How a Kenyan furniture maker captured the high-end market with a unique idea

The expatriate community in Nairobi has been expanding in recent years as multinationals set up shop in the city. The Kenyan capital hosts global firms such as Google, General Electric, IBM, Coke, Pepsi and Airtel Africa, as well as the only United Nations (UN) agency in a developing country, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The influx of expatriates and diplomats, coupled with the growing middle class, is inspiring new ideas in dining, entertainment, real estate and fashion.

Toby Dickinson, a Tanzanian-born entrepreneur, runs a high-end furniture business that targets this market segment. Dickinson is the owner and managing director of Indian Ocean Creations which makes furniture using wood from ancient dhows (traditional sailing vessels).

A painter, Dickinson started his furniture business 16 years ago, when he realised people were not buying his paintings.

“I was painting but the subjects weren’t necessarily things that people wanted to buy. I was painting skulls. So, I decided to do furniture.”

With KSh 20,000 shillings (US$230) to spend he travelled to the Kenyan coast looking for wood from capsized and damaged boats.

“The first one I got belonged to a guy who was supplying aid to Somalia. That came to an end while he was halfway through repairing his boat. Suddenly there was no demand for the boat anymore, so he wanted to get into land transport. I got a huge, half of a fabulous boat; amazing wood that you would be hard pressed to find, unless you went to the Congo.”

Indian Ocean Creations has become well known for the unique, rustic furniture it makes from antique dhows and ships.

The most expensive single piece of furniture the company has sold to date was a table for KSh 400,000 shillings ($4,500). “I had to go to Tanzania to get the boat. Then you get it across the border. The police were very suspicious. It is a pain. It’s really hard work,” says Dickinson.

According to Dickinson, his customers are willing to spend that much on a table because the design and build of each piece is customised.

“You are not going to get to a friend’s house and see pretty much the same table. That table is a talking point. Everyone is affected by the history of these dhows. They were built [many] years ago and used for trading,” says Dickinson. “[Clients] like the rustic look. However, there is a fine line between rustic and rubbish. You have to get it right. A good piece of furniture will be timeless.”

Indian Ocean Creations’s target market comprises mainly of expatriates and high-income Africans and Asians.

“You’ve got a lot of people that worked with the UN… and they are retiring or moving to another posting and they want to take something with them which is essentially Kenyan or African. A dugout canoe is not something you would find anywhere in the world.”

Dickinson also runs The Velvet Room, a company which uses reclaimed fabric from second hand curtains to upholster sofas.

Striking a balance

The biggest challenge the entrepreneur faces is finding time for his other passion.

“I am frustrated between painting and making furniture,” he says. “I have to make the time for painting. I have to be reasonably organised. Painting requires a lot of effort and time. You have to be focused.”

Although there isn’t a consistent market for art in Kenya, Dickinson says painting “is quite an attractive prospect”. He holds annual exhibitions for his artwork – which no longer include paintings of skulls.

Dickinson says he enjoys the freedom that comes with entrepreneurship.

“It would be much easier to be employed, get paid at the end of the month and go home. But then you don’t have much freedom. I have a lot of freedom to do things the way I choose. If I want to go play golf, I go play golf. If I have got to go pick up my daughter [from school] because she is sick, I can go do that.”

Advice to entrepreneurs

He advised other entrepreneurs to invest in marketing their businesses.

“Marketing is absolutely the key to success. So many people open the shop and sit there waiting for customers to come. No one knows you are there.”

He says managing finances efficiently is also critical. “[You should] put yourself on a salary so that you don’t get too greedy.”

Most important though, Dickinson says, is to believe in yourself. “If you’ve got that belief, then that is most of the work done.”

Since “not everybody likes this rustic stuff”, Dickinson is looking to venture into the export market to expand his reach.

“To take the business forward we will probably have to start looking at the export market and sell it more as functional art than as furniture. We could take it to somewhere like New York or London or Rome. There is a market there; they love Africa.”