Pivot, Adapt, Grow: Building a Fashion Brand in Kenya
A “warrior for economic growth” describes how the fashion industry can boost African communities’ well-being.
Starting a business is hard enough. But growing it can be exponentially harder — especially when crossing borders and continents and in a business as fickle as fashion. Wandia Gichuru is experiencing it all as founder and CEO of Vivo Fashion Group, based in Nairobi, Kenya. Gichuru thinks about her business beyond simply selling clothes. We can be “warriors for economic growth,” she explains. Hear her story of lucky breaks and quick pivots, strategic growth and purposeful passion.
Wandia Gichuru began her career in international development. Today, she sees her business in a similar light, and with even more passion. She believes the fashion industry has the potential to transform economies on the African continent because, as she explains, “They haven’t found a way for robots to stitch clothing. You need to hire people.” And, she continues, “It’s not just the people behind the machines, it’s also the designers, the cutters, the bundlers. It’s the models, the makeup artists, the photographers. There’s just an entire industry that I believe could contribute a significant percentage to our GDP.”
When Gichuru started her business, it was focused on selling dance and fitness clothing online to meet her own needs. Ultimately — by default, not design — she chanced upon a huge gap in the market: good-looking, comfortable, well-fitting clothes for African women’s body shapes and sizes. Luckily, she had a built-in focus group to identify customer needs. “When ladies spend an hour in your store trying on 20, 30 different things, they talk a lot. That’s where we got our market research,” she says.
She began by importing clothes from Asia, but quickly pivoted to designing and producing locally. “The local fashion industry had become almost nonexistent. We got flooded by all the secondhand stuff. And so the local textile mills that existed in the ’70s and ’80s, one by one, they all shut down,” she explains. The production move was a big decision that not only differentiated her brand, but also improved her bottom line and impacted her community.
After seven years, Gichuru had six stores and 70-plus employees. But, she admits that she didn’t have a proper strategy, an effective board, or the right systems and processes to truly scale. She admits, “I was completely overwhelmed.” Gichuru got help from the Stanford Seed Transformation Program, a 10-month program for CEOs and founders of established businesses in Africa and South Asia to help them grow and scale their companies. “One of the first things we did was the business model canvas, which asks you to articulate your value proposition and answer key questions like who are your customers? Who are your suppliers? What is your marketing? What are your channels?,” she reflects. This exercise gave Gichuru the start she needed to build a foundation for expansion. Today, Vivo has 20-plus stores, has expanded to Rwanda, and has plans to grow across East Africa — and one day, hopefully, across the Atlantic.
“I would love Vivo to get to that level. I think for so long, you know, people see Africa as a place you get your raw materials from and then you do your value add somewhere else, and then you either sell it back to us or wait till you use it and send it back here as a used thing. I just think we need to prove to ourselves and to the rest of the world that we’re just as capable, and actually we can come up with solutions, products, and services that people outside of Africa will benefit from and need as much as we do,” she says with passion.
Listen to Gichuru’s entrepreneurial story from startup to scaling and hear how she’s growing both her impact and her bottom line.
Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.
Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.
Wandia Gichuru: But I think the “why” for me is also really important because you can have all these revenue goals, expansion goals…
Darius Teter:Growing a business on your home turf is hard enough, but what does it take to expand into other countries or even across the world?
Wandia Gichuru: …but it’s sort of: What are we trying to do, and why does this matter, and how are we trying to be part of changing this industry and lifting this economy and creating employment and giving people more dignity and generating livelihoods? I mean, to me it’s so much more than getting to 30 stores.
Darius Teter: Welcome to season three of Grit & Growth from Stanford Seed, the podcast where Africa and South Asia’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and triumphs with insights from Stanford faculty and global experts on how to tackle challenges and grow your business. For the first episode of the season, we’re staying true to our name and bringing you a story of growth. I guess, in some ways I’m surprised you haven’t done a podcast before. You’re like the perfect podcast guest, so maybe there’ll be more. That perfect podcast guest I’m talking to? That’s Wandia Gichuru.
Wandia Gichuru: My name is Wandia Gichuru and I am a Kenyan entrepreneur and I founded and am the CEO of the Vivo Fashion Group, which is a fashion business based out of Nairobi, Kenya.
