It’s quite frustrating for those expat housewives who do not want to buy an expensive work permit to get a ‘bona fide’ job but need something to occupy their time. Whilst many throw themselves into improving their golf swing and riding prowess, it is amazing how creative people can be in setting up their own ‘pocket money’ business ventures. Beaded hair clips, hand made jewellery, original fashion designs (using locally sourced African and Indian fabrics), belt making, chutney making and children’s birthday party planning and catering. Flip flop designing, flip flop recycling, knitwear using with local wools, selling imported pashminas or kaftans or mitumba (second hand) clothes from the market, cushion cover and pouf making and decorated Wellington boots. Large annual trade fairs are the most common place to buy these types of things and these are always slightly intimidating due to the trendy clientele. Friends drape themselves over beanbags and Lamu beds in vendor’s tents for endless hours, chatting amongst themselves, making it difficult to see what’s on offer and giving you the feeling that you’re gate crashing a private party. However, importantly, these entrepreneurs have one thing in common; they are stimulating local trade, taking on the responsibility of employing people locally (complying with fair trade standards) and in most cases their employees are acquiring new and valuable skills.
I had my own stab at setting up a business in Tanzania. A friend and I decided to make a few wood and fabric toys for small children and babies, using local craftsmen and tailors (fundis) to do the hard work. We agonised over perfecting our designs but I doubt anything would have passed British Safety Standards. The process of producing these toys involved an awful lot of driving around and ‘chasing’ fundis who had slipped behind with our orders. When finally we had the perfect prototype from a craftsman, we would make a large order and immediately the quality of the work would nose dived. There were clocks whose hands fell off when moved, ‘nail and hammer’ games were the ‘nails’ were actually too fat to fit through the holes, curtain tie backs that went rusty in the sea breeze, mobiles whose wooden cut out animals would often fall down as the short lengths of fishing line were not secured properly. In fact ‘quality control’ was a nightmare.
Getting people to come over for a coffee morning to buy our wares in a private sale was not too difficult. Shopping opportunities are pretty scarce in East Africa, so that an outing, a free coffee and the chance to buy something new is always appealing (whatever is on sale). However for me, standing behind a table and watching people picking up objects and scrutinising them, was agony. It’s amazing how customers will shoot you down in flames by giving a personal opinion in loud tones to their neighbour, within earshot; ‘well, it’s not very well made is it?…you can get much nicer ones in such and such a shop…this doesn’t work!’ etc. Taking money was embarrassing and accepting returned objects that have broken; mortifying.
The upshot was that after one year we broke even (just about) and I concluded that you need an innate tenacity and a very thick skin to be able to ‘sell’.
I tried again in Kenya, designing leather belts and brass buckles. After multiple trips to the industrial area and the roughest ends of the C.B.D (not for the faint hearted), I stumbled upon the usual quality decline when making large orders and to be honest, I felt a bit of a fraud as I’d basically just copied most of the designs from a fashion magazine in the first place. Ending up with a basket full of impractical wallets and belts that were too thick or had wobbly machine sewing, my family had the dubious pleasure of receiving my ‘original’ leather goods for Christmas one year.
To make it work, you need to employ your own staff and keep an eye on quality at all times, rather than outsource any of the work to local craftsmen. This seems to be the key to success. On a more positive note, my previous business partner in Tanzania now has her own roaringly successful company making recycled dhow wood furniture and she says she thinks fondly on those early tentative years of trading.