Engineer builds sisal bags export business from Covid-19 ruins – Business Daily
Elljoy Muthee(left) waits as Beatrice Makaa (centre) and Petronila Mbete weave baskets for her at Kariokor Market in Nairobi on September 29,2022. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG
At the height of Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, when some businesses were closing down and others sending their employees on unpaid leave, Elljoy Muthee’s was taking shape.
She had retreated to her parent’s home in Tharaka Nithi after her employer furloughed her. Five months into the pandemic, however, no call-up was forthcoming.
“Between March and August, I was upcountry, thinking hard about ways I could make money. I applied for jobs but no one was hiring. Then one day as I interacted with the women from my village as they made nice baskets and mats from reeds I had my lightbulb moment,” says the electronic engineer by profession.
The idea was to resell the products online. She figured she had nothing to lose and at the very least it would be fun.
“I set up an Instagram page, named it Sisal Love, and conducted research to find out about my competitors. There were few, which motivated me. I went to the market , I took photos of the bags, mats, and winnowing baskets,” she explains.
Soon people started following her page. “But I got my first comment after two weeks, which translated into a sale. My first customer bought two huge storage baskets and a mat, which I delivered to Nairobi via a courier,” she adds.
As orders increased, her mother encouraged her to do value addition to the products to enhance their aesthetics and even chipped in to help her affix cowry shells to the bags.
Her clients, she says, also challenged her to grow her business, by sending her pictures of designs they wanted and asking for replicas.
“I have different types of bags in different sizes, and each design and size goes for different prices, ranging between Sh500 to Sh4,000. There are good and bad months, so the profit varies. Sometimes I get a wholesale order, and sometimes I can go a whole week without selling anything,” she says.
“In 2021, I made my first out-of-the-country shipment in the US. It was very motivating for me because I then realised that I was being recognised internationally,” she explains adding that besides the US, she has also made sales in Dubai.
Over time, she has diversified her product range to include bags and mats made from sea reeds imported from Tanzania, which gave her business an edge over her competitors.
“It meant I had to get the product directly from the source. I paid the full amount to get the bags, but they took a whole month to be made,” she recalls. “At some point, I was scared that I had lost my money.”
“Being in business means you have to be a risk taker. The success has motivated me to look into importing traditional products from other countries. I’m currently planning to bring traditional bags made from straws from Morocco. I get new ideas every day, but capital is a challenge,” says Ms Muthee.
To succeed in her business, she notes she has had to be consistent. There are days when she may not make a single sale or get an inquiry in a week, she says, yet she needs to visit the market, take photos of new products and post them.
“As long as the page is visible, you know that you will eventually make a sale. The good thing is also that Instagram has a promotion button that increases visibility and returns,” says Ms Muthee.
To outsmart her competitors, she plans to set up a website and rent a physical shop in town to boost her sales. A website, she says, will drive her international clients to trust her more.
“Sometimes I feel that an international client might enquire, but they go quiet because they don’t find a website where they can buy directly from and one that can be tracked,” she explains.
Her other plans include forming a social group or foundation that will allow her to work directly with the women that weave. That, she says, will enable her to interact with the women from the point of picking the sisal from the farm, weaving, and to the point of selling. That will also enable her to empower them and get better markets so that they win as a team.
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