Darius Teter: Wandia has spent 12 years building Vivo into a nationally recognized brand, and now she wants to expand beyond Kenya, across East Africa and, potentially, across the Atlantic.
Wandia Gichuru: So right now we have 21 stores in Kenya, one in Rwanda. So that’s our first — we only opened that beginning of this year — and it’s our first store outside of Kenya. We plan by the end of next year to have 30 stores in total, and I think out of the eight that will open, probably four will be outside of Kenya. So we’re very determined to expand through our own stores in other parts of East Africa.
Darius Teter: But we’re not going to start with that first store outside of Kenya. I’m going to take you back to the very beginning, because the foundation of Vivo’s expansion was built long before they crossed any borders. In fact, many of the lessons that brought them here are the same ones that will get them there, to Rwanda, America, and perhaps around the globe. We’ll hear about the needs-finding, brand building and adaptability that put Wandia on the map, plus the many pivots that made Vivo the company it is today. Actually, Vivo itself was something of a pivot. Was it always your dream to create a fashion brand?
Wandia Gichuru: Absolutely not. I have no background in fashion or in design or in retail or in manufacturing. So no, not at all. I studied economics at university and then went into international development. I was a policy adviser for almost 20 years before I went into business.
Darius Teter: How did we go from that to — is the correct name Vivo Active?
Wandia Gichuru: Well, Vivo Activewear is what we initially called the company because we started it — and I say “we” because I started with a good friend. While I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, she had just left her job and we were doing a ton of dance classes and yoga and Pilates and all this sort of fun, healthy stuff, and realized that there just wasn’t merchandise. We wanted to buy dance shoes and proper Pilates equipment and stuff like that, and that just didn’t exist in the market.
And so we were like, “Oh, okay. Well, if we’re looking for it and can’t find it, I’m sure there are other people who must be experiencing the same thing.” And that was the original idea for Vivo, to supply dance and fitness. And we were going to do it online only. And within a couple of months, my house had turned into the store, because no one wanted to buy anything they hadn’t seen and tried on. And so it was crazy. I didn’t have a living room, there were boxes everywhere with inventory, and so we decided at that stage that we would open a physical store. And when we did that —
Darius Teter: Well, before we go to the physical stores — sorry, I should warn you, I tend to interrupt people.
Wandia Gichuru: That’s good!
Darius Teter: And it’s because I want to dig down into certain things, because one of the things that frustrates me about entrepreneurial podcasts is there’s always this leap, like, “Well, we had this idea that there’s a need here we needed to fill.” And then the next sentence is, “And then we started selling this product out of the living room.” And I want to understand: you’re an international development economist. How did the clothes get made? Who designed them? I understand spotting a white space.
Wandia Gichuru: So to start with, we literally just bought stuff from other countries. So I ordered a bunch of stuff out of the UK, a bunch of stuff out of South Africa and then China. So those were the three places we sourced from and made tons of mistakes. So for example, before I tested any of the product, some of the suppliers said, “Well, if you buy this volume, you’ll get a better price.” So I just bought more than I should have because I thought it would end up being cheaper and I just assumed everything would sell. And of course, some of it didn’t sell at all, and I was stuck with a ton of dead stock.
Darius Teter: While Wandia made plenty of rookie mistakes, she also benefited from some beginner’s luck.
Wandia Gichuru: When we decided that my house wasn’t going to be the option in the medium term and we should open a store, we went to one of Nairobi’s largest malls, which happened to be really close to where I live. And they had just built a second wing. And we walked into the management office and said, “We’d like store space.” And they’re like, “Oh, so what’s your business?” And we sort of gave the name and they’re like, “Oh, that sounds really interesting. Actually there is one space left.” And they said, “Look, put an application in quickly. We’ll need your business plan.” And we didn’t have a business plan. So I came home and downloaded a template from the internet and just threw numbers in and went back the next day and said, “Here’s our plan.” And they said, “Great, you can have the space.” And it was only a couple of years later that I met people who said they’d been on a waiting list for a year waiting to get a space at the mall and hadn’t gotten one.
