Genteel is creating a fashion technology company from the slums in Kibera and Nairobi

In big cities with diverse tribes and multiple nationalities, there’s nothing quite as breathtaking as cultural festivals, which bring various forms of creative expressions to life. People have many ways to display their cultural heritage. Two entrepreneurs from Nairobi, Kenya chose Genteel’s sprawling beauty as a way to showcase their cultural heritage.

This could be a story about any other creative brand, but, as you would soon discover, the startup is making a big statement in Africa’s creative industry, which still has so much unrealised potential.

Depending on the sources you trust, the global creative industry, which includes fashion, film, and TV/radio, stands at a massive $2 trillion – $3trillion. The fashion industry is responsible for $759 billion. TV/radio comes in at $374 billion. 

From the sparse data on Africa’s creative economy, we could see that music, deemed one of our biggest exports, generated $101 million in revenue in 2019. Analysts estimate that this figure will rise to $500 million by 2025. The continent’s film industry is worth $5 billion out of a potential $20 billion.

Once again, somewhat surprisingly, fashion leaves the others behind with a market value of $31 billion, according to Afdb’s 2013 figures. While this might seem like a while ago, it’s important to note that Africa now generates $8.8 billion in fashion exports compared to $2.5 billion in 2013.  If the math makes sense, we’d now place the value at $109 billion.

Though these numbers might seem impressive, they were not on Sam Jairo’s mind when he started a thrift clothing business in Gikomba, a huge market for secondhand clothing in Nairobi. He was close to Gikomba, which fueled his interest in fashion. Friends appealed him to start the company while he was studying business technology at Strathmore University.

“My family saw I was interested in what I was doing, so they gave me an opportunity to travel to Istanbul, Turkey, where I technically got the opportunity to start importing clothes into Kenya,” Jairo explains.

Gikomba market.webp
Gikomba thrift store in Nairobi

Genteel saw a problem, and this led to the moment of light. Some clothing would fit, but others wouldn’t; usually, this happened with the tops and bottoms of the same clothes.

“I realised that part of this problem was because most of the items that are imported in this country were made for Caucasian body types. We Africans have broad hips and shoulders, which is not technically factored into the items that are made.”

Jairo was inspired to do deep research on the needs of a fashion brand to realize this realization.

Global fashion conversations have been dominated by brands from other countries. You’d be hard-pressed to find young Africans pining over prestigious brands like Imane Ayissie or Christie Brown when they could chase Gucci.

“I started a journey trying to understand how to create a fashion brand that is not only inclusive but has a distinct cultural identity. I studied two brands, Henry Poole and Gieves & Hawkes, and then I began the process of creating something that is intrinsically African. How can we incorporate African culture into the pieces we already have?”

Brian Baliach was a student who also traded in thrift and Jairo approached him to form Genteel. They wanted to use African clothing to tap into their African consciousness. The brand has since grown in popularity and received heavy validation after making the clothes of Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta. 

Although clothing the president is a newsworthy topic, very few people know how these fancy suits are made.

How Genteel works

Genteel main shop
Genteel’s main store in Gigiri Kenya

Genteel appears to be a classy fashion brand that has a website and a store at Gigiri. The Gigiri area is home to a large expat community in Nairobi. But there’s a whole process behind the scenes that leads from the luxurious parts of town to the slums of Kibera, home to several informal businesses, including tailors.

Since its inception, the company’s informal tailors have been serving a professional brand seeking to offer world-class apparel service for high-net-worth clients.

“If you come in contact with our brand through social media, our website, or Google, you book an appointment. We invite you to visit our store or come to your home to help you choose the fabric. We take measurements, give you a timeline, and ask you to pay a deposit.”

Baliach, Co-founder, and Director of Operations, then steps in.

“We get the information from our team at the shop about the fabric the client has chosen, and we have a database where we store all the measurements. We then use Trello to create cards for each client and organise the work for the tailors,” Baliach explains.

The company then uses delivery services for the shipment of the garments to its customer once the work has been completed.

The company offers custom fittings and also has an eCommerce website that allows clients to place orders for clothing items online. They can receive them within five days. Depending on income class, Genteel’s ready-to-wear products retail for as low as 5,000 ksh ($46) to 143,000 ksh ($1,212).

The startup has begun to compile a measurement database for its eCommerce process. This will allow it to create space for fashion management software.

“We’ll use the data to create a Kenyan size chart. The measurements shown are mostly for the United States and the UK. When you say small, medium, large, extra, it means different things for Africans.”

Anyone familiar with the startup world in other climes would probably ponder the scalability of Genteel’s business model. Contrary to Uber, the tailors are not contractors or freelancers.

A company could build software that connects users with service providers. However, this scenario is not typical.

What would it take to grow the company as fast as startups do?

Jairo admitted that, while the startup is primarily focused on custom wares at the moment, in order to scale, the company would need to concentrate on ready to wear products on their website.

“We would create a finite number of products, market them, and then receive orders through our digital platforms; it’s easier to have that. And it opens up opportunities for distribution as opposed to the bespoke model, which is very highly personalised.”

He maintained that the company had considered the marketplace model, but would prefer to keep the brand’s story and aesthetic intact.

A Kenyan investor, who chooses to remain unnamed, highly supports Genteel’s hands-on approach, arguing that you can only build a quality marketplace model when both ends of the spectrum are sufficiently developed.

“Without the infrastructure and systems in place, what are you connecting to what?” they ask.

Of course, it’s never easy

So far, I’ve not met anyone without terrible tailor experiences, emphasis on experiences. Be it unnecessary delays or clothes that would make other people ask, “Why bother?”, or “Who did you offend?”

You can imagine my surprise when Genteel’s co-founders told me they would take me to Kibera, where they make their awesome apparel.

“We’ve had to canvas the brand of professionalism that exists with informal tailors and try, as much as possible, to give a professional outlook to prevent clients from having to deal with experiences such as unmet timelines,” Jairo poses.

Add to this the fact that neither of the co-founders studied fashion at school. It was a painful learning curve, especially when they had to learn how to deliver solid products to customers while understanding the technical details.

Startups also have to pay for the import of quality industrial sewing machines. They can cost as much as a million Kenyan Shillings ($8,500). Baliach says it has been difficult to raise the capital and funds necessary for more advanced machines. The startup has not been able to achieve profitability due to a lack of investment.

Genteel is able to point out some important wins along the journey.

The startup already had a list of 250 clients and a website listing up to 2,500 clients before it was able to fit President Uhuru Kenyatta on a European trip.

British Council Connect recognized the startup’s efforts and awarded grants of up $25k. It projects to make at least $100k in 2022, up 30% from last year’s haul.

Perhaps most important, the introduction of Genteel in Kibera has benefited some informal tailors’ professional careers. One such tailor, Martin — a husband and father of two — who went into tailoring after finishing secondary school, speaks highly of Genteel. 

“In the process of working, we keep on learning. Here in Genteel, we’ve been working professionally, but where some changes are needed, we do it as requested. Now I don’t have to worry about getting clients; they just bring fabrics and measurements and you arrange yourself to work.” Martin says.

Genteel is a positive influence on the lives and livelihoods of tailors like Martin. However, Genteel plans to continue its focus on manufacturing processes and distribution in Kenya.

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