Valerie Muigai: From Development Aid to Diapers

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By Elaine Pirozzi

Valerie Muigai was looking for ways to cut costs. It’s not surprising – she was pregnant with her first child, her husband was just starting graduate school, and their expenses were high. So they figured they could save a few dollars by using cloth diapers (or nappies) for the new baby rather than disposable ones. Their choice of diapers seemed a relatively minor decision at the time, but would end up shaping Valerie’s life and career path in ways she would never have imagined.

“We tried washable diapers on my daughter and loved them. I loved the fact that they saved us so much money, but they were also healthier for her, and we weren’t creating tons of waste with disposable diapers. It didn’t hurt that they were really cute, either.”

Valerie’s concern about waste was far from unfounded. An average child will require between 4000 and 8000 disposable diapers by the time they are potty-trained, and some environmentalists say that it can take 250 to 500 years for a diaper to decompose in a landfill. And the impact goes well beyond that to include the plastics, chemicals, and water used to make those diapers as well as the packaging and transportation of diapers from the factory to market.

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Two years after the birth of her first child, in 2010, Valerie met a woman who had a business making and selling diapers in the US, where they were living at the time. Valerie had always enjoyed sewing as a hobby, so she asked the woman to teach her to make diapers.

She was ready when her second child was born in 2012: she made all of his diapers herself. That same year, she and her husband moved to Uganda for work, when her son was 5 ½ months old. She brought some diaper fabric with her and started making washable diapers for friends as baby gifts. As friends of friends saw these diapers, they began to ask how they could get some, and a business was born.

“You don’t need a lot of capital to get started, and if you start small you don’t have a lot to lose if you make mistakes. Find other successful business people in your community and ask them questions about their systems and the way they run their business.”

At first, I did all the sewing,” she explains. “But with a job and two young children I didn’t have time to complete the orders.” With her background in development, she also realized that by expanding her business she could create opportunities for other women in Uganda.

“In 2013, I trained one woman how to make the nappies and she started filling orders for me. Kijani officially registered as business in July 2014.”

Kijani is a Swahili word meaning green, chosen to reflect the commitment to environmental sustainability. The company’s goal is to create a high quality, affordable alternative to disposable diapers in both local and international markets, as well to provide positive employment and training opportunities to empower Ugandan women. As they’ve grown, they’ve begun selling other baby accessories as well and have started a blog, Kijani Baby, as a resource for Ugandan parents. Kijani currently employs four tailors and four sales associates.

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Valerie grew up in New Jersey, one of three daughters. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry from the University of North Carolina. At age 24 she moved to Nairobi to go to graduate school at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. It was while studying in Kenya that she met and married her husband. She has held jobs in development and continues to work part time in the field as her business grows.

“The business started off as more of a hobby. All of the money to start with simply came from the small orders we were getting – I would use that money to buy more materials and make more diapers. As the business grew, there were points along the way that we invested our own money from personal savings, but most of the funding has been reinvesting the money from sales.”

The biggest challenge she has faced so far has been finding and accessing the right materials. “The fabrics needed to make quality diapers are very specific. In the beginning, I was always changing our pattern and trying out new materials. I didn’t have the capital initially to buy and import large quantities of fabric. Additionally, balancing quality and affordability has been a significant challenge. We want to use the best materials and make a diaper that is comparable to any diaper in the international market, and we want to pay our tailors a good wage. At the same time, we want to be able to price them affordably.”

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Valerie has had the benefit of convenient and accessible test subjects, though. “I developed the patterns and designs for most of our products, and tested everything on my own children. Nathan was still a baby when we started, so I would use our diapers on him and would take note of places where the design or materials could be improved. Whenever I got an idea for a new product I would make a sample and test it on him. Shortly after Nathan got out of diapers, I had my third child, Joel, and he became my new test case. It took me about two years of trial and error to come up with our current designs and materials, but I am now very confident in our products because of all the testing and improving I have done with my own babies,” she laughs

Valerie believes becoming a mother was a transformational experience for her in many ways. “When I had my first child, my perspective on my life and career shifted. Although I had always been ambitious, suddenly this little baby was the most important thing in my world. Being a business owner means having the flexibility to do meaningful work on my own schedule and being able to prioritize my family. Also, I was no longer just worried about my own health and well-being but felt a strong need to do whatever I could to keep my baby safe and healthy and to make environmentally conscious choices for my child’s future. I learned everything I could about natural parenting and natural baby care, and I’ve been able to use this knowledge to guide my business as well as our blog, Kijani Baby.”

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Valerie advises women interested in starting a business to start small and learn from others. “We ran Kijani out of my house for the first several years with almost no capital investment. You don’t need a lot of capital to get started, and if you start small you don’t have a lot to lose if you make mistakes. Find other successful business people in your community and ask them questions about their systems and the way they run their business. Read and learn everything you can about running a business and about your industry. I am proud of taking a small idea and trying it out even when I had no idea if it would work or not – it was about making mistakes, correcting course, and not giving up.”

It worked for her. Valerie and her team recently celebrated the sale of their 2000th diaper.

Elaine Pirozzi lives and writes in Washington, DC.