It’s not rare for Kenyans who’ve traveled abroad to want to come back home after they complete their studies or make enough money, but it’s quite odd for a person born in America to Kenyan parents to want to return.
For James Muna, that’s exactly the case and the sooner he moves back ‘home’, the better.
“When I’m in America I’m the Kenyan guy, but when I’m in Kenya I’m the American guy so that’s always tough. People are always making fun of me in Kenya because I don’t speak three or four languages,” Muna said.
He returned to Kenya after his junior year for an eight week internship at the International Livestock Research Institute, but he felt it was a waste of time because he was underutilized.
“For seven of those eight weeks I was sitting in my office running regressions on my computer,” he explained.
“I was in Nairobi and I kept thinking, ‘I could be doing this in the States, so what’s the point of being here right now?’” he added.
While in Kenya for his internship, he received some unexpected inspiration from his aunt and uncle who run a residential development firm.
“When I was out there I saw them building a lot of homes and employing a lot of people and that’s when I started thinking of entrepreneurship as a career,” he revealed.
With entrepreneurship on his mind, he returned for his senior year at Cornell and started his own fashion company called Borawear.
“The original idea was that it would be a graphic t-shirt company with the theme of ‘Africa redefined’ because the only images that the West really see’s of Africa is poor children sitting in sewage with flies all over their faces,” he explained.
“I’m not saying that those images don’t exist in Africa, but there’s more to Africa than those trite images that we’re shown all the time,” he added.
He graduated from Cornell University in May 2012 with a degree in economics and a minor in international relations, but he decided not to apply for any jobs, opting to pursue his dreams of being an entrepreneur.
Muna said that he’s been working on Borawear for the last seven months after he got an idea in his room one night to cut up a kikoi and shuka that were lying around and turn them into t-shirts.
“I asked some friends what they thought of it and they loved it,” he said.
“It was just me and my sewing machine and the first month I did $20 (Sh1,707) in sales, the second month I did $40 (Sh3,415) in sales, but in April I did like $700 (Sh59,762) in sales,” he revealed.
With the sudden success of Borawear starting to earn him a profit, Muna began to realize the potential for the business and determined that he wanted it to be made in Kenya by Kenyans because “the power of the movement is really in employing others”.
“We’re employing HIV positive women in Embu to make the shirts and then we’ll sell the shirts here in America and part of the proceeds will go to an orphanage in Embu for HIV positive children called Toto Love,” he explained.
“It’s just a men’s wear line at the moment but the whole idea is to empower people through the apparel, not in some cheap marketing way, but by providing these women with employment and by helping the children at the orphanage,” he added.
He chose to begin production for Borawear in Embu, a town located on the southeastern slopes of Mount Kenya, because that’s where his parents were raised and much of his extended family still lives in the region.
Muna has launched a website, www.borawear.com, which features a quick video explaining the brand and what he’s trying to accomplish, while showcasing what the new clothes will look like.
People can sign up with their email addresses and he’s working on ways to get the word out so that people sign up on his website before he returns to Kenya to start production at the end of July.
“It went through several names such as ‘Zuguma’ and ‘The Noticed’ but I settled for BoraWear because Bora in Swahili means better, best, or ultimate and it represents the idea of wearing better clothing that stands for something positive that help others,” he said.
“You wear these things everyday so there’s a lot of power in having a social mission tied to our clothes. Borawear isn’t just something to cover your body in, it represents something you stand for, so what’s better to signify that then in your clothing?” he emphasised.
If Borawear is a success, Muna plans to expand it so they start using different fabrics and cloths from different regions of Africa.
“We’ll have products in Kenya using material from Embu and we’ll have products in Mali creating clothes with mud cloths,” he stated.
“It’s a local fabric and so it’ll be a local mission for each region we work in. I want to do stuff in Nigeria and Ghana using different fabrics and cloths and eventually I’d like to do a pan-African clothing line,” he added.
At the moment, the clothing being produced will be fitted, button down t-shirts strictly for men.
“The primary vehicle for selling the shirts will be the website but the ultimate goal is to get the clothing line in stores,” he said.
“Right now I’m the only employee of the company. I’m the web developer, photographer, model, designer and salesman, but hopefully by the end of July we should officially have our launch,” he confirmed.
With Borawear, Muna hopes to bring positive change to the lives of millions of Africans.
This is because, as he puts it, “I don’t feel like I’m an American, I will always identify myself more as a Kenyan so I feel a great responsibility to help my people.”
BY CHARLES GICHANE
Images from www.borawear.com