Chebet Mutai, WazaWazi Safari Travel
Chebet Mutai is a trained economist and a fashionista, who left her career in the development sector to become a fashion designer and an entrepreneur, so that she can positively impact people’s lives by creating jobs, empowering creativity and building her fashion business, WazaWazi, and her lifestyle brand, WazaWazi Safari Travel, which tell a story of a “different Africa” – strong, dynamic, vibrant and creative. Her brand was recently featured by Beyoncé among prominent African-owned fashion brands.
Chebet Mutai: Before you start, how did you find us?
Glitter Trotter: I have never had an interviewee ask the first question in my interviews before. This is very special. Well, I went to a designers’ pop-up at the Village Market Mall to see Bran Kivuti’s jewelry stand (see our interview with Brian here). And that’s where I saw a laptop sleeve with a painting by Wycliffe Opondo. I recognized Wycliffe style, because of my work on the Kenya Art Diary project. I thought it was such a brilliant idea to put fine art on an everyday accessory for many people to see and appreciate. I reached out to you to see if you work with other artists and to get to know more about your company.
CM: Yes, I was wondering, who bought that piece. I liked it very much as well, it was an interesting experiment, something I would like to do more of. And I am glad this piece caught your attention, although I believe we met before.
GT: Yes, we met at one of the Tribal Chic fashion shows some time ago. I am glad we have a chance to reconnect. And I am excited to hear the story of your company. But first, what does WazaWazi stand for?
CM: WazaWazi means “open-mindness” in Swahili. My brand is an artistic blend of cultures and styles, unique in its African heritage but at the same time an easy fit anywhere in the world. This is the brand that mixes tradition and innovation, the local and global -- in a way that is distinct, fresh, yet very functional and classy.
GT: I love this concept, and I can clearly see it in your products. So, how did your company come to be? What or who got you started?
CM: I was trained as an economist, and I travelled around Sub-Saharan Africa working on various development projects. One day I realized how tired and frustrated I’d become because things around me were not changing – poverty, hunger, suffering... And I thought, “There is no way I can change things fast enough doing what I am doing. The best I can do is create jobs.” So, I started a business in fashion because I loved fashion and I loved creativity. Now I understand that what I actually love is creatively solving problems. But at that point, fashion was a great entry point. You notice how fashion and art are universal languages? It’s through fashion that I’ve been able to meet presidents, kings, queens, everyone. Now I have an incredible network of likeminded people, who can help me with bigger and better projects. It might have all started with fashion accessories, bags. But now WazaWazi is bringing innovation into both fashion and lifestyle industry.
GT: This is truly inspiring. Can you give me a sneak preview on what you are currently working on?
CM: Well, I am transitioning to the next stage of my life and career. People say, I am talented in many things, and I am grateful and truly blessed because of that. But this does not mean that I have to do all the things myself. When you are young, you try your hand in everything, that’s how you learn. But as you get older and more mature, you understand yourself better and you develop the confidence to step back and only get touch things that would transform the most because of you.
GT: And what would it be? Where would you apply your talent and energy?
CM: Remember, I said I like creatively solving problems? So that’s where I am at now -- I believe that my role in this continent is to aggregate and accelerate. I need to gather good people and accelerate solutions for the problems that persist and hinder our progress as Kenya and Africa. I am an artist first, but I am also a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, and a community organizer. I am also an innovator; this is really important to me because I can make a difference by innovating around problems, aggregating expertise, creativity, access to resources and networks, many other things. My role as I see it today, is to create platforms that bring together great minds capable of looking at problems and solutions from a different perspective, more effectively, to blend tradition and innovation – in the spirit of WazaWazi. This idea has been in the works for a while now, and I am about to launch my first fundraiser, so I can start hiring the right people and build the foundation for my transformational work.
GT: Any particular specialists that you are looking for?