So sometimes it’s just that luck and timing and who you meet and who likes your story. Because that location ended up being the best thing that happened to us. If we had opened at another location, I don’t know that the business would’ve generated enough income for us to keep investing. Because I blew all my savings on this one investment. Getting that store took almost $80,000 to set up. And then we panicked and we were like, “Oh my God, we’ve just signed a six-year lease. Rent’s going to go up every year by 10 percent. What if there are not enough people to buy dance stuff?” And so that’s when we decided to introduce a clothing line that would complement the dance stuff. So then we picked stretchy fabrics, things that looked like you could almost exercise in them, but were also sort of more regular clothing. I just did a trip to Bangkok and went to the wholesale markets and just bought a whole bunch of stuff.
And when we opened the store, that’s what everyone loved. Hardly anyone bought any of the dance stuff and people just loved the clothing. But the reason people liked it so much is not because they were into the leisure look, but because the clothing was super comfortable and it fit better than a lot of the clothing that was available on the market, because of the kind of fabrics that we chose. But we didn’t choose those fabrics for that reason, we chose those fabrics because we thought they went along with the fitness stuff. And so we kind of — not by design but just by default — stumbled upon a challenge that a lot of people were facing, which was finding clothes that look good and were comfortable and fit well on African women’s body shapes and sizes. And so once we understood that that’s what people loved, we started bringing all kinds of other clothing that isn’t necessarily linked to fitness but is designed specifically for this customer in mind, which is a woman of color, basically.
Darius Teter: Wandia had chanced upon a real gap in the market, a gap that she soon discovered was no accident.
Wandia Gichuru: I would say 95 to 98 percent of all the clothing in Kenya is imported, the bulk of which is secondhand. But even the 20 percent that’s new, it was not made for this customer. So when people in North America and Europe and other parts of the world get rid of their clothes, those clothes get sold to agents or organizations. There are at least 50,000 people employed in logistics companies, that’s just in the U.S., that do nothing but bundle these clothings into packages and then sell them.
The volumes are out of this world — the amount of clothing that gets thrown away, given away. And it’s only gotten more because of fast fashion, because of social media. A lot of people want to only be seen once wearing an outfit. They’re buying super cheap fast fashion stuff. And so all of that has to go somewhere. And most of it is synthetic, and so it’s not even that easy to get rid of. So it ends up coming in massive container loads to countries like Kenya. And that is what 80 percent of Kenyans wear, many people down to their underwear. There are many Kenyans who have never bought a new item of clothing in their lifetime.
Darius Teter: I really hope there’s nobody running around in my underwear.
Wandia Gichuru: Yeah. And, unfortunately, about 30 to 40 percent of what ends up here is not even sellable. It’s like soiled, dirty, torn, and ends up in landfills. It becomes garbage on this side of the ocean.
Darius Teter: Decades of these cheap imports took their toll on Kenyan clothing manufacturers.
Wandia Gichuru: The fashion industry, the local fashion industry here, had become almost nonexistent. We got flooded by all the secondhand stuff, and so the local textile mills that existed, I think in the ’70s and ’80s, there were about 20, 25 pretty large textile mills. One by one, they all shut down. And it just became harder and harder and harder to compete because the secondhand products are very cheap.
Darius Teter: The destruction of the local textile industry left Kenyans with the scraps: cheap, ill-fitting, and sometimes secondhand clothing. With her stretchy fabrics and eye for color, Wandia had accidentally stumbled upon that gap in the market. And now that she understood the root cause, she could address those needs even better. So she adapted her business once again.
Wandia Gichuru: So the second big pivot then was when we decided to start making and designing, producing, locally. And that’s because the clothing that we were buying from Asia was just too limited. A lot of clothes that when you buy stuff off the wholesale market in places like Thailand, literally come in one size because 70 to 80 percent of Thai women are within a really narrow sort of height range and weight range and stuff like that. So I mean, that was only catering to a very small percentage of Kenyan women. And so when we decided to start designing and manufacturing locally, we took all the lessons that we’d learned from what we’d offered for the two years before that and just expanded it now. And so we were able to introduce a much wider size range and many more colors and prints and things that, again, may not seem so obvious, but a typical Caucasian may not be as comfortable wearing bright orange or bright yellow dresses, whereas on dark skin tone, it just pops.
