Glitter Trotter: Jonathan, how would you describe your company and what you do?
Rusty Fundi: We are a fabrication company.
GT: Tell me more.
RF: Well, we fabricate -- or design and produce -- a variety of metal and wooden goods from outdoor and interior furniture to heating equipment, fixtures and much much more.
GT: Are there any particular public spaces, where I can find your pieces?
RF: Yes, definitely – Pepper Tree Restaurant at Delta Towers Westlands is one of the most recent places we’ve decorated. Other places would be Bo Ho Eatery Hotel, Bosh Brand Store at the Oval Building, UAP, The Whisky Shop at Water Front and Gems Cambridge International School. We are doing a few pieces for The Nairobi Kitchen is a work in progress for now. It took them several years from developing a concept for the restaurant to actually making it come to life, but it was worth the wait – it is a new gem in the Nairobi hospitality scene.
GT: Is this the restaurant decorated with old cars and car parts? I think I’ve heard about it.
RF: Exactly! It’s a fun place! And, we’ve just started a project with the Tribe Hotel.
GT: That’s a big one! I’ve heard that they are closed for renovations. So, are you part of the remodeling team?
RF: Yes. It’s been about a decade since they opened, and they have not made any changes to the interior since then. So, they felt it was time for a fresh look. And we were lucky to have been chosen to work on that new look.
GT: Congratulations! Now let me take you back to the beginnings: how did you find yourself in Kenya? When and how did you start this business?
RF: I came here from the UK as a backpacker almost 15 years ago. In 2006, I flew to Tanzania. I was supposed to spend a few months there, and then travel to South Africa and India. Yet, within two weeks of landing in Tanzania, I decided to go north instead of south; and instead of proceeding with my original plan, I spent a year and a half exploring different countries in East and Northern Africa.
GT: Does this mean you never went to South Africa?
RF: Not until last year, and on a completely different mission.
GT: How interesting! It’s almost like the story from Paulo Coelho’s book, the Alchemist. What happened next?
RF: I returned home and got a job at an English company that was designing energy-saving cooking stoves. Part of their mission was to improve lives of people living in poverty, so they were producing stoves in Kenya. And they flew me right back to Kenya – to be stationed in Diani.
GT: You must have been thrilled.
RF: I was happy to be back, although Diani was not really the best place for a blacksmith business – just imagine the heat of Diani multiplied by the heat of the production and the heat your own body when engaged in physical labor.
RF: I loved being back to Kenya. And the project was really interesting. We created a great product. After working with them for a while, I moved to Nairobi and started my own business, first producing very similar things as I did for my former employer and then gradually expanding our product line to include furniture, heating equipment, etc. Our first project was with Marula Mercantile, when our workshop was still in the industrial area of Nairobi. Later we moved here to Ngong Road, which is definitely a step up.
GT: You said you work mostly with wood and metal. Which one is your favorite?
RF: I prefer metal. I like the texture and I feel I understand it better. Metal is also more stable unlike wood, which can change shape, bend, etc. Metal just stays as is. Besides, I went into this business to save some trees not to cause them to be cut. We do use reclaimed wood in our work -- for example, we upcycle wood from old boats and retired electricity posts. And that’s what I tell our clients, who would like us to work with wood – our preference is to use wood that is sourced sustainably, not sourced from unlicensed plantations in Congo and brought to Kenya illegally.
GT: Does this affect your prices?
RF: Yes, definitely. But I believe it’s better to pay a bit more for the materials and be sure of their quality. Both reclaimed and licensed wood would be properly treated, while wood sourced from unsustainable sources would be wet or otherwise compromised, and would not stay straight. So, you pay less for your furniture but it ends up costing you more because you have to fix it all the time.
GT: I really like this consciousness about the source of the materials.
RF: I think it is important that when you buy something, you know the story of the product, the trail that this product leaves behind from the source of the raw materials to how and by whom it was made and so on. It would be nice if more people thought about the “story” of their purchases instead of focusing exclusively on the price.
GT: I do hear more and more people talking about such “stories” in the past few years. Have you observed any chances?
