• Benadatte Kaggwa has wowed friend and stranger with her handmade designs
• However, it’s taken a lot of patience and resilience to build the brand Nnunji
When Benadatte Kaggwa used to order for jewellery, she would sketch her own designs to merchandisers.
Eventually, she started crafting her own accessories, which left friends asking, “Where did you get that?”
Realising she had a talent, she started Nnunji, a handmade fashion accessories business whose slogan is, ‘Imagine, design, create’. The business is based on Ngong Road, Nairobi.
She was born and raised in the Kenyan capital, but her parents are originally from Uganda.
The lastborn in a family of 10 (eight girls and two boys), she spoke to the Star about her seven-year journey in the industry.
With a strategy of never duplicating designs, she has held her own amid stiff competition, expanding her offerings from jewellery to hair and clothing accessories, and reaching customers overseas.
Though currently the sole proprietor, she refers to the brand interchangeably as “we” as she envisions its growth.
The Star: How long have you been running the jewellery business?
Benadatte Kaggwa: I founded the Nnunji brand in September 2013, while in my adulthood, though my passion for fashion started during my pre-teen years.
What drove you to start it?
Two factors inspired me. One is a passion for fashion and love for accessorising my outfits, especially with custom pieces.
Two, repeated compliments and enquiries from friends, female colleagues and sometimes complete strangers about my accessories. They usually wanted to know where I bought my jewellery and if they could get similar designs.
Nnunji is a Luganda word, which means ‘nice’. Whenever a woman dons a beautiful jewellery piece, she’s told, ‘That’s a nice necklace or bracelet, or what have you’
Is it something you studied for or taught yourself?
I taught myself how to craft jewellery by hand using various materials. I simply researched online for the required tools, equipment and suitable materials, and embarked on a trial-and-error exercise in handcrafting.
How much capital did you start with? What were your fears and expectations?
After leaving an investment bank with a considerable severance package, I was able to spare about Sh10,000 for buying the tools, equipment and beading materials.
My main fear was not having enough capital to keep the business running through the years. My expectations were both positive and negative; I expected to have established a retail outlet by now. I also expected that I’d have a fully functional online store, where foreign customers can also place orders. Another expectation, or hope, was that eventually, I’d succeed in pitching for a grant from a venture capitalist or equity investor.
One of the negative expectations I had was ridicule from well-meaning friends. Some felt the whole idea was too farfetched to be successful.
What influenced your choice of business name?
I was inspired by [jewellery store] Kazuri, an ethnic term that essentially means ‘nice’. Nnunji is a Luganda word, which also means ‘nice’. Whenever a woman dons a beautiful jewellery piece, she’s told, “That’s a nice necklace or bracelet or what have you.”
Walk us through the production process.
I have a small improvised workspace at home, which I call my “workshop”.
I have suppliers who source for raw materials both locally and overseas, such as West Africa.
Nnunji features, for the most part, natural materials, such as semi-precious gemstones (turquoise, tiger eye and fresh water pearls), hand-blown glass, natural stone, marble, shell, metals and alloys, such as German silver, gold-plated brass, and so on.
The three product categories are: jewellery (necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and armlets); hair accessories (headbands, head chains, and pins or clips); and clothing accessories (belts, brooches and body chains).
The five style ranges are: Afro/ethnic, contemporary/modern, antique/bohemian, costume/statement and bridal/formal.
Crafting involves three stages: imagine, design and create (which is Nnunji’s slogan). I start by imagining, then sketching the conceptualised design, and creating the end-product by hand using crafting tools.
Sometimes I get a design inspiration from an existing item, either online or what I see worn by a woman, then I modify it.
The production volume per day depends on the nature of the design. Complex designs or costume pieces ordinarily take longer. The original Cleopatra jewellery set (bib necklace, two cuff bracelets and a pair of earrings), which is a Nnunji masterpiece, took me 72 hours to create. Simpler designs can take three hours to craft. I’d say for regular designs, I can create approximately five pieces within 24 hours.
How do you do your marketing and sales, and is it a full-time business?
Currently, our marketing is mostly done online via social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I’m in the process of setting up a website for our online store and catalogue. Aside from that, I believe the greatest marketing tool is the product itself. A woman wearing an attractive design with quality material will definitely get the attention of other potential customers.
I usually deliver orders using errand companies, such as Sendy or Uber. I have a client in the coastal region who receives her orders via Coast Bus. Sometimes, though rarely, I personally make the delivery.
I run Nnunji on a part-time basis. I’m the co-founder of WebSmart, a social media agency based in Denver, Colorado, that’s dedicated to digital marketing for SMEs.
Tell us about your clientele and peak sales season.
Most of my customers are in Nairobi. A few are from overseas (Africa, the Americas and Europe). I’m yet to get a customer from Asia and the Middle East.
Most of my customers are women, naturally, because Nnunji is a brand for women’s accessories. I have one regular male client. I’m hoping to appeal to men as well, who can buy our products for the special ladies in their lives.
I’ve experienced relatively good sales throughout the year, especially before the Covid-19 crisis.
How do you stand out from the crowd, and who is your role model?
The handmade fashion accessories industry is quite flooded, especially because of the Maasai market vendors. So I’d say competition is stiff.
However, I believe Nnunji stands out because our products aren’t mass-produced. To avoid duplication and maintain uniqueness of each product, we create one-piece designs.
I’ve always admired Adele Dejak because her designs are quite unique as well. I look up to her because she runs her own workshop, where artisans create her designs. I aspire to do the same in future.
Your jewellery goes for how much, and what determines the price?
Most products range from Sh1,000 and above, though some single items like earrings can be as low as Sh500. Costume pieces normally have premium rates. For example, the Cleopatra masterpiece jewellery set retails for Sh5,500.
