Top designer finds new home in East Africa following European economic crash

Edmond Chesneau

Edmond Chesneau

In 2011, internationally-acclaimed French designer Edmond Chesneau moved to Kenya seeking opportunities in the leather industry. Chesneau had spent more than 30 years in Ireland building a reputation as a leading premium leather and accessories designer.

He ran his own leather goods manufacturing and retail business in Ireland, with a presence in top stores in the UK and US markets.

“We were making large profits but suddenly in 2008 the European economy crashed and Ireland was badly affected. My customer base disappeared as people ditched luxury brands. Then someone told me of an opportunity to do leather goods production in Kenya. So I packed all my equipment and moved here.”

The first two years Chesneau worked with a local leather project before starting his own business in 2013. His company, Luxury Leather Africa (LULEA), manufactures leather bags and accessories in Thika, about 40km from Kenyan capital Nairobi. A wallet retails for Ksh.5,000 (about US$50) while the most expensive bag costs Ksh.40,000 (about $400). The products sell in Ireland and Kenya through independent retailers. Chesneau also has plans to roll out LULEA branded shops in Nairobi.

Emerging luxury market

“The Kenyan market is quite similar to what we had in Ireland in the 1980s in terms of appreciation for brands. The economy is growing, people are becoming more affluent, and are beginning to associate with brands,” says Chesneau. “At the moment we are selling more to expatriates, but it’s false to assume that all Africans are poor and can’t afford certain things.

“We know there are more Kenyans and Africans who are doing well financially and they are interested in buying luxury products. We are seeing that starting with food (restaurant chains) and cars. Luxury is happening in Africa, and it is set to grow. We are at a good place as a home brand to be part of the coming of age of luxury in Africa.”

Chesneau explains LULEA appeals to consumers who want affordable high-quality leather bags and accessories manufactured in an ethical and sustainable way. He decided to focus on a socially-sustainable model after arriving in Kenya to find most manufacturers had made little investment in training workers and acquiring adequate equipment.

“Gross margin is the heart of any business. I believe by creating quality you are creating market opportunity, and opportunity for social impact. If our product is of high quality we can sell it for a lot of money, and be able to pay our workforce better than other employers. Businesses shouldn’t have to exploit people. You can do well, and do good at the same time,” says Chesneau.

“For me, at 63, LULEA is very much a legacy project. It is an opportunity to pass my craft and business knowledge to our team.”

Adapting to the local environment

However, Chesneau has faced some challenges in Kenya, particularly in sourcing financing and some raw materials.

“Access to finance is extremely difficult here. To me, the cost of finance here borders on extortion. Trust is also a challenge. As a foreign investor, it is a waste of time if you can’t learn to trust others. I am fortunate to have met people here that I really trust – because if I hadn’t I’d have packed my bags and left. It is important to have a trust base among local people to grow your business,” he says.

“Additionally, what I have learnt is my previous experience is not always applicable in an African setting. If you are going into a new market, there is no point trying to impose your way of doing things. There needs to be compromise between what you bring and the local way of doing things. You have to be adaptable to thrive in markets with a different environment from what you are used to.”