Mahlet Kassaye is co-founder of K-Home Design, an Ethiopian start-up that produces fabric-based shoe racks and document organisers. Made out of waste materials, the products are an alternative to wooden wardrobes, cupboards and cabinets. The sociology graduate tells How we made it in Africa what she would do with a $1m investment and about her experiences running a business with family.
1. Give us your elevator pitch.
There are a lot of condominiums in Addis Ababa and many of the spaces are small and cannot accommodate a wardrobe, even a cupboard. So most tenants find storage very difficult. Our target customers are people who live in small houses and condominiums. We have special products to use for storing shoes, accessories, bathroom products like soaps and shampoos, and even documents and work-related materials.
You can get small wooden cabinets in the market, but they are very pricey compared to our products. Additionally ours are hanged on walls so one can fully utilise space however small. Our products are also environment friendly compared with wooden alternatives.
The idea was inspired by the difficulties we faced in our own home. We had lots of shoes and not enough space. So we made the shoe racks which we would hang on the walls and when family and friends came to visit, they would place an order. Soon we decided to make it a business.
I work with my mother who is the production manager. We use waste materials from garment factories. The fabric is very strong and is decorated using beads and other coloured materials to make the finished items beautiful. We mix functionality and beauty.
2. How did you finance your start-up?
We put in our own money as a family.
3. If you were given $1m to invest in your company now, where would it go?
I would want to be in mid-level manufacturing and reach markets across Africa. At the moment we are working from home with a small team. We can make between eight and 12 products a day depending on size. So I’d invest in factory space, buy suitable equipment and hire more staff.
4. What risks does your business face?
There is not much competition for us locally, but people do like our products and understand how it all works. The risk is someone could produce them elsewhere cheaply, and sell here.
5. Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.
I love it when people see this product, and they stop for a minute, picture their house and think about where they will hang it. I like that because I know I am solving a problem. I am always happy when they buy the product and give us positive feedback. I also find it exciting working with my mother. The business has made us connect deeply. We have become best friends. Working with family is not such a horrible idea as I’d imagined. It’s actually nice.
6. What has been your biggest mistake, and what have you learnt from it?
I should have gotten the licence and registered the business a year earlier. You cannot do anything without a license. We did not formalise the business and our focus was just on selling to friends and family. We got carried away. That has taught me to act on something when you think about it, rather than postponing it and procrastinating.