After training in pharmacy and dispensing drugs for seven years in the United States, Makena Mwiraria turned her back on this lucrative career in favour of the arts. Neither the razing of her African crafts shop in the Virgin Islands by Hurricane Hugo nor discouragement from well meaning family and friends could prevent her from following her heart.
Having acquired the then ailing pan African gallery from Alan Donovan and renamed it African Heritage Design Company, Mwiraria is determined to promote African arts, crafts and culture through this organisation that the World Bank once described as having raised African crafts from souvenir trinkets to objets d’art with world-class appeal. In this interview with Ogova Ondego, Mwiraria speaks about her creative vision, her life as daughter of finance minister Daudi Mwiraria, her frustrations with the local daily newspapers and her disillusionment with the pharmaceutical industry.
How did you come to own African Heritage?
I bought it for Sh12 million (about US$150000) from Alan Donovan and renamed it African Heritage Design Company (AHDC) in September 2003.
And how has the going been so far?
We are continuing with the legacy of Alan Donovan and our fashion collection has since been used in Big Brother Africa, Miss Hong Kong–Nairobi, and in various Kenya Tourism Board-organised events in Kenya and abroad. Our gallery at Libra House and shops at the Carnivore, the Nairobi Museum and Karen Blixen Museum are all open and we are doing many new and unique designs.
What attracted you to this type of business instead of sticking to pharmacy?
My love for African arts and culture, I guess.
What skills are you bringing to the art and crafts business from your training as a pharmacist, and from your American sojourn?
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think I have borrowed a lot from the precision of pharmacy and translated it into the arts world where there are no firm and fast rules. When someone orders an item the artist must deliver the exact item ordered and not a variation of it just like one must be exact in pharmacy or the patient will die if you just make a single mistake no matter how small. I also studied art at Ordinary Level. What I have learnt from the US is that there are many ways of doing one thing and that a method is only right if it works for you and wrong if it doesn’t, but it could be right for someone else for whom it works.
Gifted Hands at AHDCGifted Hands at AHDC
How did you raise the money for buying AH?
I sold the condominium I owned in Washington, DC, as I couldn’t get money from any other source. But I could only buy parts of the company starting with the fashion collection, jewellery workshop, and then started to create the rest of the collection from scratch.
What goals did you have as you set out to acquire the company?
To expand our export capacity and to help create jobs for so many talented people forced to live from hand-to-mouth.
How many employees do you have?
We have 96 in-house and hire extra hands whenever we have large orders. If we consider the casual workers, then we probably have several hundreds.
Did you have any fear as you ventured into this ‘unknown’ business?
No. I could see the potential and was determined to press forward despite discouragement from family and friends. I usually go with what I feel because ultimately it is my life and it is I who has to lead it.
Is this not risky?
No, I just knew this was what I wanted to do and I think it is important to be true to oneself and do what should be done
Which countries do you export to?
France, primarily. And we are entering the US market in 2005. Why couldn’t you have started this establishment in the United States that you understood better than Kenya, having lived and worked there? I felt I needed to start from the ground and work my way up. A lot of things on the market were very heavy duty African traditional while the world is moving towards contemporary things.
What types of crafts and artworks make good business for you?
It is difficult to say because it all depends on what we make. If we make Kisii stone, we get very good business from it. Tourists prefer jewellery because it is small, light and easy to carry. Contemporary collections in soapstone, gourd and wood are doing well.
Which type of artists do you prefer to work with?
Craftsmen; they are very exciting because I can have an idea in my head and I can go to them in the morning with it and in the afternoon I can start to see the idea translated into a product. If you give craftspeople freedom to exercise their creativity they create very beautiful items.
Do you face any problem in sourcing your items?
We may face a shortage of soapstone during the rainy season as the mines in Kisii are closed. But this shouldn’t be a problem with proper planning. We also have to finance all our orders despite there being no credit facilities around.
Models in Alluring AHDC Designs
Models in Alluring AHDC Designs
What other challenges do you face?
Shortages of items like gourdsthat grow wild in Ukambani. Transport from Kisii and Ukambani to Nairobi is both expensive and sometimes unreliable. We could start farming gourds in 2006 to ensure a consistent supply.
What are you doing to make your products affordable to the masses?
We offer competitive prices and discount incentives. We have many things that are going for under Sh500 [US$6.25], under Sh1000 [US$12.5], and several others under Sh3000 [US$62.5]. These are things like trays, plates, gift items, carpets, and cushions that you use in your homes. We also give a 15% discount incentive to residents of Kenya to dissuade them from exporting our money on foreign products. People have the mistaken notion that our products are outrageously expensive.
But are they not?
No. The things that drive the prices up are commissions paid to drivers and companies that bring tourists to the shops and for the use of credit cards, and Value Added Tax. Rents and salaries, too, have to be factored into the price to sustain the business.
What do you think about the open air ‘Maasai Market’ concept that offers crafts to buyers on Tuesdays and Saturdays in Nairobi?
These markets were started as the buying points for African Heritage. But as the company went down in the 1990s, these people were laid off and they ended up in the same market and started selling original African Heritage designs.
But the ‘Maasai markets’ could pose competition even to African Heritage Design Company.
I don’t think they can provide products of comparable quality with ours. They lack proper finishing and are unlikely to be as innovative as we are. Only galleries like us can experiment with ideas. We are also making larger items like coffee tables and doors to avoid being seen as competing with struggling artisans.
What do you say about the accessibility, nature of business and the attitude of customers of overseas markets?
