WAHU KAGWI
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Daphine Okonji : Designing her way to success

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About five years ago, Daphine Okonji, 29, formed Elle Interior Designers with nothing more than an interest in interior design and little capital. Currently, Elle is a recognised and respected brand in Kenya, and also an award-winning, interior design company that runs a design school, landscaping and décor arm that is dedicated to creating excellent living and working spaces. She talks to EDNA GICOVI about growing her thriving business from strength to strength.

Daphine Okonji considered herself fortunate to land a job with a HR firm soon after graduating from Strathmore University in 2007. She loved her job and the valuable experience she was gaining and worked as hard as she could, often working after hours and during weekends. Five months later, she was fired.

Though she was hurt and has never fully understood the circumstances under which she was dismissed, Daphine says that this more than fuelled her motivation to start her own business. “I was lucky because I was still pretty young, and lived with my parents so I didn’t have to worry about bills.

We’re sitting inside a tastefully furnished building in Nairobi’s Kileleshwa area where Elle Interior Designers and the Elle School of Design are housed. It’s difficult to tell how demanding Daphine’s job as the chief executive officer of this outfit is, given the carefreeness she exudes. “I stay up very late many times to work on projects. I slept at 2 a.m. this morning though I had an early morning meeting, and after that meeting I had a client to see,” she says, shrugging her shoulders like it’s no big deal. After our interview, which extends past 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, she has two more clients to see before going home to her one-year-old daughter Sifa.

Nurturing her dream…

Daphine dreamed of becoming an esteemed businesswoman in Africa from as early as the age of 10, though she didn’t know what kind of business she would end up in. This dream was partly inspired by her mother who is also a businesswoman. When she was in primary school she made bookmarks, which she sold to her classmates for five shillings, and in high school sold cupcakes that her mother made.

After joining the Strathmore Business School to study for a bachelor of commerce degree in business administration and a diploma in human resources, she continued engaging in business, this time making her own cakes and supplying to neighbouring shops that catered for university students. She also offered private tuition to primary school children. These activities helped her raise money for her upkeep. Unlike most students, she didn’t depend on her parents for pocket money. She was also able to understand the value of money and hone her business skills.

After she lost her HR job, together with her two friends they got an opportunity to run Jaydan Gardens, a getaway in Ridgeways, off Kiambu Road in Nairobi. She took up the responsibility of furnishing and landscaping the place, which she really enjoyed. Interior design has always been close to Daphine’s heart but she had never considered it as something she could earn a living from.

The final results of her work at Jaydan Gardens was impressive, something noted by both the guests and friends who visited the place. Daphine didn’t hesitate to take up the challenge to monetize her talent at the suggestion of her friends. She registered Elle Interior Designers in 2008.

Getting started…

She was careful not to plunge into business right away. She spent a whole year doing research on the viability of her business idea. “My background is not in interior design and I had a lot of learning to do. When you’re starting a business, you want to find out what other people are offering and where the gaps are,” she says.  She continued running Jaydan Gardens as she learnt more about interior design and how she could grow her brand.

“It was such an insightful year. I would to go to cybercafés to access the Internet as I researched then save the information in a flash disk and later on look for a friend with a PC so I could process it. I didn’t even have a laptop at the time,” she says. She believes that a lack of finances should never be used as an excuse not to get started since many successful business people, including her, started from scratch.

Using her savings, (in…. month and year) Daphine booked the smallest stand at the Kenya Homes Expo, a bi-annual event for real estate stakeholders and interior designers, among other companies presenting new products and services. This stand cost her Ksh 56,000. She used this platform to market her interior design ideas, which by this time had grown to include training. While carrying out research on her business, she found there was a need to train interior designers and saw this as a business opportunity. She developed a syllabus for a short course, which she incorporated in her new business venture to run as a separate department.

She got her first student during the expo and secured a place at a business centre on Ngong Road in Nairobi where she carried out the training with the help of her cousin. “I was so excited to train just this one student! It was a huge milestone. I also trained my cousin on how to train and she eventually became very good at it,” she says, adding that they would advertise Elle’s services on notice boards at shopping malls, which brought in more students.

While her cousin handled training, Daphine handled the consultancy function of the company, which only catered for residential properties at the time. Elle’s first client was a friend to Daphine’s husband who was looking to re-do a small part of his house. He was happy with her work, and with time she was referred to more people to redesign their homes. A little over a year later, Elle was also involved in interior design for commercial buildings around Nairobi, starting with the Gertrude Children’s Hospital play area in their main hospital in Muthaiga, followed by LG Electronics’ customer area at their offices in Riverside and Swift Global after they moved offices from Mombasa Road to Upper Hill, among other companies.

“When I started Elle, my main focus was residential interior design. Now we do offices, restaurants, floors in buildings, and lounges. I wouldn’t have imagined we would grow this big in such a short time. We’re still getting calls for new business, even much more than we can handle. So far, so good,” says Daphine contentedly. She is grateful to her dedicated team and her clients and suppliers who have enabled the company to grow over the years.

The training department of Elle has grown to become a fully-fledged college and a separate entity from the interior design company. Elle College of Design offers training in interior design, landscape design, events management and flower arrangement, among other courses. In addition to the college and the interior design company, Elle also offers landscaping and maintenance services. Running the college concurrently with the interior design company has been very useful, according to Daphine. The students are able to learn on the job by getting involved in some of Elle’s projects as the company offers internships.

Rewarding challenges…

Despite the many success stories Daphine has to tell about her business, it has not been a smooth road all the way. “Where do I start?” she says almost to herself, regarding the challenges she has faced since starting Elle. Being conned Ksh 600,000 in rent for fake premises and having to move her offices and college with only three weeks notice; having her office broken into on two separate occasions; losing valuable office equipment where important design projects were stored; and staffing issues are just a few of the road blocks she has encountered.

“These challenges have helped me see the strength of the business I’m running because I have managed to pick myself up and rise above them. God has been very gracious to us,” she says, adding that facing challenges has enabled her develop a lot of resilience. Last year Daphine flew to South Africa to receive the ‘Young Enterprise Africa’ Award at the Fifth Annual Africa SMME Awards at the African Growth Institute, which recognises the efforts of small businesses across Africa. She also received an ‘Outstanding Young Female Alumni’ Award from Strathmore University last month.

Daphine also runs a business mentorship programme called Vua Fanaka that mentors people looking to go into business. “Somebody saying ‘if she did it, then I also can’ is a reason for me to wake up every morning. I also don’t want to ‘make it’ alone. Part of my vision is to help grow people in business,” she says.

Daphine thinks it’s vital not to wait until one becomes a big company in order to grow a reputable brand. “Take your business seriously from the very start. Believe in yourself as an entrepreneur, even when others don’t, or even when it borders on madness. That’s the only way that others will believe in you,” she says. Among the lessons she has learnt is the need to involve staff members in a company’s strategy. “Teamwork and appreciating your staff members is important. Your staff needs to feel they are part of the business,” she says.

“Don’t sit and wait. Go out there and make things happen for you! Get started, research, talk with different people and look for mentorship. Write your goals and review them. At the end of each day, ask yourself ‘what have I done to help me get where I’m going?’ That’s the only way you can build the everyday discipline of sieving out useless activities and relationships, and focusing on what will help you along the way,” she says in conclusion. Daphine currently runs Elle with her husband Jan Okonji.

Published in September 2013 

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