It all happens at , in two mid sized rooms in downtown Nairobi. On the infamous Kirinyaga Road, the capital city’s spare parts district.
While oily mechanics take over the narrow street that separates shops from the Nairobi River, 7 employees at Suave Kenya, in one of the many buildings on the busy road are hard at work.
One is cutting off patterns, two others are sticking material on the patterns with glue, while another two are stitching up the designs. One is doing the ironing and another is overseeing it all.
All together they meticulously breathe new life into old off cut fabrics and unwanted leather turning them into trendy bags.
This is a typical day at the Suave Kenya workshop. What was once an old pair of jeans, is cut up, stitched, decorated and transformed into an urbane bag that every young Kenyan will feel proud carrying.
Mohammed Awale, the trendy bags company founder walks in as he talks on phone. He’s taking an order from one of his many customers.
Even before I get to introduce myself, one of his employees seeks his attention. He needs him to checkout one of the stitching machines that’s not working properly. Awale excuses himself and get down to it.
His brother, who occasionally comes to assist Awale at the workshop, apologises on his behalf and tells me that that’s typically him. Ever available to assist his employees whenever the need arises. He’s not just the boss, he’s part of the team. Quite impressive.
After a while Awale comes back smiling.
“It’s not working perfectly but, it will do the job until our technician comes in tomorrow to check it out.” He tells me.
We settle down and get right into the interview.
Awale isn’t your typical 20-something year old. He’s an entrepreneur. The guy who came up with the innovative idea to make refined bags from upcycled clothing materials.
“I always loved carrying bags when I was in school. Yes I was the man always with a bag on my shoulder. He says. “I’d get my bags from my cousin who was selling them.” He adds.
In 2013, sadly his cousin closed shop. It’s then he realised that there was actually no homegrown brand that appealed to the ordinary Kenyan like him. There was no bag in the market that suit his style and that was friendly to his pockets.
He then figured why not start his own brand.
At the time the time he was working with a leading oil company managing a petrol station. He decided to put his idea into a reality and after six months at his one and only job, he quit.
With his savings from the job he started Suave Kenya, the company revolutionising the bag trends in Kenya.
Suave Kenya produces fashion-forward bags from old clothing materials sourced from Kikomba, Nairobi’s largest second-clothing market. The company sells backpacks, shoulder bags, clutch bags and laptop sleeves retailing between Ksh.2500 ($25) and Ksh.8000 ($80).
“Quitting my job was a rather a rushed decision.” He admits. “I however, still think it’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I have no regrets whatsoever. I would do it all over again.” He quips.
According to Awale, starting the company was not the easiest trick in the bag. To him, it still remains the hardest thing he’s ever had to do.
Entrepreneurship, he believes, is deeply engraved in his veins. As a young boy he developed an interest in his father’s business and he would often volunteer to help him whenever he could.
Like every parent, his wanted him to take up a prestigious career path. A doctor, a lawyer, perhaps a hot shot marketing director in town. It was therefore, no surprise that they enrolled him for an International Business Administration course at the United States International University (USIU) in Nairobi.
“My parents hoped that I would join an agency and become a marketer. I had other dreams.” He says laughing cheekily.
He however, remains entirely grateful to his parents who instead of being disappointed of him when he quit his lucrative management job to start a business, they offered him the financial cushion, motivation and support that he badly needed.
“My parents have played a very big role in my life. They raised me right and it’s because of their insight that my business is what it is. I had months where I was making losses. When I was still trying to learn the ropes and I could barely pay my rent. My parents kept me afloat and kept encouraging me. They never ever gave up on me.” He says proudly.
In the four years that Suave has been in business, Awale has learnt a couple of lessons as a young entrepreneurship.
Persistent and consistent are two words that come from his mouth effortlessly throughout the interview. To succeed in business, he says, you have to be persistent.
As it is with any business, Awale says that you will face a lot of challenges but you need to keep going. You have to be persistent, you have to remain consistent. There are no two ways to it.
“The difference between people who make it in business and those who don’t lies in the ability not to give up on what you’re doing.” He says confidently.
Certainly not the kind of wisdom you expect from such a young chap.
Awale is a good example of a young Kenyan who had chosen to go down the less chosen road. In a country where most young people have the ‘get educated to get a good job mentality’, he is a classical example of an outlier.
What are his thoughts on this mentality and what advice does he have for those who think that this is the only way to go?