And it was weird, because in the beginning a lot of people said, “Oh, Kenyans don’t really like local. They think imported products are better, so don’t tell anybody, don’t advertise it.” So because at that point I think we had four or five stores, we literally just started producing and putting stuff on the racks without saying that it was made in Kenya. And no one could tell the difference. We were buying the same sort of fabrics that the products we imported were made from, were using. So the sewing machines are Japanese or Chinese, the threads come from… You know what I mean? So why would it be that different? I’ve never bought into that “local is inferior” argument.
Darius Teter: It turns out that many Kenyans felt the same way. So what started as a practical decision became a differentiator and a story that propelled Vivo forward.
Wandia Gichuru: What we also then realized was, actually, sentiments are changing, and maybe my generation and older, my parents’ generation, might have felt that way, because they lived through colonialism and all that, but younger generations don’t feel like that at all. In fact, they’re quite proud to buy local and wear local. And then we started to talk about it more, and then the story really got exciting, and in fact we got a lot more media coverage. Journalists wanted to write about it, TV stations wanted to come and interview us. We definitely started getting a lot more local coverage in the press and a lot of PR. And so there was a lot of excitement. And I’d like to think that we also have been instrumental in sort of opening the doors for others, because we’ve seen a lot more local brands come up in the last six, seven, eight years.
Darius Teter: Vivo had two major pivots in its first few years. Those pivots were successful because they focused on customer needs. And the way you discover those needs doesn’t have to be some big formal operation. Vivo is a great example of how that process can be baked into your company’s DNA. You talked about the sort of lessons you learned over two years of selling this clothing that you had sourced in Asia. Did you ever — going back to standard marketing, good best practice — did you ever do a focus group or customer need-finding exercise? Was there any sort of formal process where you tried to elicit a better understanding of the customer needs?
Wandia Gichuru: Nope. None. I mean, we listen to our customers. And when ladies spend an hour in your store trying on 20, 30 different things, they talk a lot. So that’s where our market research was, just real-time listening to the customers, listening to what they liked, what they didn’t like, what they asked for and we didn’t have.
Darius Teter: In our previous marketing master class with Stanford professor Jonathan Levav, we spoke about the importance of knowing your customers. Here’s what he had to say.
Jonathan Levav: People think that their task is to make a product, their task is to understand customer needs and to create a product that meets those needs. And I think that if you’re a CEO of a company and you don’t speak or interact with customers at least once a week, you’re not doing your job. I had a participant once, she had some company that made rice. She needs to go to a grocery store and watch people choosing rice, see how much time are they spending, what are they looking for? Intercept somebody and say, “Hey, why do you choose this rice over this rice?” See what kind of answer you get. Maybe they say, “Oh, I like this one better than this one because it’s cheaper.” Or, “I buy this one because my mom used to buy it.” Or, “I buy this one because I like the color pink and the packaging is pink.”
It gives you a lot of information that then you can follow up on and sort of study more systematically. So you got to get out of the office. You’re never going to solve these problems staying in the office. And by the way, you, the boss, need to get out of the office, not just your underlings, not just your marketing person. You need to feel it on your flesh. Maybe you don’t go out that often — as often as the marketing person does — but you need to feel it on your flesh. Unless you feel it on your flesh, it’s not going to work.
Wandia Gichuru: In the years later, I’ve tried a couple of focus groups, and it’s great. But I mean, it’s 10 people and it’s 10 different opinions. But we have, in any given month, several hundred if not a thousand customers that come in. And so the data now that you can get and use, if you’re able to attribute different aspects of your product in your data, then you can start to see, “Well, when you do these kinds of styles in this fabric, it works really well. It sells out in a couple of weeks. And when you do it in this fabric, it doesn’t move.” So the data tells you a lot as well.
Darius Teter: If you were to describe the customers for Vivo, how would you describe them?
Wandia Gichuru: Well, it’s typically a woman in her 30s and 40s, but we do have customers in their 20s and in their teens and in their 50s, 60s, 70s. So it just depends. I mean, my mother wears Vivo. A friend’s mother who just turned 84 bought a jumpsuit last week at a Vivo store. So it really depends on the individual. But a lot of our clothing is casual, smart casual, very versatile. So it’s stuff you can wear to work, dress it up, dress it down, a lot of basics. And people like the versatility, they like the fact that you could buy something and wear it three different ways and lots of different types of occasions. But yes, so typically, it’s a more mature professional woman. Our price point in Kenya would be considered medium to high. In the US it would be low, we’d be considered in the lower, not the lowest of the low, but our average product is about $30, $35.
