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Economist turned leather bag maker

Working for the World Bank and travelling across the globe exposed Chebet Mutai to the misconceptions many people held about Africa. She started re-evaluating her life and ended up making luxury bags that channel the continent’s true potential

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

“She is chic and elegant,” says Chebet Mutai describing Shiru,  a stylish golden brown bag displayed in a glass-walled shop in Valley Arcade Mall, Nairobi. Within the shop, there is Makosewe, Amina, Nira, Bett, Auma and Mo, all part of  a collection of fashionable leather bags that Chebet makes. The names  of the bags are inspired by her friends, but the idea to start the business was sparked by a desire for change.

Growing up in Nakuru town, Chebet dreamt of travelling the world and meeting people. After completing her Economics degree at Kenyatta University in 2007, she landed a job at the World Bank in 2009. Working as a consultant at the Bretton Woods institution provided an opportunity to fulfil her childhood dream. But while she travelled the world, the experiences altered her in a significant way and got her re-evaluating her life.

“I travelled a lot and that changed how I perceived the world. There were so many misconceptions about what it meant to be African,” she says. Out of working for a World Bank programme that entailed helping businesses access finance, Chebet realised how massive the unemployment problem was across the continent. That spurred a desire to become part of the positive transformation in Africa.

Beyond the country

Armed with a burning desire to challenge the status quo, she traded the comfort of a well-paying job in 2012 to venture into the unpredictable world of entrepreneurship. At first, she ventured into fashion design, specialising in making custom-made clothes, but soon enough she realised it was best if she put her energies in making stylish leather bags.

Wazawazi, a luxury leather brand, was born. True to the business name, Wazawazi derived from words ‘Waza’ think,  ‘wazi’ open, Chebet has built the brand on open mindedness.  “Our products are about portraying Africa in its true form and encouraging people to see the continent for what it really is; endowed with a lot of potential,” she says. 

Her decision to settle on leather as the raw material was based on her desire to make durable and high quality products that would appeal to her clients. Besides, cowhides, which she uses are readily available in Kenya. “There is assurance of getting high quality since Kenya has some of the best tanneries,” she says. Apart from bags she also makes leather wallets, belts, organisers, ipad cases, travel and computer bags.

The leap of faith has yielded results as customers are warming up to her products. Chebet sells her bags across the world. Referrals, trade fairs and conferences have made it possible to reach markets beyond the country. During this interview, for instance, Chebet busies herself making final preparations to attend a five-day exhibition in Las Vegas.  While she initially sold the bags from her car, one-and-a-half years ago, Chebet opened her first shop in Valley Arcade.

     Feedback

One of the biggest achievements for Chebet is to see more youth get into gainful employment.

“I involve young people through the process of making the products,” she says.  She operates a workshop in Jamhuri from where the products are made. The process of making the products starts with sourcing for raw materials, designing, cutting the cowhides, assembling and stitching. The product is then prototyped and taken to the market for users to have an experience and give feedback. The feedback helps us to improve the product before its finally ready for the market,” she explains.

Initially, Chebet oversaw the entire production process until she was taken ill and could not go to work for six months at the beginning of this year. “A lot of decisions were put on hold and business was sluggish,” she says.  Out of this experience she learnt a valuable lesson in entrepreneurship. The lesson: as a sole entrepreneur you cannot do everything in a business. There is need to build systems that are strong enough to keep the business running even when you are away.

Along with this lesson there are other insights she has gained along the journey.  Learning how to navigate around money has, especially been an eye- opening experience for her. “Money in your business is not yours. It belongs to the business. It took me a while to wrap this around my head. Now, I have assigned myself a salary. The rest of the money goes back to the business,” she says.  Dedication to high ethics throughout the production process, she says is what has helped give her a competitive edge over other similar businesses. “Things like not engaging in child labour, paying fair wages to our staff and providing good work conditions matter to our customers,” she says.  Her eye for detail also ensures that the products that go to the market are of high quality.

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