When we go to trade fairs abroad, our hosts may dictate terms of business to us. It has been difficult for AHDC to participate in foreign trade fairs though we did try through Export Processing Centre but we were rejected twice.
Is there any other company that does similar business to that of AHDC?
Yes, but I don’t think they match our quality; they are probably responsible for the many African curios, handicrafts, and ciondos (baskets) found overseas but whose quality is questionable.
Which other countries have you been to and what effect have they had on you?
have been to Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Europe although I grew up in Tanzania. Tanzanians are very hospitable and do not elevate money above people. You learn to do things for the love and respect of humanity. I think this philosophy has been inculcated in me. Life is not just about money.
Where would you like to see AHDC in, say, five years from now?
I’d like to see it establish workshops in other African countries where products are made under the AHDC label. We would like to open outlets all over the world in international airports and cities before going into ‘lifestyle’ so that AHDC becomes synonymous with African lifestyle and culture. We would also like to produce interior décor items.
What are some of the hurdles you might have to overcome towards achieving this?
Never look at things as obstacles but as issues to be dealt with. If you start looking for problems before they come, you wouldn’t get anywhere. Although communications, transport and logistical challenges among various nations could be obstacles to contend with, establishing workshops in foreign countries would enable us to deliver orders without having to ship them across national borders.
What is your take on heritage of Africa in the societal aspect?
Our culture has been appreciated and enjoyed globally for so long. Our best artefacts are in museums abroad, while our best artists and musicians are overseas. Africans should be encouraged to embrace their cultures and take charge of it.
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Should Westerners who have taken African things abroad be compelled to return them?
Yes, but only if this cultural heritage is respected, loved, cherished and cared for by the Africans.
Several nations of the world have national costumes: India has the sari, Korea the hanbok, Japan the kimono and Scotland the kilt. Why do you think Kenyans are not embracing the concept of the national dress endorsed in 2004 by the ministry of culture enthusiastically?
National dresses are things that people wear in their daily lives. You don’t have to be told by designers that you should wear them. If you look at the sari, for example, it is worn daily. National dresses evolve.
How does AHDC help in preserving African culture when you sell artefacts, crafts and trinkets abroad?
Most of the things we sell are reproductions or copies of the original works; they are contemporary, things that are made today. There aren’t many things that were made long ago. And when we come across such national treasures we keep and don’t sell them.
What inspires you?
Recognising that my ancestors live through me
Say something about your family background.
I was born in Meru, Kenya, but grew up in Arusha, Tanzania. I am the eldest and have two sisters and two brothers: Mukami, Koome, Stella and Muriuki, in that order.
What are some of the values that were inculcated in you as a child and that you still live by?
My late mother taught me to be true to myself and to follow my heart. So your childhood was a happy one? Growing up in Arusha was wonderful. It was a quiet town without motor vehicle traffic on Sundays allowing us unhindered bicycle rides. We lived in an international setting as my father worked for the East African Community. We had so many clubs at school such that you could go to a different club–Judo, athletics, horse-riding, swimming, mountain-climbing, boxing-each term.
Which schools did you attend?
Arusha Primary School and then Limuru Girls’ School in Kenya for four years after which I went to America. I had wanted to do arts-related courses but I was told I couldn’t earn a living from it. My advisor asked me to try pharmacy as I had very good grades in mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Instead of studying how to dispense drugs I decided to study how drugs are made too. So I ended up with a double major in pharmacy and pharmaceutics. After graduation I went for practical training in the Virgin Islands where I got exposed to screen-printing from one of my clients in pharmacy. I even won a graphic arts award at a crafts fair here.
Wow. This looks like divine guidance, had by now discovered that pharmacy was just another business for making money for drug manufacturers and was not as philanthropic as I had naively assumed while in school. Consequently, I resolved to pursue design instead of selling tablets to people while I was fully aware that they were not good for them.
For how long did you dispense drugs?
Three years in the Virgin Islands and a further four in Washington, DC. But you were not entirely happy. Not when you know the vicious that makes someone to come with a prescription today for one thing and has to return tomorrow for another drug to counter the side effects of the previous drug. And you are just watching helplessly. Could disillusionment with drugs have been the reason why you went into the arts and culture sector instead of opening a pharmacy in Nairobi? Yeah, I couldn’t imagine running a chemist to dispense drugs to my own people who can’t even afford them.
Your father, Daudi Mwiraria, is the minister for finance. How does this affect you?
It affects me in the sense that I can’t just walk to a bank for a loan for African Heritage as I fear what people would say: That the finance minister’s daughter is using her father’s influence to get loans and that sort of thing.
What kind of person is your father?
He is a fantastic person. Since I returned home from America I have derived a lot of strength from him. He believes the truth is stronger than anything else in the world; that people can say whatever they wish but truth will always prevail.
Do you read the reports in the Press about your father whose name has featured in a controversial Sh7 billion (US$87.5 million) Anglo Leasing passport and forensic kit and the Sh6 million (about US$75000) tax waiver he is said to have extended to Njeru Ndwiga, a fellow cabinet minister?I now read only the EastAfrican as reports in the daily papers used to depress me. Sometimes I would read things and rush to ask my dad how he could have done whatever had been reported but he would say, “How can they write that? I am not worried as no one can change the truth.”
Have such reports and your father’s denials altered your perception of the local mass media in any way?
Yes. The way the media have gone so far to the other side is a shame. Maybe they are doing this because this is the first time they have got freedom of expression and have gone wild with it.