Redefining Kenya’s retail space: Willy Kimani dreams big with hard discounter stores

The former Naivas COO has ventured into own path with the Jaza discount stores.

In Summary

•Kimani has over 20 years in the local retail space having worked with Tuskys, Uchumi and Naivas.

•The Jaza chain was first announced in November last year, with the first store opening doors in early December in Nairobi’s residential area of Buruburu.

Jaza discount stores founder Willy Kimani/LEAH MUTASHI
Jaza discount stores founder Willy Kimani/LEAH MUTASHI

They say success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

These words are a tell-all for one Willy Kimani, whose passion for business has seen him become one of Kenya’s retail sector gurus.

After running the show for major retail brands in the country for over 20 years, and helping transform the supermarket space, Kimani has finally forged his path with ‘Jaza’, a hard discounter.

The Jaza chain was first announced in November last year, with the first store opening doors in early December in Nairobi’s residential area of Buruburu.

His love and passion for business however dates back to the early 1990s when he would accompany his mother to buy maize and sell to the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB).

Then living in Nakuru, a 10-year-old boy never let any opportunity of being by her mother’s side, as she struck business deals, pass him. He would then accompany his mother in delivering orders.

“It has been interesting and I can say my entrepreneurship skills are from the family culture. We were more of business people,” the easygoing executive tells the Star during an interview in his near-empty new office, which has just a chair and table.

Joining Lenana School in 1996, Kimani fell in love with business studies, which set the foundation for what he is today, he narrates.

“I became more attached to business during my years in school. During my time at Lenana, I ended up being the best student in business and business for me was at the heart of everything. I had a very good teacher,” Kimani reminisces.

Kimani finished school in October 1999 and by November; he was already selling second-hand cars in Nairobi.

“I sold cars for the next three years including my first year on campus. I was among the few guys to go to campus with my own ride. This was from the commissions I earned. It had some challenges… sometimes you get nothing, you get swindled, but I kept on,” he recalls.

At the University of Nairobi (main campus), Kimani’s first-year status never deterred him from following his passion as he ended up running the students' centre. He would buy things from outside, stock up, and sale.

The economics student would wake up early in the morning, dash to Marikiti market to buy groceries, pass by the then Tusker Mattresses for more items to stock up the student centre, and make it back before classes start.

“The only supermarket that was open at that time was Tusker Mattresses which used to open at around 6.45am,” Kimani recalls.

During that time, he created a good rapport with the late Stephen Mukuha, then the Tusker Mattresses boss, in what would come to define his career in the retail space.

“The guy was clear that the moment I finished campus. I go he gets me something to do which I did and I started by supplying toys,” Kimani remembers.

Bumping into him in Dubai as he sourced toys to supply saw the two strike a new working relationship, with Kimani now being brought on board as a staff.

He was tasked with helping rebrand Tusker Mattresses to Tuskys, getting the finance systems right, among other changes.

“During that time, I learned a lot about retail. I had opportunities to travel to Egypt, UEA and the US, and by the time we were done with all this work, I can say my retail journey comprehensively started,” Kimani said during our interview.

For the longest time, he was in charge of marketing, new business development and information technology at Tuskys where he worked for about six years, building his strength in retail.

“We had a lot of innovations at the rebranded Tuskys, introducing new products such as fresh produces, milk and many others. Uchumi had these but we went a step further in delivering,” Kimani explained.

In 2009, he moved to Naivas where he also led the re-branding of the retail store.

“The whole idea was to transform Naivas from the re-branding side, it was really in need of rebranding. They had this purple look, we did the re-branding into the new colors, and we did marketing, system changes, and business development. Procurement and marketing departments came into place. We gave Naivas a fresh start,” he recalls.

At the time, Naivas was number seven in the local retail market where Nakumatt was the biggest player. Other major retailers were Uchumi, Tuskys, Chandarana and Ukwala.

Kimani would then take an eight-month sabbatical leave and move to Uchumi, a period that he also got his PhD in retail.

“The eight months at Uchumi were a very important part of my growth because I learned a lot about how not to do retail. I learned the importance of how things look like when you have proper customers, and people love you,” he said.

Uchumi had empty shelves and still had customers going in to inquire about specific products, he recalls.

“Unfortunately, we could not crack Uchumi because of a lack of funding. We were promised funds but they were not availed. The suppliers had a lot of goodwill. By that time, the bank had a bigger say,” Kimani recalls.

“If all the shareholders had come through, Uchumi would have been salvaged. Of all the collapsed giants, Uchumi was the one that could have been easily revived,” he explained.

He returned to Naivas where he became the Chief Operations Officer.

Kimani who has travelled the world however says he noticed a huge gap in the local retail space, that pushed him into starting the hard discounter retail business.

“Anytime I would go to the outside world i would learn, what is Walmart doing, and what the next thing they are trying to do is. When I went to Turkey, for example, you would see the Turkish market and consumption habits is similar to Kenya,” Kimani said.

“I noticed there is a huge gap between what we can call the very high end and the very low end. The gap in Kenya is way high, meaning what you would call general trade and modern trade in Kenya, we were missing something in between.”

General trade in Kenya includes wholesalers, kiosks, dukas and everybody else in the chain, which caters to 70 per cent of the market. Modern trade mainly involves the supermarkets.

“We looked at the gap and said why don’t we give customers something with a supermarket feel, but has the wholesale price that was missing in this market,” Kimani said, as he explained how Jaza was born.

“We look for the best business terms possible, we get the price put and have a no-frill environment with no fancy light. It is just a clear nice well well-done setup that can give customers the best prices.”

The business model that is common in the UK, South Africa and other markets, also incorporates private labelling, which cuts extra costs from different manufacturers’ branding.

Within five months, Jaza has already opened about 15 stores in Nairobi and its environs, having started with Buruburu. It has two in Kayole-Soweto-Mihang’o, one in Chokaa, Githurai 44, Gachie, Mombasa Road, Utawala among other regions, and also an e-Commerce platform.

All the stores are served from Jaza’s Mombasa Road warehouse, which Kimani says helps cut operating expenses.

Suppliers are paid in advance, unlike the normal retail space where they get paid after sales are made, with 100 per cent local sourcing with discounts across all products.

“We consider ourselves the first hard discounter in the country,” Kimani said, even as he acknowledges that the business environment is challenging.

Among the challenges is the introduction of the eTIMS by KRA.

“We have found ourselves in an environment where the taxman is trying to introduce something new, the providers are different, so setting that up has been tasking, but we are working closely with KRA to make sure that we are up and running properly,” he said.

Getting a location before a business is well known is also a major challenge, Kimani explained.

In an environment where big names in the retail market have fallen, with multinationals failing to break even, Kimani is confident that his new venture will live through the test of time, to become one of the biggest chains in Kenya.

Major reasons that retail stores fail, according to Kimani, include poor cashflow management, lack of know-how on category management, corruption and lack of good corporate governance, and family feuds.

Multinationals have failed to break even for failing to understand the local market, offering products that don’t fit the needs of the locals, he explained.

Jaza targets to be regional in the next 10 years, Kimani who loves playing golf, and photography at the Nairobi National Park, affirmed.

“We want to be regional. We believe that this model will be in every street and corner and hopefully, by then, we will have listed on the stock exchange because we want this brand to be for Kenyans and for Kenya.”

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