Valerie Nyamwaya: Narrating the African Story through Fashion

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Valerie Nyamwaya is the founder of Afrivazi Limited, an online Nairobi-based fashion marketplace that offers its own clothing line but also “Made in Kenya” apparel, footwear, and accessories for men, women, and children from local designers under their various brand names. Valerie and her team are working towards opening a physical store in Nairobi, which will be fully stocked with clothes and accessories made by Kenyan designers. As she grows the business, it’s her plan to open similar stores across the continent and abroad.

“Our vision is to raise a generation of African designers whose fashion products meet both the local and international market standards and whose legacy outlives them, not only through the important contributions they make in the industry but also through the social impact their work will have.”

Valerie shared her entrepreneurial journey with She Inspires Her.

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How did you come up with the idea to start Afrivazi? 
Afrivazi (vazi is the Swahili word for attire) as inspired by a long period of hard work, creativity, and the need to earn a living from my art. I started by holding fashion events while pursuing a Bachelors in Clothing, Textile and Interior Design at Egerton University as I felt this would be a good way to get my designs and those of others noticed. With time, I became a reference point for fashion products. I would get calls from people I didn’t even know who wanted quality African products but were constantly disappointed at how hectic the process was for them, or how unreliable or unprofessional the retail system was. So with a vision of revolutionizing fashion in Africa, I took the opportunity to create an online market, showcasing talented local designers and enabling them to earn a living from their work. In turn, customers could access a variety of unique products easily from the comfort of their home and be assured of timely delivery.

But this was also an opportunity to talk about Africa. We all have a story to tell about where we come from, where we are going, what we have been through, our aspirations … All in a bid to define ourselves, create our space, and make an impact. Through Afrivazi, it was my dream that designers would get a platform to sell their products and, with every purchase, customers would hear a tale that speaks of an untold beauty that lies in our rich African culture, expressing who we are and what we believe in, love, and value.

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Give us some insight on how you raised investments and funds to start and grow your business.
Afrivazi has been self-funded; as a designer by profession, I make and sell products which help in raising funds to run the business.

Building a business needs a lot of planning and funding until it’s launched, what has been your biggest challenge to date?
I had no entrepreneurial background but I have always been the person who wanted to do things a little differently, a little better, with a little more passion. I always wanted to question the status quo and push my creativity past what most people find comfortable and it has been baptism of fire learning, failing and having to pick up the pieces and start all over again. As is the case with most African families, when one completes his/her education it is usually natural that you get a job to not only support yourself but also make contributions to the family. Choosing to launch my own business was going against this line of thought, something that once in a while gives me butterflies since business takes time to pick up and there are days when things aren’t so good when business isn’t doing well or you simply make losses and you ask yourself if an easier route out would be best.

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Tell us a little about yourself.
I am a first born child in a family of three. Born in Migori but raised in Ruiru, I attended a rural school for which I am forever grateful since it shaped me into the woman I am today. My mum was a school nurse who instilled humility in her children. As a result, I’m able to listen and talk to people from all walks of life something that has helped me learn and form ties that assist me in my path daily. My dad was a hands-on father, who cared about our academic progress and constantly checked to see what we were learning in school. It was important to him that we be the best version of ourselves and always working to be better and different from our surroundings. From him, I learned the importance of seeing things to the end no matter how difficult it gets. I have learned to never let go, if I am wrong I rectify that and find the best way to go about the situation but I keep on till the fruits are seen.

Valerie with her father and sister who is co-Director of Afrivazi
Valerie with her father and sister who is co-Director of Afrivazi

What your hopes and dreams were as a child/young woman?
I wanted to be a lawyer and used to tell my dad of how I would be the first Lady Chief Justice in Kenya. Looking back, I would have probably dropped out of school if I’d done law in university. I studied fashion and never once regretted it. It is my dream that through my work I will be able to make significant contributions to the fashion industry and assist more and more designers to make ends meet from their work. I also plan to revive some of the traditional crafts that were practiced in Africa and find a way of integrating them into modern day fashion, there is a lot of beauty in our culture that we never get to talk about on a daily basis.

“We all have a story to tell about where we come from, where we are going, what we have been through, our aspirations … All in a bid to define ourselves, create our space, and make an impact.”

Was there any significant event in your past that has shaped your life and career choices?
My mum’s new job in 2003 was a significant moment in my life and those of my siblings. We grew up in a relatively rural town and though my parents ensured we got the best in terms of training it was important for us to get more exposure. When my mum got the new job, we moved to Nairobi and got the chance to attend Riara Springs Academy. That’s where I discovered what I was good at, and the overwhelming support from the teachers went a long way in making me believe in myself. I don’t come from a rich background and interacting with students from wealthier backgrounds who had traveled a lot and had a different perspective of life changed the way I thought and introduced me to a world of possibilities. Anything would be possible if only I believed it and went for what I wanted. After I graduated from Egerton University, one of my lecturers recommended me to someone looking for a former student to work on a project. For me this was a good feeling: she believed in me so much that she called me to tell me the same and how she was confident that I wouldn’t disappoint.

Having an increasing number of people looking up to me and using me as a point of reference – despite being relatively young in the industry – are good moments for me and I look forward to having many more.

 

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What’s the best advice you’ve been given that has stuck with you?
You may fail often. Fail one too many times than you can count but let it be a point of learning for failure is the best teacher. Your ability to rise above it is what sets apart legends from ordinary men.

What do you know now that you wish you knew before you started your business?Afrivazi Products 2
It takes a community to build and grow a company. It is very important to get people you can work with to avoid burnout, one can never do everything alone and the earlier you realize this the faster you are able to grow.

What advice would you give to women in your country who are interested in starting a business?
It is a tough journey but worthwhile – you get to learn a lot not only about yourself as an entrepreneur, but also about your industry and other issues, and what better way to live life than becoming a better version of who you are, and constantly improving and having an impact on other people’s lives. If you are interested in fashion, learn as much as you can, as the industry is dynamic and constantly changing and only those who are versatile and open to change are able to keep at it for long. No single person is a reference point in the industry, it is therefore important to be humble enough to work with others, consult and interact; this opens you up to as much information as possible to aid in strategic planning and growth.

Afrivazi132 copyWhat are the biggest barriers to women-owned business in your country?
Support systems: being an entrepreneur is not easy and requires a lot of support in the journey more so from women who have walked the path to act as mentors and provide guidance. No entrepreneur’s journey is similar to another’s but having someone share their story and how they overcame their challenges is definitely one way to ensure you avoid some of the mistakes that they made. It gives you the wisdom to make wiser decisions, make different mistakes and learn new things which you can then pass to another person.

What are you most proud of?
Knowing that I have helped increase revenues and clients for designers from the connections we have helped them create. There is joy when customers attest not only to the quality of work done by local designers but also become return clients and refer others to buy locally made products. But my greatest joy comes from the fact that the brand has resonated with the younger working class who have owned it and made it their own. I may not get to talk to all our clients, but the stories of the few I interact with inspire me to continue doing what I do. For them, Afrivazi is more than just the clothes they wear; it is an identity of who they are. I can’t wait for the day when we will raise more and more brands celebrated the world over that have been born and raised in Africa. I strongly believe that the key to realizing Africa’s full potential and solving its underlying problems, lies strongly in the discovery and maximization of our strengths and capabilities as Africans.