Birthed from the urge to harness all the African artisanry pieces under one roof for ease of selling, Muthoni Unchained is an e-commerce platform where Kenyan artisans showcase their talent, selling their pieces around the world. Founded by Jennifer Nyambogo in 2015, Muthoni Unchained enhances what she terms as “African consumerism.” Armed with a Bachelors’ in Business Management, she would later join hands with a childhood friend to breathe life into this beautiful dream.
“I started to enhance the Africa consumerism culture way back in primary school when I could buy and resell vitenge to women from church,” she says. This culture, she adds, stayed with her well into college where she would trade in second-hand clothes. It earned her a fortune.
A subtle entrepreneur, Jennifer defines entrepreneurship as “identifying a gap in the society and providing value-added goods and/or services to that effect.” Success to her is walking into a room filled with people all draped in authentic African wear. She looks forward to when the vitenges will be considered official or formal wear even for traditional work environments. “For years, Kenyan artisans have earned a livelihood by making African wares but have lacked a proper market for their products,” she notes. Adding that, “This has rendered them low-earners.” She is concerned over the complexity of the global market owing to middlemen’s demands to control access. This, in totality she says, compromised the artisans’ earning potential.
The Unchained Movement
Muthoni Unchained is a transparent platform that does what it was purposed for. It connects artisans and their wares to consumers all under one virtual roof. Whether it is a piece of art, movie, music, or cuisine, it is all part of the unchained movement. It plugs in the African experience to the world welcoming them to unearth amazing discoveries and stories that carry centuries of our colourful, rich heritage along with the immense creativity of combining unique influences with current trends. “All our pieces are hand-made with love from artisans who possess very rare endogenous knowledge on handicrafts with exquisite handcraftsmanship,” she notes.
When I ask why she’s obsessed with African wear, she explains. “When you buy handmade, you are not just supporting an artisan and his family. You are purchasing a small part of the artist’s heart.” Even the raw materials, she elaborates, are specially handpicked with only limited pieces per design to provide exclusivity to every item in the collection.
Unchained, as Jennifer calls it, intends to expand its platform to artisans beyond local and even regional areas and straight into the hearts of African countries, and eventually, to the world. Her considerations and the key indicators as to whether or not a country is a viable market for the e-commerce platform include the availability of mobile money, the adoption rate of new technology, the reliability of shipping services, the quality of existing infrastructure and government policies toward entrepreneurs.
Cushioning against loss
We joke about the recently introduced digitax and how it will affect the Unchained movement. Her candid response, “to not get chained by the tax policy but rather, innovate to survive.” Artisans and vendors register with the company, then upload product photos to the platform. “Technology, rather, ICT, is revolutionising how businesses operate in Africa. To be successful, entrepreneurs must not go against the tide of change and innovation, but rather with it.”
The platform is pragmatic, taking note of the massive losses often caused to artisan goods due to unforeseen eventualities. It remedies this by working with insurers to insure artisanal goods against fire, theft, and exactly such losses. Members who have been onboarded to the platform pay premiums proportionate to their goods. She tells me that once in a while, the platform offers business loans to qualified entrepreneurs for purposes of business continuity or scaling.
Driving to meet with young girls
As a means of corporate social responsibility, she gives back to society through a pads-drive for young girls across the country. They especially like to focus on those from marginalised or just remote areas. She narrates how boda boda riders, being the only means of transport in remote places, take advantage of the young and naïve girls, demanding sexual favours in exchange for transportation or the purchase of sanitary items.
“During a visit to Busia, Kenya, I once realised that there was a deep-seated problem when it comes to road systems. Girls have to walk many kilometres to purchase sanitary products. Leave alone lacking the funds to even go buying such,” she says, a tint of sadness in her voice. “It hurts me that in this day and age, girls still cannot access personal hygiene items.”
She has since set aside a tithe of Unchained proceedings to be directed to a pads-drive and hiring of counseling services as a way to alleviate the challenges facing the girls.
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