The Best of 20: Kenya’s Contemporary Craft and Design Brands
As the dates for Afrika Handmade Symposium draw closer, we take a look at the best of contemporary craft and design made in Kenya. These brands have in many ways defined the local and regional landscape of the contemporary handmade sector. Curating this list was challenging as we are aware of so many equally great brands that are constantly challenging the status quo. It is therefore not conclusive. What it is however, is a celebration of innovation, creativity and the ultimate expression of self.
1. Buyu Collection
Developed by Kenyan entrepreneur Jeffrey Kimathi, Buyu is a timeless collection of travel luggage and accessories. Elements of heritage and modern design fuse to create a robust collection of pieces that stay true to the culture of luxury handmade. Hand woven using naturally dyed fibre from the baobab tree, the bags are created for the individual looking for a brand that speaks not only to the classic aesthetic but also to rugged functionality.
2. Pendeza Weaving Project
Set up 33 years ago, Pendeza Weaving is based in the lake side city of Kisumu. From its humble beginnings, the project has over the years earned itself a remarkable market position – that of leading producer of premium home and fashion accessories made from organic cotton, wool, mohair and silk. The project also upcycles the water hyacinth to create floor covering in various sizes.
3. Ali Lamu
Named after one of the founders, Ali Lamu the brand creates an ecelectic collection of bags from recycled dhow sail or ‘tanga’ as it is known in Kiswahili. The story of how the brand came to be is a romantic one, and speaks to the deep attachment the founders have for every product they create. More recently, Ali Lamu has began to experiment with an assortment of home accessories including wall decor.
5. Bush Princess
Every thing about Bush Princess leather bags suggests luxury- from the choice of color and form, to the packaging and overall presentation. With all production being carried out by hand, Bush Princess has taken the standards of Kenyan design and craftsmanship to a whole new level.
6. Unity Makers
Displaying impressive versatility, furniture pieces from Unity Makers are a testament to how design aesthetics cleverly transform basic items into collectables. Painstaking attention is given to every product, and one can see and feel the pride and commitment to excellence. We also love that they have a downloadable wood guide on their site.
7. Kapoeta Designs
Brainchild of Ambica Shah, Kapoeta has over the years teased the imagination with displays of daring creativity. With unparalleled skill, she assembles feathers, leather, brass and semi precious stones into stunning one-off pieces that are a clever fusion of trend and timeless.
8. Amani Ya Juu
With textile design becoming a rare skill in Kenya, Amani ya Juu is a gem in the world of contemporary craft. Using techniques such as screen printing, tie & dye and batik, Amani ya Juu creates vibrant swathes of natural fabric that can be purchased in rolls or sewn into fashion accessories such as this ‘Safari On The Go African’ bag [above]. Set up in 1996 as an NGO, Amani ya Juu supports marginalized women through mentorship in quality workmanship and ethical business practices.
9. Savannah Chic
Très bien. This is the phrase that comes to mind when describing this brand. Founded by mother and daughter team Charu and Shruti Patel, Savannah Chic jewellery takes global design trends and gives them a local twist by utilizing readily available raw material and skill.
10. Kenana Knitters
Located in the rich agricultural town of Njoro, Kenana Knitters is a women’s cooperative with nearly 300 women who make animals- famously known as critters-, cozy blankets and throws from natural wool. Boasting a product range of roughly 250 items, the group is currently exporting to more than 10 countries around the world, all the while creating real impact within the community.
11. Zanji Art
Once described as the ‘slum jeweler’ by CNN, Njee Muturi, the brains behind Zanji Art has become a household name with his niche one-of-a-kind form of craft that recyles old cutlery into wearable fashion accessories. Indeed, so unique is his work, we are yet to come across imitations.
12. Euphrasia Centre
The kiondo or traditional basket has been a feature of the craft economy for a long time and is perhaps the best example of how traditional and modern trends come together to create contemporary design. Euphrasia Centre, set up 22 years ago within the Mukuru slums of Nairobi, is a group of women who have mastered the art of modern basket weaving by combining the flavour of days gone by with the demands of today’s consumer. Attention to detail and experimentation with just about every color, shape and size makes this women’s group a favourite when it comes to basketry.
13. AfroDutch Paperstone
At first glance, it is difficult to determine what the raw materials of these products are. But on closer inspection, one realizes that the seemingly fragile-looking items are really quite strong and durable. Using recycled paper and basic moulding, drying and dyeing techniques, AfroDutch has developed an impressive range of home decor items including lamps, bowls and vases. Run as a partnership between Ruth Jepchirchir and Henriette Oldhoff, AfroDutch products are a refreshing addition to the spectrum of handmade goods in the market today.
14. Niro Collection
With the tagline ‘product designed to color your world’ Niro Collection has surely lived up to this expectation. The brainchild of design entrepreneur Jacinta Kioko, Niro Collection has consistently pushed the envelop when it comes to the ubiquitous soap stone. By keeping her pieces small, light and in an array of colors, Jacinta’s suprise element comes in the way she combines her main medium with wood and metal and glass.
15. I am I
It is fair to say that designer Ami Shah is literally the breath of fresh air the jewellery subsector desparately needed. Her label, I Am I, is bold, daring and certainly not for the conservative personality. She recently showcased at the Festival for Fashion and Arts [FAFA] 2014 platform and the rave reviews she received are indicative of her brewing success.
16. Kinanda Pottery
When it comes to pottery, there are but a handful of workshops in Kenya that can claim to produce ceramics that match up to the quality standards of Kinanda. Keeping the colors muted and design motifs classic, Kinanda has effortlessly led the pack in this subsector that is yet to reach its full potential.
17. Katchy Kollection
What started off as a hobby for Anthony Mulli [the brains behind Katchy Kollections] is now a thriving enterprise employing several dozen people. With a growing local clientele, Katchy Kollections has with equal measure managed to capture consumer interest in far off destinations including Germany, the UK and the US. Katchy Kollections also owns the brand ‘Jiamini’ which translates to mean “believe in yourself’.
18. Pinkopallino Design
Lead designer Jutta describes her work as ‘design choreography’, and it is easy to see why. Working mainly with iron, Jutta aims for supple fluidity thus muting the metal’s rigidity and cold and hard edge. Her creations are mainly bespoke, which might as well be the case. They are not for the conventional home.
Funky, functional, furniture. Available in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, Funkidz specializes in user-friendly furniture for children aged between 0-16 years. Every last detail is designed and manufactured locally. Run by serial entreprenuer Ciiru Waweru-Waithaka, the enterprise has made a name for itself as the first of its kind to go regional in less than 5 years.
One of the most under-represented subsectors within Kenya’s craft economy is men’s accessories. Brand designer Gladys Macharia is keen to change that with her range of cuff links that combine stones such as Obsidian, Opal and Turquoise with recycled brass. Keeping her style minimalist and designs classic, Loyangalani goes a long way in proving that Kenya has the resources, skills and know-how to compete with the best in the handmade sector.