Darius Teter: So one of the things that they also cover in marketing here is describing your customer, not by demographics but by needs. And you actually did that naturally, because you started out by saying, yeah, 30 to 35, but also 60, also 70, even 85. And then you describe the actual need, which is comfortable, colors that are popular in the African context, a fit that’s more shaped to our bodies, and versatile, you could wear it to work, you could wear it casually. Those are all customer needs and they defy the age segmentation. So I think you’ve naturally gotten to that place, which is “I’m fulfilling specific needs, not specific age demographics.”
Wandia had carved out a nice little niche for herself, but she was still new to running a business. I want to talk a little bit about your business growth story. So you had a couple of stores. I understand by year six you had seven stores, you had 70 employees, and you kept on growing. And as somebody who never imagined they would be an entrepreneur, what were some of your challenges as an entrepreneur?
Wandia Gichuru: I think at the stage, by year six and the stage you’re referring to, I still had a very thin management team. So I had stores with sales staff, I had a couple of designers, we had maybe 20, 30 people on production. But I still didn’t have a proper strategy, I didn’t have an effective board. We were building it without a foundation, if that makes sense. I didn’t really have proper systems and processes. And so I was completely overwhelmed.
I mean, I remember discovering that we had had a theft at one of the stores, and it was some of our own team that was every day, instead of banking the full amount of revenue, they would just take a little bit off the top. But it took almost three to four months for me to even realize that, because I was trying to do the reconciliations myself. I didn’t even have a full-time finance person on the team. And at some point, I just was too overwhelmed to even do that. So I let a couple of months slip by and then realized, “Oh my God, there’s all this missing money.” When you say what was the challenge? It was a lot.
Darius Teter: Wandia had reached a plateau. She’d created a strong business, one with a lot of potential, but didn’t know how to grow it further. And that’s a point where many entrepreneurs get stuck, and that’s also when Wandia crossed paths with us at Stanford Seed. So your business is growing so fast, you don’t have a management team. At what point did you enter this Seed Program in that journey?
Wandia Gichuru: Yeah, right around then. I mean, I think literally, year six or seven. And I knew I needed help, I knew I needed to step back from just the day-to-day craziness and sort of think this through. I wasn’t sure what exactly was out there and what sort of programs I could apply to. But Kenya has a couple of business schools, there were a few other incubator type programs that people had talked about. And then somebody forwarded me the flier for Seed. And immediately, I was like, “Oh my God, this is exactly what I need.” And I had an MBA, but I had done my MBA 20 years before. I had hardly worked at all before that and never had my own business, and so I’d forgotten everything.
Darius Teter: In many ways, growing a business is completely different than starting a business. You’ve got to build and formalize structures, communicate your vision, and empower others to fulfill it. That’s exactly what the Seed Transformation Program helps you do.
Wandia Gichuru: It was just looking at the business in these different segments. One of the first things we did was that business model canvas, which sort of asks you to articulate: What is your value proposition? Who are your customers? Who are your suppliers? What is your marketing? What are your channels? Even just being able to organize the business into a framework that you can then start to see, “Okay, well actually, yes, there’s a lot we can still do there, but it’s not that bad. But in this other area — wow.” So that was incredibly helpful. I think I had also just hired a finance person maybe the year before, so after the theft that really highlighted the need for somebody to be looking at the numbers on a daily basis. We also got a better auditing firm. And then one of the first things I did, either during or immediately after the Seed Program, was establish a real board. And I even invited one of my Seed participants to join the board.
Darius Teter: Advisory and fiduciary boards are another subject we covered on this podcast before. On the episode “Brain Trust” back in April 2022, we spoke about the value they can bring to your business and how to build one yourself. Assembling a board quickly paid off for Vivo.
