Ikwetta, the Swahili word for equator, is an imaginary line around the middle earth, that happens to pass through Nanyuki, Kenya. It’s also the name and inspiration behind the Kenyan footwear brand that specialises in leather sandals. If an imaginary line could affect the draining direction of water simply by moving it a few feet north or south of it, then how much positive impact could they create with a real brand? We talk to the Co-Founder and CEO of Ikwetta, Varsheeni Raghupathy, on making a footprint in the Made-In-Kenya brand through footwear:
You have an impressive resume. A B.E in Electronics and Communications Engineering from Anna University, and a Master of Science (M.Sc.), Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship from Brown University, to mention a few. How did you gravitate towards fashion and design?
After graduating from Brown, I decided to work with CAP Foundation and use the time to figure out what I wanted to do next. It’s a well-organized foundation that works with youth in rural areas, providing them with vocational training and then they help them get jobs. Thanks to their substantial funding, CAP has done a lot of work in India and Kenya. I was brought in to help set up an entrepreneurship program with their students. While we were brainstorming ideas for the course, the initial intention of Ikwetta started to take shape. That is, to start a footwear business in a very serious way.
Why footwear in particular?
Because apparel manufacturing is quite established in Kenya. And when it comes to leather goods, a lot of people make bags like Lulea by Chesneau and Sandstorm; whose quality is great. When it came to sandals, no one was really doing anything. The shoe industry is a great opportunity for Kenya because we have some of the best leather in the world. Why can’t we take the leather, make the products ourselves -creating more jobs – and export finished products to many more countries?
You only want to wear something if it makes you look good. Sandals are like bikinis for your feet.
So, the other co-founders and I decided to do a little more research on how to make this more of a reality and teach the youth about it. We soon realised that we would need a lot more machines and we would have to create a setup that doesn’t exist here. The best way to raise money for something like that in the Western world is a crowdsourcing campaign like Kickstarter. So, we decided to do it.
You had aimed for $15,000 and managed to get $21,000 from your Kickstarter campaign in 2015, but you waited until 2016 to officially launch the brand. What caused the delay?
We put it down as 2016 since that’s when the workshop in industrial area had been opened. Then we had the task of acquiring machines, but we soon found out that it’s not a straightforward process. They were either too expensive or would only be sold in bulk. So, we had to find a distributor who buys in bulk and then sells individual pieces to small companies. The machines were finally imported into Kenya at the end of 2016. As we setup the machines, handmade production was still going on. We spent most of 2017 training everyone on how to use the machines.
Why was machinery so crucial for the brand?
When you compare the work done in 2016 and the work done now, the difference is evident. It’s the exact same style and leather but how it looks, and the quality of finish has made it so much more improved; thanks to the training everyone has received.
After the successful Kickstarter campaign, you decided to go to Columbia University for your MBA…why is that?
While working on Ikwetta, I realized that I knew nothing about fashion nor the retail industry. Also, that starting a business is not easy and I would need an MBA. The reason I picked Columbia Business school is because it was in New York and we got to closely watch the fashion companies, working and learn from them. Through Columbia, I got to work for Oscar de la Renta and Kate Spade as my first learning experience with the fashion industry.
What criteria you use making these shoes.
It’s all about comfort, looking good and being able to wear it everywhere. Normally, sandals are synonymous with the beach. Why can’t you also wear them to church, a wedding or to the office? So, we decided to identify styles that are versatile, as well as, compliment different types of feet. Because, if you think about it, you only want to wear something if it makes you look good. Sandals are like bikinis for your feet.
How is that?
It exposes your foot. If the fit isn’t good, it’s going to expose the qualities of your foot that you wish to keep hidden. So, we do the best that we can to make them look good on all feet. For example, the Halogen toe cross strap and the Pop n Slide sandals make the foot look slim and slender; and that’s what people want. We also consider the versatility aspect such as with the interchangeable sandals. You can have one style of sandal and have different changeable accessories options to switch out. So, when you travel it will look like you’ve several options.
We only make sandals in 36 to 42 in stock. However, due to demand, we’ve decided to make sizes 43 to 45 in a couple of styles and keep them in stock. So, customers can at least try the style and when they find what the like, we make it for them. We do take custom orders as well and it takes us about two weeks to work on them based on what the current production schedule is.
Are you using the Western standard of shoe sizing or one that is more reflective of your target market?
When we started, we got the standard template (The last – which is like a plastic mold of the human foot that you use with every pair you make). With time and feedback, we’ve taken the last and shaped it to fit the customer profile that we deal with in Kenya; as the basis. The sizing that we’ve come up with and use with all our shoes is different from the one we were using a year ago. It seems to have better response from the customers and we have fewer returns. So, we are getting closer to understanding the feet of the local customer.
Anything in the works for the Christmas rush?
The cork sole collection should be out for Christmas and New Year; so should be the wedges, which are only on display at The Designers Studio and in our workshop in industrial area. And we’re also working on some more bags since we had such great response to the bags we’d done earlier in small quantities.
Flats and wedges with the cork sole?
Yes, the wedges are almost 3.5 inches and the flats have a one-inch sole all over because we’ve also had customers tell us that they don’t like it to be extremely flat. We’ll have varying heights to satisfy different kinds of customers. Another feedback that we’ve gotten is from people who love the sandals but can’t wear flat shoes because of their knees or back. So, we’re coming up with a line that incorporates memory foam which is really good cushioning that protects your knees or back. It will be available as an extra feature for whomever would want it.
High point of the Ikwetta journey
Ikwetta was recently selected by East African Trade Hub to go to a Trade show in Las Vegas. The response was so good that we got sponsored again to go to New York. However, I hope that our high point hasn’t come just yet and that this is only the beginning.
Congratulations! What lessons did you take away from the experience?
At Trade Shows like in Las Vegas, we were surrounded by companies who produce bigger volumes than we do. There was one Vietnamese company that makes 1500 pairs a month and there’s another company from Bangladesh that ships out 20 containers of sandals a day. It was a reminder that we are competing with countries around the world. Thus, we decided that we won’t use the ‘buy our sandals because we need your help’ approach. Instead, we’re pushing the fact that we are using some of the best leather in the world as an incentive.
One of the things that we’d like to do better is hire more women.
Maybe in a few years we may even be able to compete on the price. That has been a challenge on an international level, competing against the big brands and companies. It doesn’t help that we don’t have access to raw materials like buckles and zippers. Or that the local market is filled with imported footwear from China or the Second-Hand Market. Hopefully, that will change in the near future.
After the Kickstarter campaign, do you have any new challenges in mind for Ikwetta?
Apart from getting the brand out there even more, I think one of the things that we’d like to do better is hire more women. Globally, it’s a known fact that the footwear industry is male-dominated. That’s something we want to change by increasing the hiring and training of more women. That’s something that we’re still working on.