Ikwetta is a Kenyan manufacturer of leather goods from shoes to bags to home accessories, focused on expanding the skill level of local artisans while advancing the trend in producing stylish and accessible fashion with ethical “story.” Having inherited a struggling vocational training program, in the past few years Varsheeni Raghupathy – the Founder and Creative Director of Ikwetta – developed it into a conscious fashion business with loyal following in Kenya and globally.
Glitter Trotter: So, how has your year been so far?
Varsheeni Raghupathy: You know, it has not actually been too bad. I don’t know what happened – well, aside from COVID-19 – but people just started reaching out to us last year with orders. And that’s what helped us to keep the doors open, the factory working, and people employed even during these strange times, when most of us are stuck at home and technically do not need shoes. I believe it’s our loyalty to the Kenyan market that’s paying off. Our international clients have also been supportive, but there is nothing like the love you experience in your home country.
GT: This is almost like an epilogue that precedes a great book. You’ve earned client love at home and abroad. Now let’s go back in history and explore how you achieved that.
VR: Sounds good! Let me start by saying that I was neither born nor raised in Kenya. I moved here because of my husband, who is Kenyan. So, you can say that my heart led me to Kenya.
GT: I can never top this! Please, keep going!
VR: So, yes, we moved to Kenya as a young family. And of cause, once we settled, I got thinking, “What am I going to do here?” I started working for CAP Foundation. They were running a training center -- teaching young people, who graduated at least 8th grade, vocational skills, e.g., plumbing, wielding, etc. The idea was to give people proper skills, which can help them find jobs and become financially independent. But this was year 2013, and the memories of the terrorist attack at Westgate Mall in Nairobi were still very fresh. The hospitality industry suffered the most as the tourists stopped coming to Kenya for a while, and CAP was hit hard because their key vocational training programs focused on the hospitality industry – waitresses, front-desk staff, drivers, and similar. But the jobs were no longer there. By the time I joined the program, it really needed tweaking. I was fresh out of college with my Masters in Entrepreneurship. And you know what I noticed?
GT: That youth in Kenya are keen entrepreneurs?
VR: Exactly! People in the program were always trying to sell me something. One day, somebody would come and say, “I am making mango juice. Do you want to buy some?” The next day, another person would say, “I am making bracelets. Do you want to buy one?” And they had a lot of entrepreneurial conviction and definitely a lot of skills, especially in beadwork. So, I thought to myself, “This is good to know.” Meanwhile, I was also learning a lot about Kenyan leather and Alpharama, where my husband was working at the time. Did you know that Kenya has really good leather that’s exported all over the world?
GT: I did not know that.
VR: My husband used to work at Eagle Ottawa, an American leather company, which produces leather for the automotive industry – BMW, Audi, etc.; he knows leather. He told me that Kenyan leather is sold to Louis Vuitton and other high-end brands; not directly, as a re-finished product, but still – Kenya has great leather. So, leather, beadwork, entrepreneurship – all of that started coming together. I thought, why don’t we tweak the training program to teach people make beaded leather goods – shoes and bags -- which they can produce and sell after they finish the program.
GT: Makes total sense. Was the program still under CAP?
VR: No, CAP was closed by then. But we continued teaching. And as our first graduates were going out on their own, we realized that individual entrepreneurship was actually not an ideal outcome for our students.
GT: This contradicts your initial hunch though. Why not?
VR: You see, there are many nuances in this industry that an independent entrepreneur would find difficult to resolve; and most of the nuances are about sourcing high quality materials from leather to zippers to lining to soles. If you have a client, who comes to you from Europe and wants to make hundreds of bags, how would as a young entrepreneur know where to go for good quality leather and where would you get money to buy the materials? And what if the supplier sells them poor quality stock? They lose both – money and a potential client. The risk is too high for an independent entrepreneur.
GT: What’s the solution then? What can be done to create employment?
VR: Well, we said, “Why don’t we keep people for longer? Why don’t we expand and become a company that can take care of the nuances of the industry?” That was 2016; we had almost nothing, literally – two tables for training and production. But we knew the demand was there and we took a risk. We created a company and started taking orders from clients. At the time, we were only making sandals; our workforce was 6 people working on all orders. That’s how I left it when I went to New York to get my MBA from Columbia.