CM: You know, it is not just about particular specialists. I think the time is right for me to start working with people who are brighter than me, faster than me, bolder, and more experienced. They need to be challenging me and I will challenge them; this is the only way to be creative around solving Africa’s problems. As to the particular specialties, I need a good e-commerce team because we want to be a fully digital brand. COVID-19 made digital even more important as lots of people now shop and entertain online. I would also like to invest in a business administrator, a talented marketing team, and maybe – an in-house R&D team. I have a vision for WazaWazi, which requires quality content, quality materials, and quality people.
GT: The idea of investing in people – isn’t this why you started your company in the first place?
CM: It’s true. I grew up modest and humble; I never chased money. And it took me for a while to change my perspective on money, to understand that I need it to invest in people and empower my employees – the people I hire to do the job. We also need a good creative director to pick up my ideas and implement them. Right now, because I am so busy doing everything – my ideas are just sort of sitting in a suitcase on a conveyor belt waiting to be picked up by the right person.
GT: That’s a great metaphor!
CM: Yes, the ideas are there, but they are just going round, and round, sometimes getting lost, sometimes coming back again. I am looking for the right person to pick up my suitcase of ideas and run with it. But as I am learning all these things, I realize that there is nothing unique about my challenges. This is what all creatives in Africa face. And if I can solve these challenges for myself, I can help others to figure it out.
GT: So, what will happen once you find the right people and bring them together?
CM: This is the time to expand vertically and that is what I am going to do. I have already established a lifestyle brand – WazaWazi Safari Travel – with a seasoned industry player; this is our future. The bags just happened to be our solid foundation, our rock bottom. Don’t forget its rock-hard, solid, stable. With this strong foundation, I can start adding new layers – logistics, e-commerce, fin-tech to support aspiring artists and designers, maybe manufacturing solutions – anything that can help break the barriers we are facing in Africa.
GT: I really admire your focus and dedication. Who is helping you with this important but quite a heavy undertaking?
CM: I have good mentors, and I believe that with the right structures we can figure out how we accelerate and make things happen. That is why I am raising money to hire people. I drive the idea – my team implement it. I never thought this would be my journey. I just wanted to create jobs, keep people at work, pay them fair, and provide them with access to resources. Resources ae critical -- you cannot aggregate and accelerate people who don’t have money. And by doing what I do, I hope to influence people positively enough for them to create a sort of a ripple effect – to become accelerators and aggregators for others.
GT: Would you mind sharing a bit more about your lifestyle brand?
CM: Well, I am sure you are familiar with the African safari scene – people love it, and I know why. I love it myself. But there is only so much safaris that you can do. Once you’ve done it – then what? What can be similarly new and exciting? Right – meeting people, learning about food and culture, learning about music and the way of life. All in all – learning the story of this country and this continent. This is what WazaWazi Safari Travels is working on – using stories and storytelling to help people discover a different side of Africa, to see the Africa that I know and love.
GT: I am lost for words. This is a really beautiful and very human-focused vision.
CM: Thank you! You know, I love beautiful things and I love creating them. But I need more time for that. Hence, the need to expand my team. For example, today I am meeting my friend, a designer. She is French, she is in her sixties.
GT: Might I know her?
CM: Probably not. In a parallel universe, she is probably a world-renown couturier. But in our universe, I am very much taken by her ability to blend all things Africa with the trends from the world outside the continent. She is truly WazaWazi, you know what I mean? I think she, or a person like her, would be perfect to take over the creative direction of WazaWazi for a year to free me up, so I can focus on the things I am really good at which is brand development, connecting, networking, etc.
GT: Aren’t you scared to leave your baby WazaWazi in the hands of another person?
CM: I love what I do. But I am now realistic about what the true opportunity looks like. When we were chatting earlier, you said something really important -- you cannot be so used to the way you’ve been living your life that you start missing out on opportunities. It is important to have enough courage and conviction to walk away from what you are used to and explore new ideas and new ways. That’s what I am going to do.
GT: And I will be watching you and celebrating your success. Thank you!
CM: Thank you too!