Nigerian furniture maker inspires Kenyan entrepreneur to launch own venture

Emily Wangui (left), giving instructions to one of her workers at the Furniture Zoo workshop in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by: Vikki Keingati, bird story agency

Interview with Emily Wangui

Lives in: Nairobi, Kenya

By Hope Mukami, bird story agency

Inspiration from a Nigerian furniture maker and funds stashed for a trip to Dubai allowed Emily Wangui to start her own business.

A rainbow of brightly coloured furniture fills a showroom on Nairobi’s Quarry Road, with the noise of hammers and saws serving as background music for the craftspeople and visitors in the busy space. Sunlight shining through the showroom windows illuminates a massive white board with the word “PROGRESS” written across it.

Emily Wangui – who goes by the name of Wakeji Kamore on her social media sites – is a ball of excitement as she moves around from workstation to workstation, adding an extra layer of energy to the already bustling room.

“I like to describe myself as a perfect balance of an aggressive and bubbly lady,” says Wangui, 38, proprietor of the space aptly named Furniture Zoo.

Pulling her team around her, Wangui uses a bright blue marker to update a list of projects under the PROGRESS sign. Nothing escapes her interrogation: raw material quality, joinery craftsmanship, and wood finishing are all evaluated.

While Wangui says she has always been an interior designer at heart, everything she has built at Furniture Zoo is the result of a serendipitous moment online, when she came across 26-year-old Jumoke Dada, a Nigerian, who built her successful furniture store, Taellio, from scratch.

Read our full interview with Jumoke Dada: Made-in-Nigeria furniture company catering to aspirational millennials

“I happened to search furniture manufacturing on YouTube and I bumped into her interview. The fact that she is a young lady in the wood and carpentry sector was so inspiring. What she has achieved is exactly what I was dreaming of doing, and in that moment, I realised that every dream I have is already someone else’s reality and it can also be mine,” Wangui explains.

Some of the furniture pieces at the Furniture Zoo showroom in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Vikki Keingati, bird story agency.

Some of the furniture pieces at the Furniture Zoo showroom in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Vikki Keingati, bird story agency.

However, starting a furniture business from scratch required more than just a dream. A huge effort was required to find funding for the warehouse space, machinery, raw materials, and employees.

“Fortunately, my friends and family believed in my business as much as I did, forming my own personal loan squad. I had made some savings for a vacation to Dubai, but this enterprise offered the prospect of an endless journey. A birthday in paradise or building something that will last? My business won!”

Wangui’s challenges started early on. “My first challenge was knowing what machines and tools to purchase for the business. I was completely green in this area, which meant that I had to trust a carpenter to list for me everything that was needed for furniture manufacturing, from the electrical planing machines to the power tools, all the way to the size of the nails we needed. That carpenter is still on my team in the joinery department,” she says.

With 18 months of doing business under her belt, Wangui currently manages a team of roughly 20 people, with 14 salaried core members handling administration, joinery, and finishing, and a handful of contractors bringing experience in sofa framing, upholstery, welding, and lathing.

“We facilitate about 10-15 orders per month and each order can have anything between 2-100 furniture pieces depending on whether it is residential or a commercial space,” Wangui says.

Client favourites include cosy accent chairs, dining tables, sofas, and beds.

Wangui ensures that products are custom-made to the client’s requirements, including style, size, wood grains, staining, and varnishing.

A few moments have stood out for Wangui at Furniture Zoo. “The very first order – that a complete stranger trusted us online, sight unseen, to deliver their dream furniture – that was a massive confidence boost,” she says.

Another moment was their first restaurant furniture project, when they nailed the turnaround time and impressed their client with the final pieces. This cemented everything for Wangui. “We weren’t just furniture makers anymore, we were building the heart of someone’s business, and we did it right,” she says.

Some 60% of Furniture Zoo’s clients are expatriates who have settled in Kenya. Another 34% are local Kenyans residing in the city’s suburbs, seeking unique pieces for their homes. Beyond residential spaces, 6% of Furniture Zoo’s clientele includes resorts, hotels, and restaurants.

Wangui is tapping into a growing furniture industry, with rapid urbanisation in Nairobi and across the region driving demand for furniture to cater to a fast-growing housing market. Residential construction in Kenya makes up more than 50% of a market worth over US$16 billion a year, according to London-based global analytics and consulting company, GlobalData.

She believes that being a woman has set her apart in the industry and even opened more doors for her.

“Being a woman in the furniture manufacturing business works out in my favour. Mostly women are tasked to furnish homes and even hotels, and restaurants. While there are spaces that will be hard, like buying timber from the yards and leading a team of more male employees than women, it is also an opportunity for growth, and if you come into that space ready to learn, there is more benefit than challenges,” Wangui notes

/bird story agency