Vivo Activewear founder shares lessons learnt in the retail business

Wandia Gichuru, founder of Vivo Activewear

Wandia Gichuru, founder of Vivo Activewear

After more than a decade working with leading development agencies and corporate firms such as the World Bank and Citibank, Kenyan economist Wandia Gichuru ended her career and relocated back home to start her own business. Gichuru is co-founder and managing director of Vivo Activewear, a chain of seven retail clothing stores operating in shopping malls in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Throughout her career, Gichuru was posted in different countries including Canada, the UK, the US, Uganda and Sudan.

“I was starting to get more restless and wanting a lot more control of my personal life. Moving houses down the road is hard enough, moving countries and continents with two kids was just hectic,” says Gichuru. “I had been out of Kenya for 12 years, so I wanted to be back home. I knew I wanted a change.”

But Gichuru had no idea what she wanted to do next. She trained to be a life coach, an experience she says was transformative, but couldn’t run it as a viable business because she felt “awkward” charging people after they shared their deepest and most personal thoughts. Although she always had an interest in fashion, she never expected to turn it into a business.

While contemplating her future moves, Gichuru learnt about an open space at a prominent mall in Nairobi. Together with a partner they invested US$70,000 and set up Vivo. The business, which sells affordable casual clothing and activewear, targets professional women in their mid-twenties to late forties, as well as the “young at heart”. The clothes are sourced from South Africa, the UK and Asia, while some are manufactured locally by Vivo.

Learning from mistakes

Venturing into the retail business, with no prior experience, has come with many lessons for Gichuru.

“We were completely naive when we started. If I were to start a new business today with my four years experience, I would do things quite differently,” she admits. “For example, take staffing. Initially I was hiring friends of cousins, not going out into the market to find the best-suited candidates. I wasn’t giving people clear contractual objectives linked to performance. That has been a struggle, and I’ve had a number of unfortunate incidents – including theft.”

Gichuru recalls how she spent $5,000 of her initial capital on one particular brand of yoga clothing from South Africa because she wanted to get a bargain price for buying the minimum wholesale volume. But when she put the brand on the shelves, customers didn’t buy.

“Two years later, we still had it in stock. I thought the stuff was beautiful but people had not heard of the brand, and its pricing compared to the other products in the shop was higher. So I had put 25% of my initial stock on one supplier – and it did not work.

“It was a mistake, but I learnt a lesson. I should have just paid the full retail value, and tested a few products. Now I know testing is essential. My biggest order on consignment now is worth $50,000 coming from one supplier. However I made that order based on several small tests I have made.”

Taking risks

But her risk-taking attitude has also contributed to Vivo’s success and growth. Two years ago Gichuru was travelling with a friend to China to buy stock for her shops. Her friend, a designer, urged Gichuru to take a look at the fabrics on sale and consider the possibility of manufacturing them in Kenya.

“There was so much beautiful stuff that I decided to buy fabrics and send it in a container. I had six weeks [before the container arrived] to figure out how I was going to make [the clothes]. I had no tailor. No machines. No location. But by the time the fabrics arrived, I had bought three machines, found two tailors and rented a little apartment. Today I have about 12 people on the production side, and we manufacture about 50% of our [stock].”

Having an in-house production division has addressed some challenges such as the high prices of imported clothes and the lack of control over sizes, quality and exclusivity of products.

“I think you have to calculate your risks. I probably spent $4,000 on the fabric so if I returned to Kenya and it didn’t work out, I could have sold the fabric. At that point, two years into the business, I could afford to take that risk. For me there is no success without some level of risk.

“You’ve got to use your brain to assess a situation but then you must also use your gut feel. I believe in intuition. I am the type to dive into what I see is a good opportunity.”

Looking ahead

Gichuru says growth opportunities for Vivo are plenty, within Africa and beyond.

“The affordable fashion industry is controlled by the big brands, the Zaras, H&Ms and Mangos, and typically they are not catering to women of colour. I think globally, if the price is right and our product unique, we could appeal to the black community living across the world. I think there is an opportunity there, but we need to up our game and get our [locally manufactured] clothing to an international standard.”

“Right now we do 95% clothing. There is no reason why we could not expand our accessories to include shoes, bags, belts, jewellery [and] hats. We have the potential to become a lifestyle brand.”