April 13, 2007

Akala sandals under threat from copycats

Popular Maasai Sandals Under Attack from Copycats
Written by Mwenda Micheni

On a recent Tuesday morning as birds still lazily emerged from their nests, the Maasai Market was already abuzz with vendors and customers deep into negotiating for best deals on akala sandals.

Inspired by the rugged tyre sandals Maasai herders have worn over the years to protect their feet from thorns, the akalas sold today are an artistic hybrid that barely relate to the originals. And as they boom in popularity with Kenyans and tourists alike, behind the scenes artists and exporters jostle for profits, while copycats lie in wait to seize upon popular designs.

Martha Muriga, a businesswoman from Coast province, says she comes to the market twice a month, carrying back about 20 pairs of Akalas to sell in her two Mombasa outlets.

“My customers in Mombasa, where I sell the sandals, prefer them for their uniqueness and the durability they come with,” she explained.
Like others from around the country who throng the chaotic market in Nairobi’s central business district each Tuesday to purchase their wares, Ms Muriga strives to get the latest innovation. But that does not come easily as the market is now flooded with copycats, and the hottest designs sell at high end prices.

The artists who design the sandals, compete to offer something fresh.

Among the success stories is Wilburn Njuguna, 30. He said having new designs is not only creatively satisfying but financially smart.

“I keep away from what the rest of the market is offering,” he says with a chuckle. “When an artist introduces new designs into the market, they cut a competitive edge and are always able to dictate prices.”

At the moment, Mr Njuguna’s “Nibore” design of men’s sandals sell for Sh1,500 a pair. Less unique designs which go for as little as Sh300 look wrinkled and dull in comparison.

“It is the artistry that goes into the sandal that forces me to price it at that much,” he said.

A pair of the hand-made sandals takes artists up to three-quarters of an hour to complete. Mr Njuguna, who spends up to Sh500 on materials, draws patterns and cuts them out before attaching them to the shoes and stitching them—a tedious process that must be done with patience. And when the product is complete it must fit the foot it was designed for.

Customer’s tastes vary, and so do the shoemaker’s designs, from simple to sophisticated, despite the inspiration being the rough and functional tyre-bottomed akala.

Entering the trade in 2004, Mr Njuguna has experimented with wood, sisal mats and even fake leather but found many designs quickly reproduced en masse by competitors.

The trail of not-so-creative copycats lying in wait, forces sandal-makers to be cautious about to whom they show their newest wares.

“We choose not to display openly for fear of losing to these money hungry guys who will shamelessly pounce on your idea, and sell it at a very low price, making the competition so unfair,” said Mr Njuguna.

Still, the artist has been able to spread his sales territory. Initially starting at Maasai Market, he currently has orders from as far as Uganda and Mombasa and struggles to keep up with demand, as he can only make 210 pairs of sandals in a month.

In his workshop, only 10 pairs of Akalas remain unsold, on the shelf.

The chairman of the Maasai Market, King David, also an akala designer says that competition for the sandals is stiff. “This asks the artists to arm themselves with the best of creativity,” says David.

To beat competitors, David displays more ordinary designs at the market, but keeps what he considers the best at his home-based workshop. Part of that private collection are what he calls “therapeutic sandals,” made of old tyres; with a well-cushioned foot-bed with pieces of beads stitched on to provide comfort and aesthetics. These can take two weeks to produce, and command a steep Sh3500. But they are a hit. Since he started making the therapeutic sandals, Mr Njuguna has been swarmed with orders. He has shipped six pairs to Norway, and is working on orders from South Africa and Nigeria.

“Creativity is always leading us onto new opportunities,” he quipped.

At the market, knowing little of the inspiration or struggle behind the sandals, tourists simply appreciate, and buy, Akalas for their simple pleasures.
“It certainly is a comfortable thong sandal,” said June Collins, an American tourist at the market. “Decorated with cowry shells and beading, the thong is perfect for the beach, showers, and with sundresses,” she enthused.

Currently, Kenyan artists are the only producers of akala sandals. Mr Njuguna adds that a new bright spot is Kenyans’ appreciation of the indigenous footwear. For local consumers, like Mary Auma, a 23-year-old student at United States International University, the unique sandals are hard to resist.

This article was published in the Business Daily Africa newspaper on Friday 13th April 2007

April 08, 2007

DIHAD Conference and Expo 2007 (Dubai, 1st – 3rd April)

Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development (DIHAD) conference and expo has become an important event in the diaries of procurement officials from NGOs, aid agencies and their suppliers. It used to be an important marketing event for Dubai Aid City before it was made part of International Humanitarian City (IHC). IHC’s primary aim is to cut crisis response times by offering facilities located strategically in the middle of aid needy regions.

