You can’t miss it. In every sleek mall there’s a minimalistic store that breathes the air of safari and adventure. Sandstorm Kenya has come a long way from its luxury safari tents manufacturing days and their success through their leather and canvas creations is a source of inspiration for the fashion industry. TDS meet Mark Stephenson, Sandstorm Kenya‘s Managing Director, to learn more about the kind of ambition it takes to build a company into a world-class Kenyan brand.
You left your home and job for Sandstorm… why?
Because I’d spent 20 years working with brands and I thought Sandstorm had a powerful story and it had lots of potential.
What was their [Sandstorm’s] story?
The fact that as a vertical company, by definition, it was making everything itself from production all the way through to retail. Especially since 10 years ago it was the norm that everything was outsourced. It was a Kenyan company, made in Kenya at a time when everything was being made in Asia. And I saw products that were of an international quality. It didn’t fall into a stereotypical fair-trade sort of niche and had an aesthetic appeal. The fact that I liked the product and the brand, and that there were all sorts of facets to it.
In branding, I’ve worked with lots of businesses and brands in different categories like financial services and beer and fundamentally the products are all the same. So it ends up coming down to branding and the creation of a strong brand to make that difference. But when you’ve got lots of interesting and unique facets to what you’re making or what you do, that job becomes a lot easier.You said something about stereotypical niche, what did you mean?
Well, I’ll put it in another way. We have a strict ‘No Beads’ policy. It’s not that I don’t love the Maasai, but I just think that there is a more contemporary story to be told and I think that if you’re trying to differentiate yourself in a market, you can’t be doing what everyone else is doing. We want to be an international bags and accessories brand that comes from Kenya. We don’t want to be a cultural artefact brand.
You make access to the warehouse readily available to anyone … that’s really rare
I just think openness and transparency is really important. I think the average length of time that the guys have been with the company is five years. Staff turnover is very low. We operate in a free labour market and it’s up to Sandstorm to make it a good place for people to work in.
Isn’t there a risk that people could come and poach your staff?
I spoke at a conference last year called Afrika Handmade on a couple of things. One of the things we touched on was sharing. And I offered details of our supplies, again transparency, so if anyone wants to know where we get materials to make the bags come ask me and I’ll give you some phone numbers. I know I could give somebody one of our fundis, they could go to our raw material suppliers, and they could even purchase the bag itself and figure out how to do it. But I guarantee you, that when that bag is produced it won’t feel or look like a Sandstorm bag.Why canvas as one of the main materials? Is it hardy? Can’t imagine walking through the CBD with it.
It’s a hard wearing material but we like it because it is part of our heritage. We used to make tents so we’ve got an interesting functional heritage. I think that canvas as a material is allowing us now to make products that are much more accessible. So we have this new collection that we launched in December last year called ‘Urban Safari’ which starts at KShs2,500 and goes up to KShs10,000. Its high quality, made for the city. If you did the same thing as a leather bag, it would be two, three or four times the price. We want to be a successful international brand but we also want to be a Kenyan brand for Kenyans. You’ll notice that a lot of the smaller bag making companies do a lot of work with leather but that naturally makes you more expensive and narrows down your market. You’re creating products that are designed for an elite.
Now the thing is, there is an interesting distinction of what exclusive can mean. It can mean special and it can mean to exclude; not for everyone. I don’t want to exclude people, on the contrary I want to bring them closer to the brand. But I also want them to feel like everything that we do make is special.I remember that you said in an earlier interview that “Only the most interesting people will carry a Sandstorm bag”
We’ve had interesting stories affiliated with the bags. Take for example I was talking to a guy who’s got one of our fishing bags and works in Somalia for an NGO. He uses it as his ‘quick run’ bag that’s got a change of clothes, a passport, money, credit cards and other key documents so that in time of crisis he can quickly grab the bag and make a run for it. For a brand, that is a fascinating story and we’ve got loads of stories like that.Funnily enough, I got an email from Jonathan Ledgard, who was the former Editor for the Economist Magazine here, and he’s interesting in two areas. He’s working on urbanisation in Sub-Saharan Africa where they are looking at how drones could help distribute things. So we’ve created a kind of a drone-friendly duffle bag that we’ve done for him just as a test. That’s more recently. Jonathan is also an author and he wrote the critically acclaimed book called “Submergence”. It has been picked up and is now being made into a Hollywood movie. It is to be directed by a well-known German director known as Wim Wenders, starring James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander.
Long before the book was even published, about four years ago, I sat down with Jonathan and we designed a bag for the lead male character of the novel, called James Moore. I did this more for the interest and less for the commerciality of it and you can find in all our stores. So Jonathan’s email was also connecting me with the producer and now I’m sending him some products and then who knows?Two of our bags were given to Prince William and Kate Middleton when they got engaged. Then there was a fascinating gentleman I met at a trade fair last October in Addis [Ethiopia] who loves Sandstorm and it turned out he worked for the American State Department and was an advisor in the Clinton Administration on sub-Saharan African affairs. So yeah, we have more of our fair share of people who have our products. There’s also, for whatever good reason, a lot of goodwill towards the brand. Some of it was here already and some of it has come during the eight years I’ve been here. I think another thing is, and it’s common to many people and brands, because of stories like these and the articles in the media that help to build interest in our products. Then we start to come onto other people’s radars and many people think you’ve been successful overnight. I’ve been working to bring the company to what it should be for over 10 years.
*And we get to see how Sandstorm makes it all look so effortless, as well as, discover what makes luxurious quality in part II of this piece running tomorrow.