Love Artisan is a social enterprise which harnesses the potential of Nairobi’s informal sector workforce to create contemporary, original and environmentally sustainable artisan-made furniture. An integral part of Love Artisan’s identity is for our customers to get to know the artisans who make their furniture. Both the creation and the purchase of hand-crafted work is an intensely personal exchange and forms an important part of our story. If you follow us on social media, you’ll know that we often share the stories of our artisan team.
As it came time recently to introduce our original team member, Evans Onsongo, it occurred to me that it’s impossible to tell Evan’s story without telling the journey of how Love Artisan ultimately came to be. And so here it is.
I have lived in Nairobi for almost 6 years, primarily working in the tourism industry and occasionally dabbling in other entrepreneurial ventures such as event management and organic bee-keeping in Masai Mara. In June of 2015, I had just moved into an unfurnished flat and needed to find an inexpensive way to furnish it. ‘How hard can it be to make furniture?’ I wondered. Little did I know! So I watched some YouTube videos and bought some old shipping pallets. I also gathered the spare parts of my safari truck and thought, ‘I must be able to make something from this.’
Evans, at the time was working as the day watchman in my compound. He had learned some carpentry skills from his uncle as a teenager, but did not have the means to continue learning the trade after he finished school and so started working in security. At the time we met, Evans was being paid a criminally low wage of 6,000kes a month for his work as a watchman.
We gathered the pallets and the spare parts and together Evans and I set about making some furniture for my house. Our very first design was a bouncy little stool made out of the old coil springs from my safari truck. Despite having no plans to go into furniture making, the design was a hit amongst friends and very soon we stopped making furniture for my flat, and started making it for other people. (Note: I still sleep on a bed made from old tomato crates made by Evans back in those early days!)
Sara Reeves and Evans Onsongo
To say it was tough time to launch a new start-up would not be an understatement.
In October 2015, a friend enquired if I had any job for an upholsterer as they knew a really good one that was without work. Armed with his manual Singer sewing machine, which he’d purchased in 1976 and was still going strong, Mzee Meschack joined our little team. If anyone is interested in seeing those early pieces we did, go check out the Facebook page: Artisan Collective.
Over the following months we worked on pallet sofas, refurbishments of customers’ furniture and the occasional large contract (Thank you Kengeles Lavington for believing in us!)
But it was all happening out of the living room in my flat in Kileleshwa and it meant every time we needed so much as a single screw, I had to drive and purchase it. Not only was I living in the middle of a furniture-making mess, the business model simply could never become sustainable if we continued to run it that way.
And so it was with excitement that in June of 2016, I was approached by the founders of WorkShop Nairobi to head up a new project full-time. They had received a grant from the World Bank to establish a ‘tool-lending library’ in the informal sector. Ultimately this was not a feasible idea and thankfully they worked with me to transform it into a training institute for the ‘jua kali’ (street-side) furniture-making industry along Ngong Road and surrounds. Over six months, we ran short courses for 25 workshops; in everything from design, sustainability, technical drawing, customer service, pricing and marketing. I was also tasked with generating income for the project and so designed a range of environmentally sustainable furniture created by local artisans. This furniture range is still sold by WorkShop Nairobi to this day. And yes, Evans and Mzee came with me during my time at WorkShop Nairobi.
I’m very passionate about the potential of our artisan workforce, and so after my 1 year contract ended, I pulled together the (very) little capital that I had, purchased some tools, rented a workshop and officially opened the doors of Love Artisan on 9 July 2017. My aim with Love Artisan is to continue expanding on the principles of capacity building in the local artisan industry and creating quality and environmentally sustainable furniture.
Soon after launch, Kenya was plunged into anxiety and economic sluggishness as a result of the protracted general election period, which we are only now starting to rise above. To say it was tough time to launch a new start-up would not be an understatement. But I also believe that any successful entrepreneur, and by extension any new start-up, must go through a period of (sometimes extreme) hardship in order to thrive. There’s something about the tension of not knowing how you’ll find the funds to keep the doors open, that galvanizes the strength, resilience and sheer perseverance of an entrepreneur and sets up a solid, unshakeable foundation. To any budding entrepreneur I would say, those early challenges are not in your way, they are your way.
It goes without saying that Evans, Mzee and myself together launched Love Artisan and now we are joined by our large and awesome team consisting of George, Boni, Mwaluma, Kelvin, David, Mark and Juliana.
As we reach the 6 month mark of Love Artisan, the thing I am most proud of, in our journey to date, is that we have provided work every single day for our growing team, at a time when the country generally, and the informal sector in particular, has been struggling to make ends meet. For that we have the Nairobi community to thank for their overwhelming support of our work. Our success so far is proof that not only are people willing to purchase locally made products, but actively seek to do so, providing the quality, design and price is right. I also take a measure of pride in the fact that Love Artisan has been completely self-funded thus far, though we would definitely be interested in investment to help us grow to reach our full potential!
So that’s the story of my ride-or-die colleague and friend, Evans Onsongo, of how he and I came to be working in the furniture industry, and of Love Artisan: Chapter 1. Come along for the ride and see where the next chapters will take us!
This is a guest post from Love Artisan. You can find them in our Design Directory among many other creative businesses in Africa. If you’d like to be featured or know someone who does, please contact us and we’ll be excited to share the story.