Forty-five years ago, William Okello and Margaret Adhiambo had completed textile training but couldn’t find work. Someone gave them a sewing machine and, over time, they built a textile factory of their own with a global market and jobs for 24 other Kenyans. But it took more than four decades of hard work.
William and Margaret trained in the textile spinning and hand weaving at the National Council of Churches of Kenya Textile College in Nairobi in 1977, then married and settled at the Nyalenda slums in Kisumu.
In Kisumu, Kenya’s third city, job seekers were willing to consider doing anything, even things they have not studied for. With no jobs available for any textile manufacturers, they took menial work to survive.
“Since the slogan of the day was ‘No Work, No Wages’, the daily payment depended on the amount of work one does in a day,” said Margeret. “ We worked in the bookshops or clothes shops. We worked as casual laborers doing jobs such as arranging goods in the stores and packing merchandise for retail and wholesale agents.
“Our employers were Asian business people living in Kisumu town," she continued. "The day’s [sales] were low, meaning little work, less payment.”
The duo used their savings to buy a second-hand sewing machine. Adhiambo began repairing worn-out clothes for slum dwellers, including women and children, while Okello continued working in town.
Old Wooden Loom Means Business
In 1980, the British government donated to the couple an old manual loom made out of wood. Despite financial constraints, Okello says they started developing plans for creating their own weaving business and began manufacturing new clothes with the loom.
“To begin the weaving venture, we saved US $12.50 which we used to buy the first 100 meters of yarn from Kisumu Cotton Mills,” said William. “Without employees, the two of us started weaving in the rented house. However, we were still doing some tailoring, which paid for the rented house.”
At the time, business agreements between farmers and large factories made it difficult for small-scale businesses to buy local cotton. The crop, which relied on seasonal rains, was in short supply. There was also insufficient transport and storage to preserve it.
Adhiambo looked for alternatives.
“Cotton was expensive to buy,” she said. “We decided to purchase wool from the Wool Centre, at Nakuru town in Kenya’s Rift Valley province, a distance of 190 kilometers east of Kisumu town. Still, it was difficult and expensive buying 200 kilogram bales for $400.”
In 1987, the business found markets and flourished. With their success, the couple bought some land for a factory at the Nyamasaria market located on the highway connecting Kisumu to the capital, Nairobi.
“We bought a three-acre piece of land and constructed a home for our home, workshop, tailoring room, and display shop,” William said.
Kapendeza Weaving Enterprise was now born, with Okello as its manager.
Business picked up with tourist sales
The plant trains staff who spin, dye, weave and tailor clothing and other products – including table placemats, dresses, shirts, trousers, tablecloths, napkins, shower curtains, scarves, purses, cushion covers.
Adhiambo says they in turn are displayed, packed, stored or taken to buyers in Canada, and in to California and Texas in the United States.
“Kapendeza has come up with products designed to meet local and international markets demands,’ she said. “The major buyers are expatriates and tourists from international countries like the United States, Canada and Britain.”
Despite the impressive progress made in developing the business, Okello, who is also the company technician, said various challenges, like access to machines and accessories, still hinder growth.
“Primary components and [integral parts of the loom] like benches, heddles, shuttles, and bobbin winders are not available in Kenya,” he said. “They have to be imported from Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. Importation of goods from developed countries to a developing like Kenya is very expensive.”
Kapendeza is an example of successful small firm providing employment and tax revenues to the government.
With a staff of 24 people each earning about $125 per month, the small-scale enterprise also helps ease local unemployment and provides income for purchasing goods including cotton from local farmers.
The two entrepreneurs say government policies could help others follow in their footsteps. For example, they say small businesses need loans, and would benefit by an end to imports of second-hand clothes, which are cheaper than newly manufactured ones. Young people would also benefit from government support for textile colleges.
They’re optimistic that with the right support, African designs using local cotton can find a global market.