Last year I went quite unsure of what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised at who the key note speakers were and the types of products on display. Sir Bob Geldof brought to a close what Jan Egeland officially opened. But, possibly for reasons of being an engineer, I was more interested in the products on show. Some were practical, functional and clearly useful in places like Darfur, Somalia, Iraq (War torn), Pakistan, Turkey (Natural disasters) and so on. Others were not so easy to digest and I couldn’t make out who they were targetting.

To simplify matters, there are two consumers of products procured by the aid agencies: victims (refugees, orphans, basically those in need) and the aid agency workers (including peacekeeping troops). The workers (apparently) need hi-tech equipment that cost a bomb (excuse the pun) and also need high quality shelter, vehicles, armour, weapons… you get the drift.
The victims on the other hand need basic essentials en masse: tents, blankets, cooking utensils, water (or access to clean water), medicines…

The products on show were wide and ranging: bullet-proof Toyota Hilux pick-up trucks and Land Cruisers, tents for refugees complete with built in cooking stoves (practical?), tents for peacekeeping troops complete with wardrobe and beds (5* hotel?), treated mosquito nets, pre-fab buildings, water harvesting and storage tanks, satellite communication systems…

This year it was shockingly quiet with exhibitors complaining of paying exorbitant rates and receiving/entertaining almost no external visitors or procurement officials. The poor website design and little publicity was probably due to the decision to incorporate Dubai Aid City into the International Humanitarian City. Dubai Aid City had been a strong supporter of DIHAD but somebody forgot about that!

So the products were pretty much the same as last year with some exceptions: interesting energy/power provision solutions using solar panels and wind turbines; water purification and filtration devices including reverse osmosis methods and chemical tablets. Toyota made their impressive presence felt again with a 2 ton armoured Land-Cruiser capable of withstanding destruction from land mines. My pick of the lot had to be the coffins made for the ‘mass fatality market’ – it definitely takes guts to get into that kind of a product!

While products for Humanitarian Aid are necessary the problem of demand and hence stocking of products is the suppliers biggest dilemna. The suppliers are trying to earn their bread and butter from these products that don’t have a consistent demand. And when there is demand, there is not enough of it the world over to supply it (Pakistan earthquake and the sudden demand for refugee tents being the most recent example). This has an effect on the pricing as suppliers try to commercialise the products. Unfortunately the people who make the pricing and procurement decisions don’t realise the differences between the two types of consumers and where these products will be used. Suppliers need to become more realistic and re-analyse their payback periods on certain products – you cannot charge European prices for products that will be used in Africa – especially if you’re trying to commercialise/commoditise it. Suppliers also need to focus on core competencies and remember that disaster relief is the most uncertain of markets. Hence seek to diversify?

If any consultants want to suggest solutions to these problems I’m all ears…

March 27, 2007

Kenyan police…in the name of internal security!

This is what the Kenyan police do in the name of internal security. Thank God for liberalised media…

KENYA CORRUPTION SCANDAL: Security video footage of Kenyan police raiding the offices of a newspaper. CCTV video via the East African Standard.

Blogger mentalacrobatics explains, “This rapid response unit is code-named the Kanga Squad, detectives from Nairobi provincial CID headquarters and officers from the General Service Unit. They are wearing bright orange reflective vests with ‘QRU’ for Quick Rescue Unit/Quick Response Unit which indicates their day job of fight hardcore criminals like carjackers, bank robbers and murder hit squads.

These pictures are very disturbing. In some of them they have an employee spread eagled on the floor with a gun pressed against his/her head and a boot in his/her face. Remember these are NOT criminals being man handled like this. These are Kenyan men and women who went to work only to be pistol whipped and roughed up by an elite police squad.”

March 11, 2007

You are what you speak

It’s horrible how some people speak to their peers. Superiority is not an excuse, nor does it exist. They are not smart in the same way you may be. They are smarter in a different way where you aren’t. Their interests may be different and their reactions may be simple yet it still doesn’t give you the right to speak in a tone and with the aggression that implies you are superior and they are inferior. The funny thing is they run when the topic turns to something they have no knowledge of and quickly try to change the topic. The vibe of uncomfort is noticeable. And hoping ‘friends’ will support you at every stage is bold. Some of us choose to go on the path of what is right and what is possible. We may also have logical approaches. Wake up and realise that you are only what you speak. Only your own world revolves around you. Maybe listening once in a while may help rather than preaching how inferior we are and how we should perform.

These same people seem to speak without thinking. You may not be happy about something but some of us are unaffected. So keep your thoughts to yourself and frankly deal with it. Often you have no choice and no time to whinge about it. Not so superior now are you?

How would you cope if challenged with the Kanchanjunga trek? Oh sorry, ok, we’ll change the topic.

March 09, 2007

HSBC TV advert

Have you seen the HSBC advert where they mention Kenyans and Argentinians trying to save?

HSBC does not operate in Kenya.

So I find that advert deeply misinforming. I say no more because I’m bemused – somebody try explain the focus/reason/strategy/whatever?

