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New online shop takes Kenya handicraft to the global market

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Uber Duka creative director Chepkemboi Mang’ira during the interview

Uber Duka creative director Chepkemboi Mang’ira during the interview

Online marketing has gathered pace in Kenya in the past few years with websites such as Rupu and Jumia showcasing a wide variety of products. But websites specifically marketing and retailing artworks are only now beginning to pop up.

Ian Wanyoike, the founder of Uber Duka website, recalls having trouble locating a handicraft store that his brother had referred him to.

Mr Wanyoike imagined that many local artists must have been losing out on millions of shillings in revenue simply due to the informal nature of referrals, which were not necessarily acted upon. Last September, he founded Uber Duka to fill this gap, initially launching it as a referral site for people interested in particular products.

“We discovered that local craftsmen and designers do not have a reliable online platform to showcase their work,” Chepkemboi Mang’ira, the creative director at Uber Duka, said.

Ms Mang’ira describes Uber Duka as an online market place that seeks to bridge this gap by connecting craftsmen with art lovers who are looking for interesting things to buy. “It was also difficult for art enthusiasts to discover handmade items directly from the craftsmen and from people with shared interests.”

In November, Mr Wanyoike and his team turned Uber Duka into a sales platform with the aim of building a large community of art, crafts and design enthusiasts from Africa and the Middle East.

To get sellers to sign on, the team began approaching artists and designers through social media and emails using a list compiled during past exhibitions and fairs. Since the products are handmade, the Uber Duka team has to verify the details provided by each seller, including the name of the business, physical location, contacts, and products.

The vetting process involves visits to the business premises by Uber Duka staff to corroborate the details before a product can be be uploaded on the website. Items are uploaded according to categories – arts, accessories, footwear, apparel and crafts.

Uber Duka says it currently has 12,000 visitors to its sites, 70 sellers and 900 regular users monthly. The site’s biggest market at the moment is Kenya with a growing customer base in Amman, Jordan.

“We are still a young site and we have not had many sales to date. But we hope that the growing number of visitors will eventually translate into actual sales.

“Uber Duka makes profit through an eight per cent mark-up placed on all items. The site automatically adds the mark-up once the seller posts the item,” said Ms Mang’ira.

One of the main challenges of the business has been getting local designers on board since many of them have still to buy into the idea of online selling while others have limited Internet access. Uber Duka is in the process of setting up tutorials on the benefits of online marketing as well as how to use the platform.

“Shipping and delivery is another stumbling block since the address systems in Kenya, especially for the merchants from whom we collect the items, are not up to scratch,” said Ms Mang’ira.

“A majority of the artists, designers and craftspeople barely have smartphones, and therefore this sort of platform is still inaccessible. They also have misconceptions about online businesses, including fear that they may not get their money and that the locals would not buy into their business if it were based online.”

Another website that operates on the Uber Duka model is Byhand Products which was started in 2010 by Ken Karangi, a painter.
Just like Uber Duka, Mr Karangi started the portal primarily to display his paintings but eventually turned it into an online marketing tool to help his fellow artists connect with customers.

“The company was started initially as a personal hobby then later as a necessity to get art products to the common person,” said Mr Karangi.

Cycline Mutuku is one of the artists who has benefited from the initiative. Ms Mutuku started making rugs for her house and has since turned the hand-weaving that she was taught by her house-help into a money-making venture. She posts her products, mostly carpets and wall hangings, online.

“I got into a partnership with Byhand Products to advertise my work and soon orders were overwhelming,” she said, adding that her orders grew five-fold to 30 orders every month.

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