GT: Impressive! You managed to get an MBA while all of these was happening!
VR: Yes, I felt I needed proper training myself if we were to succeed. By the time I returned to Kenya in 2017, we were already exporting our products to the Middle East. But it was still only sandals. And you know that in Europe and in the USA, most people only need sandals for 2-3 months out of the year – but we could not only work for 2-3 months, we needed a plan or we would have to close down. So, we introduced bags to our product line because bags you need year-round. But it was not as simple – by then we perfected stitching for sandals, but bags are a whole different product, and there is a learning curve even for experienced workers. At the end of 2017, we set up an in-house training program, invited experts and expanded our workforce to 18 people. It’s been a serious learning journey– we’ve introduced quality control and kept training and learning. We also had to train our clients.
GT: No way! You trained them how to stitch bags?
VR: No, no! We had to explain to our clients how long it takes to make different products. For example, I would get a request, “Can you make me 24 bags like this in the next two weeks?” and I would say, “No, this is not possible.” We struggled at the beginning because some clients would expect a quick turnaround, but we are a small company and we take quality very seriously. You cannot rush things. Some clients, who were after crazy profits and did not care about quality, left. Those, who got us and our approach, stayed.
GT: Do you mean that some of your clients left because they did not appreciate your attention to quality?
VR: You would be surprised! Fast fashion really spoils us. But we’ve been very lucky to have new clients with new projects. And I am now convinced that our decision to set up an in-house training program was the right one. Last year, we’ve been forced to learn a lot of new skills with clients asking us if we do, for example, cushion covers or slippers. We did not before that client arrived. But we trained our team, and can now make both.
GT: Yes, I saw them at your shop at Village Market. I also noticed you are now making original prints.
VR: Yes, and we just started a new line of shoes. Generally, people get bored quickly, so we need to keep innovating. But we also have clients, who come back and say, “I bought these shoes 2 years ago. They are worn out, and I want another pair just like this.” It’s really rewarding and validates our focus on quality and on the local market. We generally have been very lucky with our local clients; it is really a blessing to have most of our clientele here because we have a very fast feedback loop. If there is any problem with the product – we would hear about it almost immediately. We treat our clients as partners, and we do encourage their feedback.
For example, last July a customer came in and showed us her sandals – imagine, the sole broke in half! And she showed us the receipt – she bought the shoes just 4 days prior. By then, we already made multiple pairs! We had to pull them out of the shops and resole. It was a lot of work, but just imagine we shipped them to a foreign client! That would have been a disaster.
GT: So, sorry! What happened to the client?
VR: She is still a client because she appreciated that we went out of our way to fix the problem. But from that situation, we learned two lessons: (1) to be grateful for the local clients, who give us honest feedback; and (2) to never buy supplies from a middle-man and only work with the producers of supplies, with people who can guarantee good quality. The sole seller was not the only one – we had a similar situation with a zipper supplier.
GT: Yeah you have to be very vigilant as a producer! It might be that a sole supplier was not an honest person, but people would not blame them – they would blame the shoe brand for their broken shoes.
VR: You are right! We’ve been on a long journey trying to understand our business, and we are still learning and improving things. Our goal is to eventually make a great product which is 100% produced in Kenya!
GT: How is your production process set up now?
VR: Well, our bags are all made in Kenya. But with the shoes it’s a bit of a different story. You see, making shoes is a very involved process. First, we design a new product, and make a sample to see how the shoe would look like in reality. To make a sample, we have to create a last, which is a mock of a foot in a particular size. Once we have a chance to evaluate and approve the first sample, we produce the second sample making all the necessary improvements to the shoe. Then we review and approve the second sample.
After that, if we make a decision to proceed with the production, we have to order a set of lasts, i.e., individual lasts for sizes 36, 36 ½, 37, 37 ½, and so on – up to size 42. Currently, we order lasts abroad, and our last shipment got stuck at the origination port due to COVID-19.
GT: So sorry! This seems to be a wide-spread challenge – the interruption of shipments, especially from China, for many industries, from pharmaceuticals to mobile phone production.