Wandia Gichuru: Once we then got this board in place, and they pushed me to be more ambitious, so I remember sort of one year presenting a plan for the next year, and we were going to open two stores only using retained earnings, which is what we had done for the first seven years. And they said, “Why are we only opening two? Why not open five?” And I’m like, “Well, where are we going to get the money to open five?” And they said, “We raised it.” And so I think we raised $300,000 or something like that by the directors and by friends and family, literally. And since then, we’ve done two other small raises. So I think in the history of the business, we’ve raised a million dollars in total, and our revenues this year will probably be close to $7 million and by next year should be at the $10 million mark.
And that’s just with the East African expansion. That’s not including the U.S., that’s not including anything outside of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, maybe Tanzania. By the end of the Seed Program, when we had to do the transformation plan, which was, I think in my case, I did a six-year plan that has shaped pretty much the direction that we’ve taken over the last six years. It’s incredible. I mean, I dusted it off the other day because I hadn’t looked at it since COVID. And I was very, very happy to see that we’re pretty much on track to get to where we had said. We wrote that in 2016, 2017. And so we had goals up to 2023. And our goals for 2023 are pretty much aligned to what we had said where we’d want to be in the T [transformation] plan.
Darius Teter: Armed with what she learned in the Seed Program, Wandia is ready to grow Vivo, and that means expanding beyond Kenya’s borders. But expansion brings its own challenges. You’ve got to deal with a whole new set of laws and a more complex supply chain, not to mention a different cultural context. And while there are various strategies to address these issues, you’ve got to find the one that works for your business. Have you considered a franchise model for this expansion that’s more asset-light?
Wandia Gichuru: We haven’t considered franchise, and I’ll maybe say a bit about that, because we watched the experience of the South African brands that came into Kenya through franchises, the clothing brands. And that includes Mr Price, Woolworths, Truworths, and a number of other ones. And they all ended up buying back their stores. And I think part of the challenge with clothing is, if you’re not sourcing your clothing locally, it becomes very expensive because you have to import it into the country. And if you want to price competitively, the margins just get smaller and smaller. And then if you’re sharing that between the franchisee and the franchiser, then it doesn’t really work that well for either side. So what we’re looking at outside of having our own stores is a sort of wholesale or consignment model. So even now we have people in South Sudan who have just placed an order and they want to sell Vivo in their boutique. So rather than going to Turkey or China and sourcing product from there, because they don’t make their own designs, they’re like, “Oh, why don’t we carry the Vivo brand in our store?” So that’s exciting.
Darius Teter: Another avenue for expansion is through the internet, which can make your product visible to everyone regardless of geography. But it’s not as simple as just opening an online store and raking in the cash.
Wandia Gichuru: Even though we’ve invested heavily online, at least in our experience, 90% of our revenue still comes from our stores. But we believe online drives a lot of that traffic into stores as well. So online is not just selling, we don’t just see it as the selling channel, we see it as how to raise brand awareness, how to entice people about particular collections or particular products. And I think the omnichannel way of thinking about it is, to me, where the magic lies. It’s how these different channels reinforce each other.
Darius Teter: To gain traction, Vivo has approached the online market a little bit differently. In fact, they’ve spun off a whole new business. And as I understand it, you’ve launched an online fashion platform, Shop Zetu?
Wandia Gichuru: Yes.
Darius Teter: That includes other local brands as well.
Wandia Gichuru: Yes. So we started to explore what’s out there for fashion, what’s happening in the rest of the world. And we realized that even in countries where there’s incredibly successful marketplaces like Amazon, you will still find other marketplaces that are purely dedicated to fashion. And the thesis there is that it’s almost the difference between going to a supermarket or going to a boutique department store. So people don’t necessarily want to go to a website and have to comb through electronics and food or whatever and see dresses sort of in the middle.
And so the more we researched around the sort of success of fashion marketplaces, we realized there wasn’t anything like that here, and especially not anything that was targeted to the African consumer, the local consumer. So there are some marketplaces that sell African fashion brands, but they do it promoting it to the rest of the world. So they’re sort of like, “Oh, U.S. customer, Europe customer, if you want to buy African brands, shop through us.” Whereas we’re saying there are 50 million Kenyans, 200 million East Africans who get up and get dressed every day and buy new clothes. And where online can you go to find what’s on offer, what’s out there? And that’s sort of where the idea for Shop Zetu came. We currently have about 180 brands listed on the platform and that number’s growing all the time.
Darius Teter: Wow. So 180 fashion brands. Are these local East African fashion brands, are these your competitors?