February 26, 2007

Just an Immigrant

Just an Immigrant
by Aruni Mukherjee

I am a migrant worker. Not illegal, but migrant enough to be vilified. So I contribute only 4p a week to Britain’s wealth – but at least I contribute something! I’m not sitting idle taking benefits like hundreds of thousands of domestic workers do. All political parties are falling over each other to restrict the numbers of people like me in the country. We steal away British jobs, they say.

My neighbor gets chased for rent by his estate agent. His neighbor gets council tax reminders. I know a few others who aren’t paying their utility bills on time. I don’t get paid more than them, but I clear all my dues on the 1st of the month. I’ve seen them break parking laws and live rent-free – I’ve stuck to every law of the land. But I am an immigrant.

My family paid more than £60,000 in the last 5 years to this country’s education system. So I send a few pounds back home (probably to buy British exports) – its still less than what I spend in the country. And what about the wealth I am generating at work for the economy? But I am an immigrant.

The Home Office doesn’t have any of my friends there. I need to be better than all European Union applicants to a job to get a work permit. And I am. Doesn’t that help the British company that hires me? You know why I got the job? Because Britain’s education system doesn’t churn out enough employable graduates. Record number of jobs are being advertised in the country, and yet they have to employ us foreigners. I guess the hours I spent studying while my classmates were busy binge drinking and ‘socialising’ are now proving to be of some worth, eh? But I am an immigrant.

So wake up Britain and listen to your Prime Minister and PM-to be. Messrs Blair and Brown have a point- get off your couch and get a degree or some training, or risk being unemployed forever. Your companies will not wait for you to be employable – they have sales targets to meet. Vilifying migrant workers will not get you anywhere. The system favors the ‘natives’ anyway. Make use of it!

But what do I know? I’m just an immigrant.

February 23, 2007

The Hinglish Language!

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6122072.stm

February 17, 2007

Shompole :: Paradise on Earth

Shompole. It is quite literally paradise on earth and just looking at the photos doesn’t do it justice – you need to go there and experience the peaceful serenity and privacy this place offers. Picture a hotel room but without the 4 walls. Picture the bathroom without any walls. Picture a private pool that looks out onto the plains of the Shompole Conservancy and the volcanic hills of the Great Rift Valley. Let me give you a few minutes to savour the photos.

Shompole has won a number of awards as you can imagine but it prides itself in the eco-lodge category. Art of Ventures, the company behind the Shompole concept has as its mandate to work with rural communities to conserve their environment and try ensure that they benefit from sustainable use of natural resources.

The use of unique, innovative design and beyond-5-star service is what they hope will attract more guests to drive the initiative and kick home the message that we need to save our ecosystem. International recognition through the eco-friendly principles, innovative design and community work have already caught the eye of editors at magazines including Vogue and the French newspaper Le Figaro. Mr Gates of Microsoft Corp. and Mr Branson of Virgin have already enjoyed the pleasures of this exclusive (honeymooning) paradise.

Shompole is an ecolodge with private investment that is looking to generate profits which will be used to build more such properties. A new way of social (environmental?) entrepreneurship which I hope succeeds because quite frankly without investment in eco ventures we won’t have an eco-system.

But don’t ask me how much I paid to stay in heaven on Earth!

February 12, 2007

Identity of Asian–Africans explained

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6336137.stm

January 31, 2007

Paul Kagame – War Criminal?

Paul Kagame's choice of words during an interview with the BBC will come as a shock to say the least as the world once again watches Rwanda from a distance. The genocide will not be forgotten for another 100 years however hard we try - it will infact become a huge situation in the coming years. (Kenyans investing in Rwanda know this but only listen to one side of the story) 

The allegations by the French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, that the current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame was the mastermind behind the shooting down of President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane are nothing new. The judge has gone on to say that Kagame also used the shooting down of the plane to spark the genocide and subsequently cease control of the poorly African country. This isn't the first time I've heard these allegations - there are many articles out in cyberspace that implicate the leader of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) who spent much of his time in the Ugandan military before plotting to overthrow the Habyarimana government. 

Why would Paul Kagame say the following in response to such allegations?

"Would I care that bloody Habyarimana died? I don't give a damn."

These comments are surrounded by the claims of discrimination of the minority Tutsi's by the Hutu's during the Habyarimana presidency.

If Kagame's choice of words were different I would probably still be on the fence about the allegations against him but suddenly he's convinced me he was behind the genocide that the world quite simply sat and watched. His angered response to any such allegation whenever they surface is stubborn denial of any wrongdoing akin to the unskilled liar.

A certain blame should be put on the Belgians for leaving the country divided when they granted independence and the French are no better for supplying arms and fueling the tensions. But, Hon President Kagame, you deserve to be taken into custody, held in the cells of the International Criminal Tribunal Court in Arusha and tried hopefully before 2010.

Time in Kenya

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