Banana Box, one of the most popular handmade stores in Nairobi, will have plenty to celebrate in 2016.
The company is not only marking its silver jubilee, it’s also fresh into the operations of the 3rd retail outlet located at The Hub, Karen, all the while preparing for the launch of its 4th store at Two Rivers Mall later in the year.
As anyone in the sector will tell you, distribution, visibility and therefore market presence remain a tough challenge for artisans. The role that retail spaces such as Banana Box play in the ecosystem can therefore not be underestimated.
While toasting to the company’s various achievements, we took the opportunity to have a long chat with managing director Adam Withey (AW) about all things Banana Box!
CA: Why Banana Box? And why the name?
AW: We founded Banana Box in 1991 with both a social and environmental mission. Our social mission is to continuously seek new ways to unlock the potential of the people we work with.
Environmentally, we are passionate about developing and promoting products made from sustainable materials including recycled, up-cycled or re-purposed elements.
The name came about because in the early days, we used boxes made from banana fiber for packaging.
CA: Who is your core target group?
AW: Initially our efforts were targeted at tourists and resident expatriates. We have since shifted towards strengthening our local market share. As of now, 70% of our revenue is from local retail. It provides us with a more consistent turnover, which is great for our artisans because it creates a regular demand for their products. Our recent focus has therefore been on increasing the number of retail stores that we have and improving on our brand awareness.
CA: Could you speak to the dynamics of running a concept store?
AW: One of the toughest demands on a business like Banana Box is the high overheads, a challenge that directly impacts how we do our product selection. Location in high traffic malls does not come cheap and so we are always careful to ensure that we have a good turnover of products to meet our overheads. If something sits on the shelves for too long, it helps neither us nor the artisan and so we need to keep our range of products interesting and exciting.
Same applies to pricing . It is always a fine balancing act – being able to pay a fair price to the artisan, marking-up so we can cover our overheads and charging what is considered a fair price by the customer. Balancing this is never easy and that is why at times we have to pass on really great products if we are unable to make the pricing work.
CA: You provide a great segue to talk about the artisans/suppliers you work with. How do you go about building relationships that work?
AW: We work with about 100 suppliers and i’m proud to say that some of them have been with us for over 15 years. We strive for relationships that go beyond buyer-supplier and actually consider them part of the Banana Box family. I would attribute our longevity in the business largely to this.
Many of our smaller suppliers live a hand-mouth existence and so we have a policy of payment on delivery. This ensures that the artisan has the working capital they need to sustain production. Sometimes this strains our cash-flow, but we know how important it is in maintaining a healthy business cycle.
We have also been exploring how else we can support the scaling up of our supplier businesses. We have had conversations with finance organizations such as Heva Fund, Kiva, Grassroots Business Fund (GBF) and Myc4 to see what is possible.
CA: From your experience in the sector, what other challenges do artisans face?
AW: Besides cash-flow, I would say the apparent disconnect between artisan and market. We often meet people with a lot of talent and creativity but lacking direction and market information. Trends are changing all the time and it is extremely important for artisans to tap into these trends to fully harness on their potential. We actually see a crucial role for ourselves here because of the consumer feedback we get. We use this information to assist with product design and development.
CA: What advice to the thousands of artisans self employed in the sector?
AW: Every handmade product bears a story that can be told from several angles – the person who made it, the material it’s made from, the creation process, it’s cultural significance and the place it comes from. It is important to be able to tell this story as it forms part of the buying experience, adding value to the product while educating the customer.
Secondly, how and where you source your raw materials for production is key. Make sure that these come from a sustainable, environmentally friendly source and that you are able to ensure a regular supply of good quality raw material that is easily accessible.
Third, be unique. It is important for you to be innovative. Don’t copy other producers.
Follow Banana Box on their Facebook page and wish them another 25 years of success!