NAIROBI, KENYA - At age 24, Lilian Wairimu considered herself almost destitute. She had expected to land a job as a marketing executive after graduating from a relatively prestigious private university in Nairobi. Instead, she was a single mother and jobless.
Then one day she looked under the bed.
"I used to keep this old mattress. It was an old and abandoned mattress," she said. "It had been there for a while under my bed. I tried to put it in different positions, and I realized it could make a seat."
This marked the start of a long process toward what has now become one of Nairobi's most successful furniture businesses. The company, VEE3 Creative, makes what it calls monster beanbags — colorful, oversized beanbags that can comfortably seat one or two people.
From a business with a startup capital of $50, Wairimu's venture has grown to annual sales of $20,000 and rising.
"I am happy to see what began as a desperate means for me to survive has become a living room sensation for the many clients who come to me," said Wairimu, now 30.
Unlike most businesses, which have permanent addresses, Wairimu's VEE3 has no fixed abode. Her workshop is as mobile as her marketing network.
Plenty of drive
She attributes her success to strong motivation.
"You do not need much capital to pursue a passion," Wairimu said. "What you need is to work with what you have. If you have something small, start small and continue to grow. You can also motivate yourself on a daily basis, because in entrepreneurship there are days which are good and there are days which are tough. So you have to give yourself a daily dose of motivation."
Economic analysts see entrepreneurship as a key tool to reducing unemployment. Lack of access to startup funds has hampered entrepreneurship in Kenya and across the continent.
"Some of the entrepreneurs lack the capital to start the businesses," said Garrishon Ikiara, international economic affairs lecturer at the University of Nairobi. "Those with startup capital may also lack the necessary marketing, accounting and human resource management skill to run the business."
"It was very hard to raise money," Wairimu said. "I started with 5,000 Kenyan shillings ($50). I was able to buy the material for my first beanbag. It was a disappointing outcome. I had to save again another 5,000 shillings."
One in every five Kenyan youths lacks a job, a rate three times higher than in neighboring Uganda and Tanzania, according to a recent World Bank report on the Kenyan job market.
The Kenyan government has set up a national youth fund to support business innovation. Ikiara said local and international organizations also have provided assistance to people with ideas.
Meantime, Wairimu is not planning to rest on her success. "I am very happy, and with the many ideas that I also have in my mind, I want to pray for more success in the future. I am proud of my business," she said.