Wandia Gichuru: Yes. I mean, they’re Vivo’s competitors, but Shop Zetu is a platform, so it doesn’t really own the clothing. But we try to push brands because I am such a believer in the power of brands, and we need African brands to become household names, to become very strong.
Darius Teter: This is fascinating to me because, in a sense, you’re promoting the whole industry. I mean, you’re helping others go on your journey that you started 12 years ago. And I guess the business model is you get fees for sales commissions, something like that, or some sort of package deal. So anyone who wants to list on your platform, you’re getting some cut of the business.
Wandia Gichuru: So we take a 20 percent commission on sales, and then we’ll also charge for the different value-added services.
Darius Teter: To find success abroad, Vivo is turning to the same strategies that help them thrive at home.
Wandia Gichuru: One of the things we’re realizing, though, and this is through even just the Rwanda experience, is, you can’t just assume that because these are the styles that work in Kenya and this is the price point that works in Kenya, that that’s necessarily what’s going to work in Rwanda. So there’s some things that are hugely popular here and don’t sell there at all. And I mean, there was one particular dress that was doing so well in Kenya and we sent it there and it just wasn’t selling. And I happened to… We had hosted an event for Shop Zetu and invited a Rwandese fashion designer to come and speak at the event.
So she happened to be in town, and she came and visited us at Vivo as well. And so because we had her in the room, I was like, “Can you help us understand why this style is not doing well in Rwanda?” Because it was a full-length dress, it was in bright yellow, and it was in a particular kind of fabric. And my team said, “Oh, Rwandese people just don’t like yellow.” And this lady said, “Not at all. The problem is that it’s off-shoulder.” The design, the shoulders were bare. And she said, “Rwandese women are conservative. They’re more conservative than Kenyans around what skin they’ll show.” They’ll wear something sleeveless, but very few will want to wear something that sits off your shoulder. So it’s things like that.
Darius Teter: I mean, this tells me that you have more work to do for your regional expansion. I mean, so, obviously, Ethiopian, another body type altogether and color preferences, style preferences. I mean, this is the meat and potatoes of customer needs-fulfilling or solving problems. So it sounds like you kind of need to formalize this research project into these new markets.
Wandia Gichuru: One of the things that, again, it goes back to one of your earlier questions around focus groups and stuff like that. I’m a big believer in just sort of testing. The mistake we made with that dress in Rwanda is we sent a lot. And if we had sent fewer, it would’ve been a cheaper lesson to learn. We opened in Rwanda in COVID, so we weren’t even able to visit and spend a lot of time there and talk to people or anything else. But I think with other countries, we will do more talking and testing and also bring people in on the design side and on the production side.
So even now I’m looking for a Rwandese designer that can help us, work with us on a collaborative project, come up with a collection, and also just to engage more so that you are not just a foreign brand. Yes, we may be Kenyan and we’re neighbors, but Rwandese people are still very proud of being Rwandese and they have their own designers and their own… So how do we partner with them on that sort of thing and bring some of their designs to Kenya? And when I think of Vivo in the next five, 10 years, I see it being Pan-African and seeing having the best of the sort of Nigerian designers and Ghanaians and South African designers and having their product sold in Vivo stores all over the continent.
Darius Teter: Vivo is taking the lessons they’ve learned from their regional expansion and applying them to grow their reach even further.
Wandia Gichuru: That’s the Africa ambition. I mean, you sort of touched on this other ambition, which is the U.S. market. And we’re going to start small, but the thesis is that the African American consumer probably faces similar challenges to the Kenyan consumer, in the sense that there are very few global brands that make for the body shape, size, skin tone of a woman of color. And so, again, we’ve had anecdotal evidence of this, we’ve had people, African Americans or Caribbeans, come into our stores and go crazy. And I’m always like, “Where do you live?” And they say New York or Atlanta. And I’m like, “But why are you buying so much Vivos?” “Because we don’t have a place like this. We, there are very few stores that we can walk into and feel like, Oh my God, this store was made for me. The products here speak to me and at a price point that I can go nuts.”
Darius Teter: It’s exciting, actually. I mean, why not have a Kenyan brand that’s well-known in the U.S. and doing well in the U.S.? I love that ambition.
