What comes to your mind when you hear the word kiondoo? For most people, it is the traditional basket mostly used by our grandmothers but this perception will change once you come across one of Ivy Nitta’s kiondoos. Ivy, a lawyer by profession, is giving the sisal bags a new lease of life. She talks to HENRY KAHARA on her dream to make the kiondo a fashion staple among the youth.
Ivy Nitta was frustrated when she failed her bar examination at the Kenya School of Law, ultimately denying her an opportunity to practice as an advocate of the high court. But
she is not the kind to sit down and lament over her failure as she subscribes to the school of thought that failure is part of life and it doesn’t have to define one’s future.
“Ever since I was a child, I always wanted to address the court. So you can imagine the pain I felt when it dawned on me that I would not. I cried. The fact that I wouldn’t wear the white wig with my classmates deeply saddened me as I had given it my all and that is how I knew that profession was not meant for me. But after the tears dried, I vowed not to let it put me down. I promised myself to move on with life,” says Ivy.
It took some time for Ivy to figure out her next move and when she did, she settled on social entrepreneurship. She identified her niche in modernising the iconic kiondoo – a traditional African bag used by women to carry their luggage. Since her target market is young adults, she purposed to make the kiondoo trendy so as to appeal to them.
“I realised that most ladies don’t want to carry kiondos as they consider them outdated, which to some extent is true. What they don’t know is that the kiondoo is just as good as the bags they carry and probably even more durable too,” she says, pointing at the one she is carrying.
“I have always had a soft spot for traditional bags. During my childhood days, I would visit my grandparents’ upcountry and was fortunate to see my great grandmother using them. I admired everything about them – from process through which they are made, the intricate designs and the wonderful mix of colours,” she says elatedly.
Years later while studying at the Kenya School of Law, Ivy used to carry her personal belongings in a revamped kiondoo. Being a new concept, her kiondoos caught the attention of her college mates and some went ahead to order for one. She would then request her source to make more kiondoos, which she sold to her friends. However, the transactions were made casually and it didn’t click in her mind at the time that this could be her golden goose.
“I get my baskets from my village Kyekoyo, Kinyui in Kangundo, Tala. I have a group of women who weave them for me at a good price. I then take them to a leatherworker for finishing in accordance with the client’s taste,” she notes adding, “That’s how I achieve a made in Kenya product.”
According to Ivy, although young women are yet to embrace kiondoo as a mainstream bag, they are slowly accepting it.
Why use kiondoo? “One of the benefits of using a kiondoo is that it helps to reduce pollution, as you can’t dispose it the way you would polythene bags. Some kiondoos are also made using polythene bags hence helping to recycle the paper bags,” says Ivy who once worked as an intern with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
She urges the government to institute laws that will regulate the use of plastic bags in the country as this will help to have a clean environment in addition to providing a ready market for people who weave and sell kiondoos, as well as sisal farmers.
“If people embrace the kiondoo culture, we can create jobs for hundreds of people,” observes Ivy.
She notes that she is currently content with empowering the old women from her village by buying the kiondoos from them.
“Such women still have needs but they cannot find employment due to their age. Some work on their small farms which don’t yield much while others rely on casual jobs or their children who are working. But they can use their weaving skills and be self-reliant,” says Ivy.
She further urges young people to find a problem they can solve within the community since it can be of much help to them if they want to start a successful business. “Don’t say there are no jobs.
You can start such a business and although it may not give you the amount of money you desire, it will be enough to get you by,” she says also noting that one doesn’t have to run a business fulltime and can thus may venture into it as a side hustle.
“This will also help us to preserve our culture since kiondoos are uniquely Kenyan,” she says, noting that kiondoos are only given to newly married women as a reminder of her new duties as a wife. According to her, making the bags sophisticated will encourage young women to carry the bags while going for shopping.
She reveals that the kiondoo has gained popularity in the Western world, as fashion enthusiasts find it exotic. As a business person, plans are underway to ensure she taps into this market.
Currently, Ivy aggressively markets her products through online platforms and her vibrant Facebook account – Kiondoo Kulture – has come in handy.
“If you have an idea and don’t have enough capital to start off, my advice is; start where you are. In business, taking the first step is crucial if you are to succeed. In addition, pay attention to what you love, that which makes you happy. When I first told my family that I wanted to venture in kiondoo business, most of them were not for it.
They couldn’t understand why I would want to ‘waste’ my education on such a venture, which according to them doesn’t need education. Most people don’t understand that it’s not about education but the fulfillment you get in what you do,” says the University of Buckingham alumni.
Ivy is deeply grateful to her parents who continually support her directly and indirectly and encouraged her to succeed in what she is passionate about.
“My long-term plans include setting up a brick and mortar store with several retail outlets, first in Africa and then worldwide. I would then give back to society by building a community centre for Kiondoo Mamas in the village, so that they can professionalise their trade. Such a facility will also help to mentor the young generation who are interested in weaving, in addition to economically empowering the weavers,” she says.
She also advises young people to invest in entrepreneurship as there are numerous opportunities. “Young people need to think outside the box since we can’t continue waiting for white collar jobs which are hard to come by. It’s time to bring solutions to issues affecting us and the country in general,” she says.
Ivy acknowledges that she lacked management skills when she was starting out but she has been taking one step at a time and has since learnt the ropes of business management.
“Financing was a challenge at the beginning as I didn’t have enough funds to produce the quality of the bags I was envisioning, But after getting some samples out there, the prospects are looking up. My focus is to have a luxury product made in Kenya.
Currently, the bags range from Ksh7,000 to Ksh22,000 depending on the finishing and accessories. The quality of the materials I use – leather, canvas, brass, silk and even Swarovski crystals – push the price of the bags up,” she says in conclusion.
Published in February 2017