Founded in 2016, Kipato Unbranded is a socially conscious jewelry line that aims for high class and quality at affordable prices. Using recycled and upcycled materials from Kibera and Kawangwera, Nairobi-based founder and designer Marta Anna Krajnik creates pieces at affordable prices that both her clients and artists benefit from.
How did Kipato Unbranded begin? What was the motivation behind starting the brand?
You know what? It was so random. I met one of our artists, completely randomly through friends who are interested in the art world within Kenya. My friends were familiar with some jewelry makers and some shoe makers, craftsmen who sold unique things. Not the standard, touristy crafts that westerners consider “African.” When I met one of the artists and saw what he was doing at the time, he told me he wasn’t making enough. So I asked him to bring me some of his work. Let me bring it around to my friends and family. I thought his pieces were great and I offered to help him sell his work and give him 50% of everything I sold. He was happy with the idea and that’s how it all started. Very simple, just like that.
Where did the name “Kipato Unbranded” come from?
Kipato in Kiswahili means income or profit. When I first started working with one of the artists, he asked me for “kipato kidogo,” which is a slang expression for “something small.” In Kenya, I wouldn’t say it’s a tradition, but I’d call it a habit that most people have, which is to have a side hustle. Because it’s such an entrepreneurial space, everybody has their full time job and their side hustle. So that’s why we use that word because they were constantly asking me for kipato kidogo. And that was the main point, to help the artist make a decent wage.
Unbranded comes from the fact that I didn’t want this business to have that commercial feel. We’re not just a business, we’re a social enterprise. We have a huge focus on giving back to the artists and their capacity building. We don’t want to be demand driven; we want to be supply driven.
What does it mean to be supply driven, rather than demand driven?
Most luxury jewelry brands focus on the demand. Our artists can’t make you a million rings in a week; it’s impossible. So these bigger companies end up hiring ten or twenty artists and they set up a workshop somewhere. If you understand Kenya and demographics and politics within slums, that’s never going to work. Because everyone has their own area where they want to work. And they work with certain people that they trust. It’s very, very easy here to get your business derailed. One issue is leakage of your designs. When a commercial enterprise is made up of twenty people who aren’t happy working together in a place they aren’t comfortable in, what they end up doing is leaking your designs everywhere. One day, you’ll go to the market and see your things being sold at a quarter of the price.
I work how the artists want to work. If they want to work in Kibera and Kawangware separately, that’s fine. If they want to hire more people, let them manage the production process. Why not? Let them be empowered and control that aspect of it. I don’t need to be involved. So that kind of model and that way of working, I’m trying to establish. That’s why we’re unbranded because I don’t want it to be focused on the consumer demand side. I want it to be really focused on the artists and changing the way the fashion industry works in Kenya and wider Africa.
Additionally, I don’t want it to be based on export. Traditionally, in the wider realm that’s how it’s always worked. You get nice stuff from Africa and you sell it to the west. What abut people here? What about people that want to have access? And want these things to be affordable? They also want to look nice for the party they’re going to on Friday. So I really want to reverse that. I want to channel the energy basically into generating demand within Kenya and within greater Africa to keep profits here in order to help make the economy sustainable.
How do you generate demand for your products within Kenya?
I think the demand is already there. Basically the Kenyan middle class has tripled and it will continue to grow. There is a huge need for investment in small business within Kenya. It is the sole driver of the economy at the moment. You have other areas that are completely defunct, in part, in part, because of corruption. And money that is channeled into infrastructure or anything else completely disappears. So the only driving factor of the economy is small to medium business. That is where we’ve placed ourselves.
But, it is a huge challenge reaching clients. Everything here happens online, through word of mouth, or through events. So that’s how we’re trying to reach out to Kenyan consumers. We are all over online: Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. That’s how we get people to follow and to reach out to us.
So if a client wants a product, they either call me, text me, or reach out by other means. I do free delivery. It’s quite an easy way to gain clients. There are shopping malls and everything, but nobody goes. It’s so expensive. There’s just not that culture. The rent in the malls is extremely expensive, so it’s not really conducive to small to medium business and entrepreneurs. And it’s not attractive to consumers because the prices are so high; salaries here don’t match. So what we do is kind of like retail outreach.
We also market and sell our jewelry at events. This is in line with this new hipster vibe where people go and spend their Sunday with a DJ and eat street food. So we try to turn up, alongside our potential clients, at these places. And just enjoy the vibe, enjoy being with our consumers. Talking with them and seeing what they like. Honestly being accessible and affordable is how we reach out.
