NAIROBI, Kenya, May 19 – Meet Wesley Owiti, a 29-year-old Mandela Washington 2016 Fellow who is using his love for fashion to change the lives of poor women in rural areas in Kenya.
Clad in a parliament blue suit and a designer pair of shoes, the 6 ft tall fashion enthusiast confesses that despite the challenges, fashion, like any other art, can change the world despite any set inhibitions.
“After I graduated from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor of Commerce, I set out to start Cherehani Africa, a social enterprise that trains women how to sew clothes then lends them sewing machines to empower them once they are sufficiently trained,” Wesley said, during a one on one interview on the sidelines of the just concluded Mandela Washington Fellowship Conference.
The journey that began in 2014 would become much more difficult than Wesley expected. He had assumed that a University degree and no prior work experience would be sufficient to run an enterprise that ended up picking up faster than he expected.
“You can imagine I had no experience on how to run a business, but I got to learn along the way, even though it was the hard way.”
With an investment of Sh500,000 sourced through a collaboration of Wesley’s savings and those of his founders, Cherehani sent out word for women in rural Siaya County – which is where the projected was started and continues to run in – to apply for training opportunities. The response was positive.
“We realized that many women from poor households were really interested in signing up for the training. Our work then was to simply train them on how to sew clothes. Then, those who are successful are given sewing machines on loan and allowed to pay slowly, a model that has become very efficient since most of the women we target are locked out from many getting funds from financial institutions.”
The women are given brand new sewing machines worth about Sh12,000 and are allowed to pay back the money over a period of one year. Additionally, the women are taught simple courses on financial management and how to run small businesses.
To date, Cherehani Africa has trained over 600 women and financed over 1,000 production tools which include 600 sewing machines.
“Additionally, over US$2.12 million has been generated by the beneficiaries. Cherehani Africa is also well on its way of achieving its mission, which is to pursue financial inclusion through asset financing of tailoring tools and issuance of affordable business loans in emerging markets,” says Owiti.
He admits that despite the appearance of a well-oiled operation, the enterprise has had its own challenges. Apart from limited business management skills, lack of sufficient capital was also a factor especially in the beginning.
There was also the lack of literacy on the part of his trainees, “regardless of these challenges, however, the women warmed up to our idea very quickly upon understanding it.”
Wesley says that induction into the Mandela Washington Fellowship was able to mitigate that hurdle.
“I have met the best minds in this fellowship. The kind of support I have also received here is also crucial as it has opened my mind to a whole world of opportunities.”
I ask Wesley what he is most proud of since he began the enterprise, in his words, the ability to help people who would have otherwise never have such opportunities is what keeps him going.
“The hardest part is when you imagine that for some of these women, that sewing machine is the only asset that they have ever owned their entire lives, the only asset that has their name on it.”