We talked to Valerie Muigai of Kijani on how she is empowering Ugandan mamas by creating jobs with fair wages and good working conditions.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Valerie Muigai: We are all doing fine – my husband and I were stuck on different continents when the lockdowns started. We were grateful to be reunited as a family in September.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Kijani.
Valerie Muigai: I started my career in International development focused on women and children in East Africa. From 2012-2018 I was the Ugandan Country Director of an NGO. However, I became disillusioned with development work and the inability to bring lasting impact. I began to realize how business can be used as a tool to empower people through job creation and build the local economy. When I moved to Uganda in 2012, my son was 5 months old, and I had sewn modern cloth diapers for him. I brought the extra fabrics with me to Uganda in case he would need more diapers. I also started sewing them for friends as baby gifts. Their friends saw them and started placing orders. I realized that there were no modern cloth nappies available in Uganda and saw a huge market gap, plus an opportunity to create jobs, especially for women.
How does Kijani innovate?
Valerie Muigai: We did not create the concept of modern cloth nappies; however, we innovate by taking this concept and adapting it to the Ugandan context. I tried out different patterns and materials for 2 years – I would come up with a new design, give it to people to test, test it on my own child, and then make additional changes. In addition, we try to make a variety of products at different price points to make them as affordable and accessible as possible to Ugandan families. We are the only cloth diaper company in Uganda and the only cloth diaper company with a social vision to create jobs to lift women out of poverty.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Valerie Muigai: Although Uganda has had few coronavirus cases and few deaths, they had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. For 6 weeks, all public transportation and private cars were banned. We had to close our shop and relied on motorcycles to deliver orders to customers (motorcycles were allowed to operate for deliveries only). We were able to work through a large online shopping platform Jumia, which would send motorcycles to my house to pick up inventory to deliver to customers. We were able to get permission to use our commercial van to deliver large orders to supermarkets, but we could only use it for deliveries, and there were police checks everywhere. Thankfully, most of our tailors are within walking distance to the workshop, and I also lived within walking distance, so we were able to keep production going. However, our supply chain was disrupted, so we had to slow down production significantly because we couldn’t get our raw materials. We import nearly all of our fabrics, and our local supplier of cotton had shut down their factory for several weeks.
Most of our sales are in the local Ugandan market, but we have several customers in Kenya, and we also sell in the US and the UK. These export markets had been the fast-growing business segments but were hardest hit by COVID due to shipping challenges. Uganda completely closed their borders for several months, so even getting orders to neighboring Kenya was a major challenge. With no flights going in and out of Uganda, most shipping companies stopped operating. We switched to DHL, which was fast and reliable, but also considerably more expensive than what we had been using. We sent two large shipments right before lockdown, ended up getting significantly delayed, and were not delivered until nearly 4 months after we sent them.
Our main focus was keeping everyone on the team safe, employed, and paid in full and on time during the lockdown months, and the team really pulled together. Although our sales took a hit in the 2nd quarter of 2020, we recovered and had our highest revenue quarter ever for the third quarter of 2020.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Valerie Muigai: Yes – when the government started announcing restrictions, I was determined to find a way to keep the shop and workshop open and to continue operating safely. However, when the strictest measures were announced, we had to close everything because we couldn’t initially figure out how to keep the business going while obeying government regulations, and our supply chain had been significantly disrupted – our suppliers and shipping companies had shut down, and we were running out of materials. Slowly, we were able to piece together ways to continue, and we only had to completely close for a week.
One of the main reasons I started Kijani was to create jobs as a way to empower women. Having a steady job with fair pay and good working conditions is an effective way to lift families out of poverty in impoverished communities. This crisis reinforced this value – so many Ugandans were hard hit during COVID and lost their jobs or income sources. I recognized that many of the women employed by Kijani don’t have safety nets. There was no government financial relief to individuals during the lockdown, and in good times unemployment rates for Ugandan women are 58%!
The other lesson learned was the importance of determination and setting priorities – we decided to keep employees paid and the survival of the business the priorities to ensure that everyone would still be able to have a job when the crisis ended. We had to change a lot of aspects of the business and cut a lot of expenses in order to continue to operate, and we still ended the quarter with a significant loss. However, we were able to find ways to continue operating at least at a level where we could keep the business open and continue to make payroll.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Valerie Muigai: I rely on my support network to get through times of stress and anxiety. During the lockdown, one of my closest friends was my next-door neighbor, so we would meet daily to drink tea or wine. We also offered each other practical support to get through the challenges of lockdown and having our children at home all day. I have a small network of female business owners and leaders I meet within normal times. We were able to connect by phone or social media to check in on each other and brainstorm solutions to the challenges we all were facing with the lockdown. I also like to plan small treats or fun times for my children when I feel stressed because having fun with my kids is another way to take my mind off stress for a while and be in the present. Reading a good book or watching a funny movie are other tactics I use to decompress in stressful times.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Valerie Muigai: We do not have any direct competitors in Uganda – right now, we are the only washable diaper company in Uganda. Our indirect competitors are disposable diaper brands. With the economic challenges resulting from COVID that are likely to persist for a while, we will communicate even more about the cost savings of washable diapers and look for NGOs we can partner with to make our diapers as affordable and accessible as we can.
Your final thoughts?
Valerie Muigai: The COVID lockdown helped us pare down to identify what things were most essential to keep our business going and reinforced the centrality of our people and our mission.
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