‘Me I love Nairobi’: Kenyan entrepreneur explains how she built lifestyle brand Peperuka

Peperuka is a Kenyan company which designs and manufactures apparel and home decor items that incorporate quirky statements such as “Me I love Nairobi”. The business, launched in 2016, has received investment from HEVA Fund, which backs companies in the creative sector. Founder Wangari Nyanjui answers our questions.

1. Give us your elevator pitch.

Peperuka is a lifestyle brand that weaves African stories and connects African cultures through unique products with powerful iconography and language. Our products – apparel, accessories, home decor and gift items – are urban, contemporary and inspired by everyday life as a way to start conversations and share ideas. We celebrate who we are as Kenyans and as Africans unapologetically. Our vision is to be the first Kenyan lifestyle brand to go global.

2. How did you finance your startup?

I’m a graphic designer by training and run another business – Black Butterfly Limited, which is a design agency. I used funds from that business to start Peperuka. I started with making just a few T-shirts and attending one or two markets a year and grew the brand organically. Four years ago, I decided to make Peperuka my main business and have since borrowed from family and have received investment from HEVA Fund.

3. If you were given $1 million to invest in your company now, where would it go?

Given the vagaries of Covid, we gave up our retail space and continued to serve our customers online. We would therefore use the money for marketing and creating a stronger online presence. After that, we would invest in further research and development, so that we can continue creating – creativity is the heart of our business. Following that, we would invest in a retail expansion strategy that allows us to get to our customers where they are. Then we would strengthen our processes and operations by expanding the team and production premises.

Peperuka’s production facility.

4. What risks does your business face?

Remaining relevant in the hearts and minds of our customers. The competition for authentic merchandise is growing and so we continue to listen, innovate, experiment and expand the edges of what we do. We have also taken measures to protect our IP and follow through when infringed upon.

5. So far, what has proven to be the most successful form of marketing?

Social media and influencer marketing. We have been intentional about who we would like to be seen in our brand and have, with much gratitude, been able to connect with [celebrities such as] Lupita Nyong’o, Jidenna, Damien Marley, Aloe Blacc, Patricia Kihoro, Grace Msalame, Larry Madowo, Trey Songz, Ne-Yo and others.

Peperuka products on display at a pop-up store in Nairobi, Kenya.

6. Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.

There are so many. I am a creative at heart, so I get excited when I see a conversation, idea and design come to life, which happens several times a month. Though through the years, two moments stand out in particular.

The first is what I consider the start of the business. I started this business with the idea that T-shirts and everyday merchandise can be a starting place for sparking ideas and conversations. I wanted to talk about women who I considered were not being talked about enough: Winnie Mandela (everyone talks about Nelson), Rita Marley (everyone talks about Bob), Miriam Makeba (her music should be more mainstream) and here, at home – Wangari Maathai. So I had these graphics and made a few t-shirts and when Wangari Maathai passed away, I posted the graphic of her on Facebook. The response was incredible. I realised then, that this idea I had was bigger than me and my musings – it was a business.

The second moment was when Lupita Nyong’o wore one of our T-shirts during her first visit to Disneyland – our website broke. That was the happiest problem to solve.

7. Tell us about your biggest mistake.

Underestimating costs and overestimating projected income. When we first applied for funding for HEVA, we had grand plans that would turn the business around immediately. I quickly learned that there is no silver bullet to growth. Getting financial support is critical but what is even more critical is how and when to use finances to make the biggest impact towards an ultimate vision.