We’re in a few different shops and we’re online. We have an international website and we’re working on launching our Kenyan website. We’ve developed pesa pal (a mobile money tool) on our local website. So everything is available through mpesa. We’re on some discounted online retailers one is called Rupu and we are on Jumia Kenya, another online retailer.
Kipato Unbranded is a social enterprise. How do you define that concept through the brand?
We give 50% of the profit of every piece sold to our artists. The artists are more like our partners rather than employees of the business. The artists reinvest fifteen percent, if they want to see the business grow. And they always reinvest.
For example, we did a happy hour a few weeks back and both the artists attended with me. They don’t have to come at all, but they like to be around. There was one speaker who was speaking about a launch event at the Kenya School of Governance. She mentioned there would be a lot of social enterprises in attendance. I had completely forgotten about it, but Elijah, came to me last week and said, “We have to find this woman, she’s launching at the Kenya School of Governance.”
The artists really pressure me to also expand and do events. They drive the agenda. It’s such a unique model, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. Especially with the amount of income that they receive, then having the ability to get a return on their investment and then reinvest.
Where do your artists come from? What kind of training do they have?
So there are only two artists, Ojiko and Elijah. and one has only completed a few years of primary education. But for Kipato Unbranded, we don’t drop artists because of that. I think other companies make the mistake of dropping artists because they can’t read or write. Our artists are very artistic and dream of designs, and as soon as they wake up, they share their ideas with me. They get inspired by their surroundings, Kibera and Kawangware. Kibera is quite inspiring; it’s a very industrial hubbub. And they are in it and live in it.
They both come from villages in western Kenya and they came to Nairobi looking for work.
Beyond their initial training, Kipato Unbranded has a capacity building goal. We want to take the artists from A to Z. So both learn about the target market and the events we host. The artists invest their own money into the business as well. So we are more like partners, in collaboration. The two of them are at my house at least twice a week. They attend most events. It’s important to me that we collaborate in this way because we want them to develop as artists and as businessmen.
What challenges have you faced working in Kibera?
So many. No electricity. No water. Crime. Time management. Resource management. Disease. The list goes on and on. It’s difficult. The realties you have to deal with here and those that you would potentially encounter in the west… you can’t compare it.
What’s your creative process?
The model that we use is kind of remote management; the artists work where they are comfortable. They both work with other artists as well, mainly because other artisans have different machinery that’s needed for our artists to complete the product from start to finish. There are some products that they can do from start to finish using brass sheets, simple tools, and wiring. But most of our chains are man-made; it’s incredibly work intensive.
How we function collaboratively is we come together to design. It’s totally a collaboration. One of the artists will come to with an idea and I may say no, I was thinking this. So originally with the infinity necklace I am wearing, I wanted the symbol to hang horizontally. But one of our artists is skilled in the craftsmanship; he knows how things will hang due to the weight of the material. So, we end up hanging the symbol vertically and it becomes more aesthetic because of the weight and the gauge of the material. They bring the technical expertise and I bring the trend knowledge. And we merge.
The first collection is very simple, circles and diamonds, made of brass and there are only three colors. We wanted to start very basic and then build on that. With the second collection, the Savannah Collection, we started introducing colors and different materials. We introduced sunshine colors: orange, red, peach. We added bigger beads. It’s quite an organic process, but we do work together. We name all of the pieces together. It’s a transformative process. You don’t really know what’s going to happen at the end.
How does living in Nairobi influence Kipato’s design style?
A lot of people say I don’t even like jewelry; I don’t even wear jewelry but I wear your stuff. And it’s because it’s so versatile; it’s so simple. The aesthetic is we want it to be comfortable, everyday wear, but also classy. Simplicity is key.
To date, what has been your favorite piece to design?
The third collection is a street art collection. In designing it, we worked with one of the art galleries here, the Kuona Trust. There is a huge focus on red beads, throughout the collection. Perhaps, a tribute to my love of the Polish, red poppy flower.
What is next for Kipato Unbranded?
We would love to partner with some ethical trade brands in Europe and in the US. We’re interested in ethically responsible growth and if we were to partner with any other outlets, it’s outlets with a similar vision and mission to us. So we’re looking into how to bridge some of these relationships. And if Ayiba readers have any ideas, for sure we would love that advice!
We are getting more and more into the international market. We’ve done some events in Poland; we have an agent Holland. There’s going to be one in Australia. We want to expand in that arena.
I’m curious to find out what’s going to happen and I’m not sure what will happen. I really want to get to know more about the consumers and their needs. So, I think that’s something we’re going to do over the next few months.