Kipato Unbranded is a social enterprise collaborating with Kenyan artists to make markets accessible for everyday jewellery.
by Julia Migné
From Ethiopia to Afghanistan, Marta Krajnik spent years working in the international development sector for organisations such as Oxfam and the UN Environment. For over 12 years, she worked her way through various fields: HIV/AIDS related projects, capacity building, women empowerment and environmental issues.
During her years working in Tanzania and Kenya she became fluent in Swahili and spent her time immersed with local communities. She came to notice that quite a few jewellery makers in Kenya depended on employers to give them access to larger markets which meant that their salaries were dependent on the whims of those employers.
The money they would get often represented a very small proportion of the profits their work generate. Generally aimed at high end luxury stores, their jewellery would end up being sold at an exorbitant price limiting the possibility for everyday Kenyans to buy it.
Determined to offer a fair wage to jewellery makers and to make their work accessible to Kenyans, Marta launched Kipato Unbranded in August 2015. The brand is all about simplicity, accessibility and empowerment and creating jewellery ‘by everyday people, for everyday people’. Made from recycled products, the jewellery is then sold nationally and internationally.
Marta talks to INKLINE about the core values of her company and her engagement to empower women under 25 in Kenya.
INKLINE: How did Kipato Unbranded come to life?
Marta Krajnik: I set up Kipato Unbranded because I wanted to give back to society and I also wanted to do something that was sustainable. Working in the international development world for so long, I knew that the bigger the organisation the more complex it is.
So, I wanted to do something that I knew how to direct and that would impact on people’s lives. But I wanted them to contribute to that impact, it wasn’t given to them, it was something that they were doing on their own and building their futures with it.
Somehow my personal and professional life kind of led me to this point and I really, wanted to help people especially to young women who haven’t had a chance to gain any experience or employment. I wanted to give them the kind of encouragement, empowerment, and confidence that a lot of young women need to succeed in their careers.
We work with artists and do something creative, something hands-on and we do it together. They can have a huge influence on what they want to see people wear. It’s quite nice to be able to design something and then to see someone wear it!
I: How is the company structured?
M: We are five women under 35 running it. So I’m the founder and the owner and then there are four other ladies involved, two of them are Kenyans: Zipo, a designer, and Laureta Madegwa, a legal expert. Elwira, a graphic designer and Malgorzata Suraj , a photojournalist are both Polish. We all bring in different skills. Then there are our two artists: Elijah and Ojiko who work with a whole network of artists so they’re basically the production managers.
I: Tell us a bit more about Elijah and Ojiko
M: Ojiko is based in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, and he is originally a cow herder. He is from Nyanza province, one of the poorest provinces in Kenya. He was trained by various companies before I started working with him. He came to Nairobi in 2005 and started making jewellery. Everything he creates is handmade, he doesn’t work with any machines except some small machines to refine and mould the brass.
He works with an association in Kibera called the Bone Makers Association who take bones from butcheries and refine it, then they dye the bone from which they make some money. We incorporate that to the jewellery. So, besides Ojiko, there are at least 15 to 30 people who also contribute to the jewellery.
Elijah is based in Dagoretti, another big slum in Nairobi. Last week, Elijah got electricity in his house for the first time. He has improved his quality of living thanks to Kipato, he’s moved from a part of the slum that was really soaked in sewage to an area where he has clean and safe water.
He built his house and a little workshop next door and he works with his own people over there. A few weeks ago, we wrote him a cheque which was his first. He’d never seen a cheque before so he was really excited about it! For them we’ve changed their lives dramatically and I think that has a ripple effect on their communities especially with the other artists that they work with.
I: What’s at the core of Kipato Unbranded?
M: We have a very different model than most other luxury companies. Well, we are not luxury, but in Kenya when you make a certain product that you design and you produce yourself then most companies label themselves as luxury and it means that they can export products for five times their normal price. We don’t do that! That’s why our tagline is ‘jewelry inspired by everyday people, for everyday people’.
We wanted to have a jewellery company that everybody could afford so the way of working that we have is very inclusive and it’s very participatory. The artists help us design the actual product, we work together with them and we make the designs and then we sell them and give them access to markets that they would never have, be it local or international. So for them it opens a steady income streams.
I: Is there any aspect of Kipato Unbrandedd that you find especially challenging?
M: Growth! I have a lot of experience in international development but I don’t really know anything about business at all! Also we try to employ young women so our operation team and brand activation team are all young women under 25. These women either are in school or they just finished school, they don’t have any skills but they want to get skills.
They want exposure, they want to network so we’ve really been focusing on capacity building, skill share, and training but that takes a lot of time and energy. We are actually a youth-run business completely so it becomes a bit of a challenge in terms of expertise.
I: What’s coming next for Kipato Unbranded?
M: Actually we’ve got into the accelerator programme called Unreasonable. It’s a US based company which set up a hub in East Africa. So we are going to be involved with that for five weeks and we’re hoping to secure investments. We are going to get a mentor and try and do a lot of the business development.
We also want to do some piloting in different countries. In June we launched in Uganda so we now have a retailer there and we want to explore other markets. We are opening a shop this month in Rwanda and doing an event there. We have agents in NY, San Francisco, Toronto and Tanzania so we really want to engage them and find new countries to expand to.
I: Any piece of advice for the young generation of social entrepreneurs?
M: Work hard very early and lock in those passions early so that by the time you want to compete in the market and actually create something you have a large portfolio of experiences! It’s not a very easy thing to start from scratch and you’ll have to be very confident and passionate enough about something to do it because you’ll have to try out lots of other things and gain a lot of different skills in order to actually be able to carry it out practically.
Julia Migné is a multimedia journalist and wildlife photographer specialising in environmental issues and odd hobbies. She has written for Africa Geographic and BBC Wildlife among others. An endless traveller, she swears that she would visit one country for each letter of the alphabet.