How a designer turned her hobby into a niche fashion business

What started out as a hobby for British-born Annabelle Thom has turned into a successful fashion business in Kenya. Starting out with one sewing machine and three pieces of leather, Thom created her first design – a leather bush hat – in 1997. She now makes everything from hats to bags, cushion covers and other accessories.

Thom tells How we made it in Africa that after two years of creating products she decided to turn her hobby into a “serious business”. She borrowed KSh. 70, 000 (US$800) and bought a sewing machine from a friend, three pieces of leather and started her business in her dining room.

Today she employs a team of 15 who make African themed bags, belts, hats, jewellery and other accessories. The products are sold at her shop, Annabelle Thom, at the upmarket Junction Mall in Nairobi. Products are also exported to markets in the UK and US.

Thom’s products are targeted at “aspirational middle class Kenyan women”, and prices range from KSh. 3,600 ($41) for a Kitenge clutch bag to KSh. 22,500 ($258) for a large overnight bag.

“We have got a big market here. If you can hit the right spot and make a product that is affordable to quite a large number of people you will be successful. There is a growing middle class here.”

Thom came to Kenya nearly two decades ago and fell in love with the country.

“I had a choice of either going back to the UK with my then two-and-a-half year old son or staying here and I realised very quickly I didn’t want to move back to England,” she says. “I suddenly knew that this was where I wanted to make my home.”

As a single mother, Thom says she “had a lot of drive and reason to succeed”.

She explains that perseverance, hard work and belief in her products have been key to the success of her business.

“Not giving up is the main thing I think. You also need to be realistic, get your pricing right and do something different from everybody else, not copying. You should also pay attention to detail and make something beautiful that someone would like to buy. Do not accept less.”

The designer says she draws inspiration from London’s high fashion trends, as well as locally made items from pastoralist communities such as the Samburu. Annabelle Thom sources raw materials including leather, bones, and fabric from 45 suppliers.

Future plans

Moving forward, Thom says she would like to open more stores in emerging towns in Kenya, as well as increase the store’s footprint in Nairobi.

“We would like to open three to five more shops. As Nairobi gets more banged up with traffic I think people don’t like travelling so far. We do supply other shops and hotels so one can buy our products outside of our shop but I would like to have more of our own retail outlets.”

She also plans to increase exports to US and European markets.

The impact of terrorism

Repeated terrorist attacks and security scares in Kenya over the last year have had a negative impact on Thom’s business.

“Business is good apart from the security problem we have got at the moment,” she says. “[When] we get a security scare the walk-ins [and] the traffic [in shopping malls are] reduced quite considerably. People will come in, they will buy their milk and get out as soon as they can. There is a consumer market but people don’t hang around shopping malls with the threats going on.”

Another difficulty the company faces is high taxation that makes production expensive.

“It’s very expensive to produce here in Kenya. A zipper head costs KSh. 70 ($0.80) plus VAT. [Somewhere] else it would probably cost five cents,” she says. “I could do this business anywhere but I am committed to Kenya. We are proud that we can make a product here which can stand on its own anywhere in the world that is entirely made here from Kenyan leather, Kenyan labour and from Kenyan handicraft. It’s a beautiful thing that we are making an international product here in Kenya.”

Thom adds that she chooses to focus on the positive sides of doing business rather than the hurdles she encounters.

“I don’t like to think about the challenges. I like to think about all the positive points in running a business here. I have been here a really long time. I don’t look at things as challenges but more of the bits you have to struggle through that are boring or that you don’t enjoy. I have never thought of quitting. I am not one to accept defeat.”