“Education is very important. However, it’s not about sitting in class and listening to the teachers spewing information. That’s where we go wrong. Don’t go to school to just collect information. Make school about the entire experience. The information, the people, the interactions, the life lessons. If I hadn’t gone to university I wouldn’t be where I am today.” he says nostalgically.
Awale adds that school not only gives you the basics of life but also allows you to meet people who influence your future. The latter is where most people fail.
As young people seek education from the best schools in the world they forget that life lessons also come from the people they share the school halls with.
Awale was one of the few students who recognised the gem hiding in engaging(Link to make friends in college) with fellow students. In campus, he wasn’t shy about interacting with his peers. He put in effort to learn from his fellow students as much as he did from his teachers and books.
He kept the right company. He interacted with students who challenged his creative juices. People who could offer him constructive criticism. This is the crowd that he’s kept to date.
“My friends are my greatest motivators. They shapes the entrepreneur in me. This is better than having celebrity idols you’ve never met and only admire from afar.” He states.
This words ring true to the saying that you are as good as the company you keep. Makes me think of my five closest friends. Hmmm.
Speaking of motivators I push Awale to tell me more about the people who inspire him to greatness.
Top in his list is God. His faith had carried him, time and again, through difficult times and he remains steadfast. Second is his parents who saw his entrepreneurship spirit and encouraged him to keep at it and lastly are his friends whom he’s not shy to bounce ideas with because he knows they’ll offer him the challenge he needs.
What about his five top most success lessons he’s learnt so far?
Hey says, first is that you need to have faith. Whatever your spiritual believe is, keep it close to your heart. This is what keeps you going when it’s all falling apart and it will at some point fall apart.
Second lesson is to surround yourself with the right people. Remember you are as good as your five closest friends so surround yourself with people who support your dreams and who inspire you to greatness.
Third lesson; patience, patience, patience. Don’t expect success to come overnight you have to work hard and be patient.
Fourth lesson; treat people well especially your employees. These are an integral part of your journey to success. You cannot achieve success all on your own. You have to understand that your greatest asset is your employees so treat them well.
Lastly, persistence. Like I mentioned, this is a word that flows effortlessly from Awale’s tongue. He says that if you have the knack to pursue something, go for it and keep at it.
“I had so many startups when I was in university. Many of them failed but I never gave up. I kept at it. I kept trying until I found something that worked.” He says.
Awale advises young people to think about sustainability of a business idea. Is it something that is necessary? Is it fulfilling a need? Is this something that you want to do as a hobby or something that you want to do full time?
These are a few questions that the young entrepreneur reminds newbie businessmen to think of before they embark on a business venture for optimum success.
Suave Kenya currently has 9 employees, 7 who are 32 years old and below. Awale himself is 29. This is what you’d typically call a youth run venture.
I’m curious to find out what he thinks of the current pool of young employees and the advice he has for job seekers.
“Finding a job in Kenya is such a tall order. In fact, just finding internship is so difficult.” He says. “Here you are offering your knowledge, expertise and manpower for free yet no one wants you.” He adds.
Awale shares just how difficult his search for internship was. This in turn softened his heart and he made a resolve to assist the inexperienced to find the much needed work experience.
It’s for this reason that he gives the first chance to people with zero experience to work at Suave Kenya. All he looks for is the drive to work. Once you fit the bill he trains you on what is necessary.
“I normally depend on referrals from my networks and as I conduct the interviews I look for the person who has the drive to work. Someone who is passionate about offering value above academic achievement and work experience. I’m looking to give young people who have no experience a chance because I totally understand from first hand experience just how bad they have it in the job market” He states.
Awale is indeed an outlier. He is swift to recognise and grab opportunities as they arise. In the wake of the plastic bags ban introduced in Kenya on August 28th 2017, Awale already has a new design for affordable, reusable and environmentally friendly shopping bags in the pipeline. He hopes to make the Suave shopping bag a homegrown staple accessory.
His current mid-term goal is to take the Suave brand global.
“My aim is to make Suave the African brand that is recognised globally. I want us to have a presence in all major cities around the world especially Africa. I want people to build trust in African made designs and stop depending on expensive or poor quality international designs.” He states confidently.
It’s time to wrap up the interview as Awale needs to attend to urgent matters. There are orders to be delivered, materials to be received, emails to be responded to and employees who need his assistance.
Before he leaves, he mentiones that he has a very good business problem; demand is currently higher than supply and he needs to address this pretty fast.
Quite the problem every entrepreneur hopes for!
To get in touch with Awale or purchase a bag, kindly check out Suave’s website here.