RF: Yes, it’s changing a bit in Nairobi, although people interested in the story of the product are still a small minority. But this year we’ve seen a big change, although not exactly related to consciousness -- because of the pandemic and the challenging logistics between Kenya and China, more people were forced to do business locally. Not all of them did that for environmental reasons – they just had to keep their businesses going. But it did help us acquire new clientele and educate them, and also think of new designs in response to the interests of the local clients – an obvious example would be study furniture for people working from home.
Before the pandemic, this market was flooded with imported designs and laminate. It’s cheap. It has this modern aesthetic appeal. But it also breaks easily, so every 3-5 years you have to buy new furniture. You get stuck in this buying cycle. Aside from affecting your pocket, such modern techniques kill local traditions. I know in Jamaica, they had centuries-old furniture-making techniques. But because people were so enamored with the modern looks of the laminate, they lost interest in those traditions, and the technique slowly died. I am glad to see that in Kenya, people show renewed interest in traditions. And we try to encourage that – for example, this year we introduced rustic furniture with an industrial twist to it. It’s a mix of modern and traditional esthetics, materials and techniques. It works well in various settings, good for the environment and extremely durable. So, people can pass it on from generation to generation.
GT: Do you see a change in your clientele mix?
RF: Yes, definitely. We used to mostly work with expatriates or people, who were well-traveled. The type of the furniture we produce is very popular in the Northern America, hence they were familiar with the style. But these days, we see more and more Kenyans ordering furniture from our workshop, which is very encouraging.
GT: Does this mean you also see a change in the type of projects you do?
RF: Yes and no. As I mentioned, we did introduce new designs and new techniques in response to new clients’ requests. But there are things, we are not prepared to do or change. For example, we used to do a lot of bespoke and custom furniture. We no longer do it as much for individual clients because we get more and more people, who see a photo in a fashion magazine and want us to replicate the exact same thing. They are not willing to pay for my time to design something unique, they just want a replica. What is worse, they will compare your price with that of the furniture that jua kali (informal) traders sell on the side of Ngong Road. So nowadays most of our bespoke projects are large projects with organizations, like the Tribe Hotel, where we can produce great pieces with a lot of character using traditional blacksmithing techniques.
GT: How do you feel about that?
RF: Well, there is a lot of pressure, especially at the design stage. I get really stressed and fed up, and overwhelmed, and sometimes just want to throw up the towel. But in full honesty, I really love the artistic process, and I appreciate projects in which there is space for creativity. Regardless how difficult such projects might be, at the end of the day, when I step back and look at what we’ve accomplished I always feel happy.
GT: How do you deal with stress, though? Any special tricks?
RF: Yes, I like riding my motor bike in Ngong Hills. I have a bike that I built almost from scratch. It took two and a half years and a lot of patience, because some parts were discontinued and we actually had to make them; other parts we upgraded and improved. It was a labor of love, but it was worth it. Now I can just go up the street and enjoy the freedom and the excitement of the bush ride.
GT: I love the bike! And it even has your logo on the tire! By the way, what does “Rusty Fundi” mean?
RF: It’s just that – Rusty Fundi. I like the natural texture of the rust; it reflects the old traditions and the main material we work with -- metal. And fundi means “crafts” or “craftsmanship” in Swahili. Craftsmanship and traditions – this is what we are about at Rusty Fundi.
GT: Any specific plans for the future? Ever thinking of setting up a similar workshop back home, in the UK?
RF: I don’t think a similar workshop would be a possibility in the UK or even in the USA. The costs of setting up and running a business are much higher, so are the costs of the materials, which would mean I would have to think about money more and my creative time would be less.
But even if it were possible, I really love it in Kenya. I found my new home in this country, and my new friends and colleagues. Some of my crew members have been with me since I started the company. I appreciate the opportunity to continue evolving as a creative, to give back to the community by offering jobs and internships, to meet and work with other artists. Don’t get me wrong, every country has its challenges. In Kenya, we have the most expensive electricity in the world, or close to that. We also have to educate our clientele about how much things worth, and how long original production takes. But we have developed our signature style, which is gaining recognition in Kenya, and this is something I am really proud about and want to see through.
GT: Well, best of luck and we are truly hoping to see you make it big.