canâ€™t compete with China in the mass production industry,â€ he says.