VR: Thankfully, we do not work with China. But yes, this is another lesson from COVID-19 – we need to produce everything locally if we are to grow and innovate. But back to the shoe production, each new shoe requires a new last. For example, we are now working on a Chelsie style. I have always wanted to make a pull-on Chelsie, I just love how comfortable they are. We have to have a last for that – we cannot use the same last as we use for sandals. Then we produce each and every detail in each size, because they would differ. So, you see how producing new models would be a long and tedious process! Nothing like bags! This s why it’s difficult for us to grow – we cannot yet produce a thousand pairs of shoes while maintaining the same quality and attention to details as we have now -- when we are producing maybe 60 pairs of each design. We also spent days and weeks finding the right raw materials, as I mentioned.
GT: Yes, Kenyan leather! Who is your current supplier of leather?
VR: Alpharama in Athi River. I believe they also supply Sand and Storm and a few other established Kenyan brands. If I am not wrong, they are the only LWG Gold-rated tannery in Africa; LWG this is a British agency, which assesses tanneries based on a number of factors --the working conditions at the factory, financial transparency, eco-friendliness, and so on. It is really important for us to work with a supplier, who supports our values. I always see horrible photos of these tanneries in India that use child labor or dump chemicals into rivers. We do not want to be associated with people like that.
GT: Unfortunately, many people still care more about the price of a garment than about how ethical the process of its production was. And conscious production is an investment that is reflected in a higher price, right?
VR: Fortunately, we can still control our prices because we manufacture in Kenya. We are also not after huge margins, we believe in happy, repeat clients. But even more so, we believe that we can make our clients happy by remaining ethical. One of the advantages of working with an LWG-rated tannery is that we know that they are practicing ethical production – for example, they are not allowed to process exotic skins like zebra or crocodile, because such animals are grown specifically for skins, which is unethical. They have a list of animals, which are grown for food, and their skins are a by-product and would otherwise be a landfill.
GT: Let me get it straight – the tannery is allowed to only process the skins of animals, who are raised for food, and whose skins would otherwise be a waste. In other words, Alpharama is removing potential waste from the ecosystem and is helping you turn it into beautiful products?
VR: Exactly! We are using a by-product of a different industry (i.e., the food industry) for our shoes and bags. And for those people who like exotic leather, there is good news – nowadays, technology allows us to emboss crocodile-skin ornament on cow leather, or any other exotic-skin print. So, you can have “crocodile” shoes without having to kill crocodiles. I’ve also seen snake prints, cheetah prints. New technology is amazing, and it helps avoid killing animals exclusively for the skin, which is so wrong! Another important thing to remember about waste – to get more landfills, we have to cut trees. Hence, by being conscious consumers we not only save animals, we save our forests.
GT: What are your plans for this year and onwards? Where do you see yourself taking Ikwetta?
VR: 2020 was difficult for everyone. I think in the first quarter of 2021, we will be able to see the true impact of COVID-19. For now, we are grateful we can keep everyone employed at least part time. We are also grateful we were able to explore some new partnerships in 2020, especially with suppliers, who gave us a chance with small orders, which was unusual for them but was forced by the pandemic. So, in many ways 2020 was a positive year for us and helped us grow and explore new possibilities. It was a good year to learn, although the sales were terrible. We also started shipping our shoes abroad in early 2020 – Italy and the USA. While the pandemic halted our export, we know now that export contracts are in our future, maybe not in 2021 but definitely in 2022.
In 2020, we also started paying more attention to our brand and how we present it – the colors, the image, what we post online about our story.
GT: Ah, yes! I’ve seen how active you are now on social media. By the way, what does your brand name mean?
VR: Ikwetta means Equator. It’s the fun spelling that we invented after we discovered that all the materials we use come from countries in Africa, which are around the Equator – Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi.
GT: I love it! Sorry, I interrupted you! Let’s finish talking about your plans for the future.
VR: Yes, as I said earlier, we want to sell high quality shoes 100% made in Kenya locally and globally. We want our product to be accessible to Kenyans; we cannot promise cheap because quality is not cheap – but accessible, yes! We also want to expand our product line, train more people and possibly separate production for our brand from that for other clients. You know, we even ordered some machinery at the beginning of 2020, but our container got stuck in Colombo, Sri Lanka. So, we have big plans and the courage to make them come through.
GT: Best of luck! And thank you!