Chege experienced firsthand the impact of violence during Kenya’s 2007/2008 post-election crisis. While pursuing a master’s degree in international peace studies from the University of Notre Dame in the US, she also travelled to Israel and Palestine where one of the longest conflicts in the world has been ongoing for decades.
Chege tells How we made it in Africa that her experiences helped her realise economic empowerment is vital to the peace process.
“Peace has become an industry. There is a whole industry that benefits from the perpetuation of violence. Expecting that NGOs and international organisations will solve the problem is a fallacy. I think business and economic empowerment is a better tool,” says Chege.
When her three month contract at the United Nations (UN) in New York ended, she moved back to Kenya to launch RiRi Jewellery.
“I worked backwards. I asked myself ‘what do I need to become to make a difference in my community?’ It wasn’t about starting a business so I could become a millionaire,” she says.
“For me the low-hanging fruit was jewellery because I knew so many people who were good at crafting. From a young age jewellery was the one thing I could carelessly spend on.”
RiRi produces handmade accessories using semi-precious stones, brass, metals, wood and glass. The company works with six artisans in low-income areas in Nairobi.
The company’s products are sold at outlets in Kenya and Tanzania, and online through its website as well as online stores in Ireland and Britain. Chege says the products will soon be available for sale in India as well as via online retailer Jumia in Kenya.
The products are targeted at the middle and upper-class modern woman who appreciates texture and is willing to experiment with contemporary jewellery and style.
More than just a fashion company
Chege sees RiRi not just as a fashion business but also as a platform to push for policies, empower artisans and mentor the youth.
“That is the power of fashion. My clients are politicians and their spouses, and leading business people. RiRi gives me an opportunity to talk with them and have discussions that help push for better trade policies so that local players can get better incomes.”
In March, Chege was a speaker at the annual Harvard African Development Conference in the US.
She says in Kenya most artisans live hand to mouth, often in informal settlements.
“One artisan I know has been supplying pendants to an international company for Ksh. 20 (US$0.2), yet on the company’s website they are selling the same pendant for $15 to $20. I have realised many artisans do not know how to price their work… Through RiRi we create demand for the work of young Kenyan artists and this ensures them a sustainable means of making a living.”
Chege says the initial investment in a jewellery business is small but when run properly “the returns are incredible”. She attributes the success of RiRi to her ability to create collaborations and partnerships across the world.
“When starting a business most people often think of selling to family and friends yet really the world is our oyster. For me it is always about using linkages I have made abroad to grow my business,” says Chege. “As a society we tend to be afraid of experimenting. We need to think more globally because our market sometimes could be bigger in other countries. For instance, RiRi products have been received very well internationally in places like New York.”
Chege also prefers to take small steps at a time. “Our growth has been extremely organic. Except for the initial loan of Ksh. 150,000 ($,1,706), which I received from my parents to build the website, we have operated without further borrowing or grants. The way I run my business is by taking small steps every day to be a better person and to have an impact in society”.
She does occasionally experience “bad days” but chooses to learn from these experiences.
“One of my worst experiences was when we lost one of our best artisans. I wasn’t sure I would be able to go on without her because her contribution to the business was immense,” says Chege. “For a few weeks I was stranded but at the end of the day it taught me that I also have creative contribution and ideas. Through that challenge I was able to believe more in myself and my skills. In vulnerability you identify strengths that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen.”