Ann McCreath arrived in Kenya 20 years ago for what was supposed to be a three month stint at emergency relief organisation Médecins Sans Frontières. Originally from Scotland, McCreath fell in love with Kenya and worked for the organisation as a country representative for three years before quitting due to her frustrations on the effectiveness of aid.
“I questioned the value of emergency aid in chronic emergencies,” she told How we made it in Africa.
McCreath felt that trade and job creation would be more effective in addressing the challenges in areas like northern Kenya, where there was drought and displacement of people at the time.
“I decided I didn’t want to be in emergency aid and I could bring more to the table by actually setting up a business and working with women groups,” said McCreath.
She quit her job at the NGO and founded KikoRomeo – which means ‘Adam’s apple’ in Kiswahili and is today one of East Africa’s leading fashion brands. The fashion house specialises in African-inspired contemporary clothing.
“I realised Kenyans weren’t really proud of their culture… that astonished me because as a foreigner coming here, I saw so many rich things in terms of culture and yet everybody was just copying the West… I wanted to make it easier for people to buy something made locally. Economically it makes sense; if you are going to develop a country, you have to buy local products. I don’t like the culture of ‘imported is always better’.”
Having previously worked in the fashion business for five years in Barcelona, McCreath drew from her skills and experience in high-fashion to market the KikoRomeo brand. The fashion house has showcased on major catwalks in Milan, South Africa, London, New York and Paris.
KikoRomeo’s outfits sell for between 7,000 and 13,000 Kenyan shillings (US$80 to $149). The couture line, targeted at the very high-end market, sells for 45,000 shillings ($517) and above. KikoRomeo was initially targeted at expatriates and foreigners but this has changed in recent years.
“There has been a big change in the business environment. Kenyans, like yourself, have come out of school, got good jobs and there is more buying power in the Kenyan population,” said McCreath, adding that expatriates currently constitute just 10% of her customer base.
Although KikoRomeo has been largely successful, McCreath has had difficult moments in business, ranging from inadequate finances, her tailors accusing each other of witchcraft and mud-slinging by her competitors.
The most significant challenges have, however, been political instability and terrorist activities. The 1998 US embassy bombing in Nairobi and the 2008 Kenyan post election violence negatively impacted the business.
“I had to completely downsize because my market at the time was a lot of expatriates and many of them left the country,” said McCreath.
Getting skilled designers and the high rental cost of retail stores are other major challenges McCreath faces.
“The retail market here is tricky. Rents are far too high… it takes far too high [of a] turnover. I don’t think that will change any time soon, so we just have to look at e-commerce and other ways of reaching customers,” said McCreath.
Despite these hurdles, McCreath said giving up has never been an option for her.
“I am very driven and determined. I don’t like giving up and you will never see me give up in a bad moment. For me to call it quits, it will be in a good moment. I would see it as failure to hand over something in a bad moment when things are tough. I am an extraordinary optimist,” she said.
Her passion for fashion also keeps her going. “I absolutely love what I do. If I am having a bad day, I will just go off and design.”
McCreath is planning to tap into the mass market and is looking at ways to make her products accessible to a wider market.
“We are looking into a concept of mobile retail where I can take clothes to you, like mini-boutiques or things on wheels. We would like to penetrate more of the Kenyan market,” she said. “I am aiming at the mass market but not through my own design brand. What I could do is design a line for somebody who has the finances and distribution channels, like a supermarket.”
KikoRomeo is designing lines for local and international retailers and is looking to license the KikoRomeo brand name on other types of products.
“When I started my vision was to franchise KikoRomeo globally. I wanted to have great Kenyan fashion available all over the world and I think that should still happen. Right now we sell quite a lot through an online shop in London and we are building our export business,” she said.
The fashion designer advised other entrepreneurs to invest in businesses they are passionate about and find a niche in the market. Entrepreneurs should also set aside some capital.
“Personally I did what I shouldn’t have done, which is sink all my capital in the business rather than keeping some of my capital invested in some other safe bets that give a regular turnover,” said McCreath. “If you invest in a bread and butter business that gives you steady income it will keep you through the ups and downs of the more precarious types of businesses like fashion.”