Eleven years ago, what later became a leading women’s fashion brand in Kenya consisted of several boxes of clothes in Wandia Gichuru’s living room. Vivo Activewear, which Gichuru co-founded with a friend, had begun as an online-only enterprise but immediately encountered a major stumbling block: their customers wanted to try on the clothes. “We didn’t have a store, so they just came to my house,” Gichuru recalls. “My daughters were asking, ‘What happened to our living room?‘ I realized this wasn’t going to work.”
Gichuru and her business partner discovered an available space in a Nairobi mall and nervously signed a lease to open their first retail store. It was immediately a hit. Drawn by Vivo’s leisure wear line at affordable prices, women in Nairobi suddenly had a place to go for clothing previously unavailable locally. The original Vivo store soon became two, and then four, and then seven. Today, Vivo has 21 stores, including its first in Rwanda, with plans to open 30 by the end of 2023.
That success was unlikely for several reasons, including that nobody before Gichuru had made women’s clothes in Kenya for Kenyan women widely accessible. Originally an import business, Vivo gradually transformed into a full-on fashion brand that designed and manufactured all of its own clothing.
Along the way, Gichuru discovered that making and selling clothing had a larger purpose, one that now animates her business thinking. “Now my focus, in addition to running Vivo, is to help other entrepreneurs, and especially women entrepreneurs, develop their own businesses,” she says. “We are still struggling in so many ways, but unless people hear or see someone trying, it’s very difficult for them to imagine what’s possible.”
Although you were born in Canada, you consider Kenya your home?
Yes, my dad was studying at McGill University and my mother was teaching in Montreal. They met at a party and ended up getting married, having my elder brother and me in Canada, and then they moved back to Kenya when I was a baby.
Who were your influences growing up?
I ended up going into international development work and I think to some extent that was influenced by my dad. He was a civil servant, working for the part of the government that gave out business licenses, and he was interested in economic development. After I went to university in Canada and then was able to travel a bit and see other parts of the world, I wondered why things at home were so much harder, and why did we struggle to uplift the lives and experiences of people? That has always been the question in the back of my mind and led me into development work.
You worked for several years for the UK’s Department of International Development. What did your job involve?
I was what they called a governance advisor. I looked at mostly bilateral programs that the UK funded in countries where they were looking to strengthen government systems. You’ve got tens of millions of pounds to put towards a project, so you partner with other governments. I enjoyed it, but I found it a little far removed from seeing how the projects translated to change.
What motivated the change of direction that eventually landed you in the retail world?
I was in my early 40s and I wanted to try something different. I ended up training to become a life coach, got my certification, and then realized that I couldn’t turn it into a business. I found it hard to speak to somebody for an hour and then say, OK, now pay me $200.
I started spending more time dancing and doing various exercise classes, and I realized there was very little available in Kenya to support those activities. You couldn’t buy dance sneakers, for example, they just weren’t available. So, we thought, hey, there’s a gap here in the market. The idea was to create this brand that would be purely online, bring in cool products to do dance and fitness. Within seven or eight months we realized that wasn’t going to work. Everyone would call or email us to say, can I come and try it on?
And your house became the fitting room.
Yes, we didn’t even have offices. We decided to open a physical store and offer more than just the dance and fitness stuff. We wanted to stay close to the original idea, but we ended up picking clothes that everyone just loved because they were super stretchy and comfortable.
We had no idea going in that we were solving a problem, but looking back, it’s kind of obvious. Most clothing sold in Kenya isn’t made in Kenya, it’s all imported. The bulk of that is secondhand but even the new stuff that is available is predominantly designed for a western, Caucasian body type. A lot of Kenyan women would buy clothes and then have to have them modified to fit.
Was that the insight that led you to begin making your own clothing?
The solution was to have stuff made to our specifications, but we couldn’t find factories in Asia that would make small enough quantities. They were like, sure, give us your design, but you have to order 10,000. We wanted to make 50. So, in 2013 we made the decision that we would start making our clothes in Kenya, and that was a game changer.
What did it take to make that happen?
I don’t come from a fashion background. I had to hire pattern makers, tailors, designers, you name it. We had to figure out where to source the fabrics. It was a lot of chaos, a lot of mistakes, very ad hoc in a way. Sometimes I’d hire out of pure desperation — I would literally meet someone for coffee and say, OK, when can you start?
Meanwhile, though, your stores were doing good business.
Our first store did so well that after a few months we opened a second one on the other side of town, and then another, and another. By 2015, we had seven stores and were doing revenue of $1 million a year. But there really was no plan; I didn’t even have a budget. It seems crazy when I think about it now. We were just putting our revenue back into the business and expanding, but without any real direction.
So that’s where Seed came in?
At a certain point I was going a little crazy, thinking, I don’t know what I’m doing here, I need help. A friend of mine forwarded me a flyer about Stanford Seed coming to East Africa. I took one look at it and thought this is exactly what I need. What was interesting is that they not only helped me with scaling the business and creating a plan, but they also helped me see that success isn’t just about making profit, it’s also about impact. I came from a development background, and I wanted to be doing more than making clothes and hiring people. Seed was able to help me see how all these things are connected, that by creating opportunities and generating income and growing industries, you are transforming lives.
And then COVID hit.
And then COVID hit, and our revenues dropped 80%. We had 200 staff at the time. Kenya has no welfare system; there is little direct government support to businesses. So, our top priority was keeping our staff paid. But our revenues had disappeared, so what the hell were we going to do? When it became obvious that masks were going to become a key part of everybody’s life, we pivoted and took all our production capacity and started making masks. Most of them were bulk orders from companies that wanted branded masks. In 2020, we made a million masks. We weren’t making any money, but we had revenue, and it saved us.
Then what is the plan post-pandemic?
Fairly recently, I pulled out the transformation plan that we had developed with Seed and dusted it off. We are back on track. We now have 21 stores; will have 30 by the end of next year. We have a really solid board, and a small number of investors, some of whom I met through Seed. And we now have a second business, an online marketplace, which is Shop Zetu.
Your success also led to an unusual opportunity. Tell us about your experience as a judge on the Kenyan version of the American TV show Shark Tank.
When they asked me, I said, look, I have never invested in any business, I’ve only grown my own business. What do I know? But no one else would do it. Women in our culture are shy to be seen as successful, often because they don’t want to show up their husbands. Finally, I said yes because a woman needed to be on that show. If I have to I’ll fake it to make it. I was on the show for two years.
You’ve talked about the importance of purpose, and how that informs what you do. What is most meaningful to you now that you’ve established a level of success?
What I’m proudest of is having proven that local fashion can be a viable business and is an industry with opportunities. Unemployment in Kenya is 40%, and it’s mostly young people who are looking for work. They go to university and then can’t find jobs. I’ve always seen work as tied directly to people’s dignity. If you can’t earn enough income to consistently feed your family and educate your children, your life will not be simple or easy. I’m excited about the opportunity to create employment, not only in Kenya but in other parts of Africa as well.
Photos by Elena Zhukova