African Diaspora: Why A Social Entrepreneur Chose Kenya For Her Firm

Written by Ann Brown

What do you do for an encore when you’ve been a World Bank executive, worked at JP Morgan in London, done policy analysis for the U.N. in New York and advised the U.K. Department for International Development?

If you’re Wandia Gichuru, you strike out on your own. Not in finance. In fashion — fashion with a social goal.

Gichuru was born in Canada to a Canadian mother and a Kenyan father. She went to  Kilimanjaro Primary School and Loreto Convent Msongari high school, both in Kenya, before attending the University of Western Ontario, where she earned a degree in economics. After working for Citi Bank in Nairobi, she headed to the University of Cape Town in 1996 to study for an MBA. Returning to Kenya, she joined World Bank. Later she worked for 10 years at the Department for International Development in London, then lived and worked in Mozambique, Sudan, Uganda, and New York.

During a transitional period, Gichuru realized her true passion was social entrepreneurship. And she wanted to do it in Kenya.

“Which side do I relate with most? Kenyan, 100 percent,” she said. “I went to university in Canada but never felt Canadian. I always felt Kenyan,” she told Business Daily Africa.

In 2011, Gichuru opened a retail clothing store in Nairobi. Vivo Activewear features fitness and dance clothing from South Africa, Thailand, China, and the U.K. The company’s goal is to inspire Kenyans to live healthier and more active lives.

Gichuru, 47, says she wants to use some of the proceeds to help alleviate poverty in Kenya.

She spent three years getting reacquainted with the country, going through training to become a certified life coach and incubating business ideas. In addition to Vivo Activewear, she has an informal-over-coffee life coaching practice.

Vivo Activewear now includes a variety of looks from travel wear to everyday casual to party wear.

AFKInsider: Why did you launch Vivo Activewear?

Wandia Gichuru: We started Vivo to address a gap that we had identified in the market for affordable yet stylish activewear for women.  At first we focused primarily on fitness and dance attire, but quickly realized that there was an even greater demand for casual clothing designed to suit the professional Kenyan woman. So this is now our primary focus.

(photo courtesy Vivo)
Photo: Vivo

AFKInsider:  Women’s wear is very competitive. How do you stand out?

Wandia Gichuru: We have carved out a niche for ourselves by providing clothing that truly speaks to and compliments the African woman. We design clothes that represent who we believe ourselves to be, and at the same time flatter the wide range of our beautiful skin tones and body shapes. We also try and keep our price points simple and as low as possible, as we are targeting the growing Kenyan middle class.

AFKInsider: Did you have any obstacles when you first started?

Wandia Gichuru: Before we started designing and manufacturing our own products we had challenges providing a wide enough range to cater to everyone’s size and color taste. We also struggled sometimes to find the right staff for the right positions. Some of our stores also took time to pick up so we had to put a lot of effort into marketing our different locations.

AFKInsider: How did you finance the company when you first started?  

Wandia Gichuru: To set up our first store we used a combination of personal savings, as well as money raised from a small group of investors. Luckily, since we have been able to finance most of our other growth through internal revenues.

AFKInsider: Have you faced any difficulties in trying to build Vivo?

Wandia Gichuru: The manufacturing side of the business has been the most challenging as we did not have previous experience in this area and have had to learn on the job. Finding skilled staff in all aspects of design and production has not been easy. Other challenges have been the declining value of the Kenyan shilling (as we import both product and materials), and limiting our growth to what we have been able to finance internally.

AFKInsider: What are your plans for 2016?

Wandia Gichuru: Next year we hope to open at least two new stores in Nairobi, and hopefully one outside Nairobi as well. In addition we will focus on strengthening our internal systems, most specifically in merchandising, but also in garment design and production.

AFKInsider: What is it like doing business in Kenya?

Wandia Gichuru: Kenya is a great place to do business in. We have a growing middle class and we also see an increasing demand for and popularity of Kenyan made products. Kenyans are very active on social media so even relatively small companies such as ours can reach a wide range of people through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Kenyan women are vibrant and beautiful and like to dress up and express their personalities through how they look and what they wear. There is also a growing interest in staying healthy and having an active lifestyle. Our brand speaks to all these traits and more.

The Kenyan economy is growing quite fast and it is relatively easy to open up a business. For the fashion industry in particular it would be great to see the government support up-and-coming designers and assisting them to showcase their products both regionally and internationally.

AFKInsider: What do you enjoy the most about running Vivo?

Wandia Gichuru: The three things I love the most about what we do? One, that people feel great wearing our designs. Vivo has inspired women of all ages to look and feel amazing. Two, that I get to use my creative talent and can turn ideas into actual designs and collections. Three, that we are building a strong Kenyan fashion brand and are able to compete against international brands.