The prices vary per item based on three factors: cost of raw materials, design concept and labour.
Each item is charged for the cost of the gemstone (for instance, how complex or unique the design is) and the time taken to craft the end-product.
How much do you make from Nnunji?
Earnings fluctuate from one week to the next, depending on volume of orders, the price of each item and other variable charges. I’ve had times when I’d make sales of Sh5,000 in a day, from one client only. Other times, I can go a whole week without an order.
Do counterfeits pose a problem?
As in any industry of consumer goods, counterfeits can be expected. Especially with gemstones and precious metals, one can be ripped off.
It’s good to enlighten yourself to know certain properties of genuine jewellery. For example, how synthetic pearls vs freshwater pearls and sea pearls look, feel or react.
Genuine jewellery is definitely more durable, even though more costly. You’ve heard the saying “cheap is expensive”. Settling for cheaper jewellery in a bid to save a penny costs you more in the long run, because you’ll keep replacing them whenever they get damaged.
What ups and downs have you had since you started?
We’ve experienced growth in our online presence. When we started, we had very few followers on our social media pages. We’ve now acquired repeat customers just through the online platforms.
Our brand has also received recognition from industry players, such as fashion event organisers. This year we were invited to showcase our brand at the e!Fashion Week for African designers in March, which was pushed to March next year due to Covid. We have also previously been featured in the Star, in 2018.
Through the years, our operations have been streamlined. We now have a till account for receiving customer payments. We’re in the process of setting up a website for an online store and catalogue. Our production has also improved; we now create items from quality materials and avoid using synthetic or acrylic ones, such as plastic beads.
The main setback to further growth is lack of sufficient capital. Through the years I’ve had to put aside running the business and seek formal employment to make ends meet. It’s been my goal to set up a retail outlet in one of the major malls in Nairobi, but due to lack of capital, that remains a long-term goal I’m yet to realise.
Do you target foreign tourists, and how have you survived without them during corona?
Most foreign tourists shop at the Maasai market, a place I’ve only once showcased my items. In December last year, I had the opportunity to display at the Yaya Maasai market, where I made one sale to a foreign tourist. I wouldn’t say they are my mainstream target customer, though.
During the Covid-19 period, Nnunji has stayed somewhat afloat because of local customers. I haven’t sold to any foreign tourist at this time since I’m now not at any Maasai market. I realised Maasai market isn’t the place for my brand. It’s more of a mass-production curio market; that’s not what Nnunji is about. I doubt I’ll be returning to Maasai market.
There are a lot of Maasai beads and designs in the market. Is it because they sell best or traders are copying each other too much?
A bit of both. They’re cultural ornaments that appeal to tourists, and traders copy each other too much. There’s actually one particular design that’s become popular in Maasai markets, which originated from a Nnunji creation: a semi-ethnic bridal set that I designed for a Canadian client.
I had it handcrafted at one of the Maasai market factories, and before long, I was seeing imitations of the design everywhere!
What are your future plans?
I have many future plans for Nnunji, but the major ones are: Set up a workshop where I can hire a few artisans to create my designs; that way I can focus on other aspects of operations. Set up a stand or kiosk at a major mall lobby to act as our retail outlet. Invest in branded packaging for all products.
Set up a website for an online store, where customers can view a catalogue, place orders and make payments online. Establish a regular digital monthly Design Catalogue, like the one we launched in September last year.
And lastly, create a fashion YouTube channel, where we’ll feature tips on how to accessorise.
What have you learned from your business experience that potential entrepreneurs should know?
I’ve learnt that building a brand (or any enterprise, for that matter) takes strategy, determination, resilience, patience and above all… vision.
Know why it is you started that business and have your end goal clear in mind. That’s what has always made me revive Nnunji time and again, despite the many setbacks. I have to realise that final goal before I throw in the towel.
What reward is there in business for women in particular?
Business can be rewarding for women because most are juggling raising a family in addition to holding down a job. Business gives you the freedom to manage your own time. It’s also fulfilling and empowering because you get to achieve something you’ve built yourself. That’s a confidence booster; it does wonders for a woman’s self-esteem.
Starting Nnunji was the biggest accomplishment of my life. I’ve had a passion for fashion and creative design since my childhood (see my creative works here).
I feel alive whenever I’m crafting. Whenever I see the end-result of my creation, I somehow get a euphoric high, knowing this is the work of my hands. And the feeling is heightened when a customer appreciates a design I’ve toiled over.
For anyone out there who has a creative mind, find what you’re passionate about and discover what it is you can actually create. It’s not just about making sales or earning revenue; following your passion breathes life into your very existence!
Do you want to be unique?! Just wear Nnunji designs and you’ll break people’s necks — that’s a guarantee!Charity Mghoi
WHAT NNUNJI CUSTOMERS SAY
Nnunji is my go-to place for custom-made designs. I can count on their skill and talent to create the pieces I’ve only imagined in mind. And most of the time, they end up being better than what I had imagined!
Thanks, Nnunji, for your great attention to detail.
If you want great quality, originality, and uniqueness, go for Nnunji… you won’t be disappointed.
- Jennifer Humeny
In absolute love with Nnunji designs! It’s a place where you meet sophistication, beauty, sassy elegance and unique designs that define my own ‘individual personality and taste’.
Do you want to be unique?! Just wear Nnunji designs and you’ll break people’s necks — that’s a guarantee!
Thanks, Nnunji. My absolute value for money!!"
- Charity Mghoi
I like Nnunji because they offer unique, custom-made pieces. They are affordable.
They are friendly and have fast delivery on their orders. Thank you for your great work.
- Doris Thaimuta