Wandia Gichuru: And Zara started in a tiny village in Spain, and most people who buy it now —
Darius Teter: I did not know that.
Wandia Gichuru: Yeah. Most people probably think it’s an American brand. No. I would love Vivo to get to that level, not from an ego point of view, but just because I think for so long people see Africa as a place you get your raw materials from and then you do your value add somewhere else, and then you either sell it back to us or wait till you use it and send it back here as a used thing or whatever. And I just think we need to prove to ourselves and to the rest of the world that we’re just as capable, and actually we can come up with solutions and products and services that other people outside of Africa will benefit from and need as much as we do. So in the fashion space, we want to be part of that story.
Darius Teter: Wandia’s story illustrates so much of the entrepreneurial journey. Your success may not derive from your first idea. Being able to learn from your mistakes and pivot quickly is key. I often remind our listeners that Uber started as a limousine service, not a ride-sharing business. And the same is true of so many of the largest companies in the world. Wandia also recognized that as her business grew, she could no longer manage it like a startup. She needed to build a team and systems to get beyond that founder’s plateau. So many businesses get stuck at this crucial inflection point.
Adding a board was also important. It brought a measure of accountability, but also challenged Wandia to be more ambitious and helped her raise capital. And while there was some good luck along the way, I’m reminded of Stanford professor Baba Shiv’s comment that, “We make our own luck.” At every stage of her entrepreneurial journey, Wandia sought out and listened to her customers. And that needs-finding is pivotal. Not only will it give you the foundation you need to grow, it can guide your strategy when you’re in new and unfamiliar territory.
Whether It’s serving an overlooked population or combating fast fashion or igniting pride in African craftsmanship, Wandia is focused on growing her impact, not just her bottom line. Even now, as she sets her sights across borders and oceans, she’s thinking about what expansion makes possible at home in Kenya.
Wandia Gichuru: But I think the “why” for me is also really important. Because you can have all these revenue goals, expansion goals, but it’s sort of: What are we trying to do and why does this matter and how are we trying to be part of changing this industry and lifting this economy and creating employment and giving people more dignity and generating livelihoods? I mean, to me, it’s so much more than getting to 30 stores. I want to see a Kenya and an Africa where anyone who’s buying secondhand clothes is doing it by choice, not because they have no other option. This shouldn’t be the only way that 80 percent of Kenyans can get dressed. All that tells me is that people don’t earn enough money. And so we need to get people earning more and having more choices. One of the biggest challenges that we face in this part of the world is the fact that there is so much unemployment and so many young people who come out of school, and if they’re lucky, they go to university and even those come out and don’t necessarily find any employment.
And right now in Kenya, we have 4 million unemployed people. And so the same passion… The reason I went into development, international development, whatever, was because I want to see a world where more people have easier lives, have opportunities, have fulfillment, and now — this is so tiny in terms of its scale — but I still come to it with the same sort of purpose. And I think where I’ve landed now is because I’ve realized, I know what potential the fashion industry can have to transform the economies on this continent if we just recognize the pieces that have to come together. Because making clothes is still one of the most labor-intensive manufacturing processes. Actually, making fabric, you don’t need that many people; 90 percent of it is done by machines. But they haven’t found a way for robots to stitch clothing. So you must hire people. That alone is, to me, a huge opportunity.
If we made more of the clothing that Africans wear on the continent, we could hire so many more people. And it’s not just the people producing behind the machines, but it’s the designers, it’s the cutters, it’s the bundlers. I mean, there are all these stages. It’s the people who create the content, it’s the models, it’s the makeup artists, it’s the photographers. I mean, there’s just an entire industry that I believe could contribute a significant percentage of our GDP. And so I see ourselves as warriors for economic growth as much as we sell clothes, but underneath that…
Darius Teter: I love that.
Wandia Gichuru: Yeah.
Darius Teter: I want to thank Wandia Gichuru. You’ll be hearing more from her in an upcoming episode. This has been Grit & Growth from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I’m your host, Darius Teter. If you like this episode, follow us and leave a review on your favorite podcast app. Erika Amoako-Agyei and VeAnne Virgin researched and developed content for this episode. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator, and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media. Thanks for joining us. We’ll be back soon with another episode.
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