WHEN A VISION FOR AN ENTERPRISE CAN’T LET GO

Priscilla Muchinyi, founder, Salibra the African House at her shop.
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The remarkable story of Priscilla Muchinyi proprietor of Salibra the African fabric House

By Whalley Nduta

African fashion is something that holds a special place in Priscilla Muchinyi’s heart. A sight of an African design turns on her creative engine. She would look at a good fabric and the design best suited to it would immediately pop up in her mind. Priscilla Muchinyi is the proprietor of Salibra the African Fabric House which deals in tailoring African wear as well as all types of designs that can be tailor-made.

Hers has been a long journey of zigzagging between formal employments and running tailoring business on the sidelines. Like a recurring vision that never lets go, her passion for designing clothes never flagged. If anything, it only grew stronger.

The genesis

It started in 1986 in Mombasa where she had enrolled for a six-month tailoring course. Inclined to do things with her hands, after three months she was so good at making clothes.  She therefore decided to call it quits. From her point of view, the lessons were becoming monotonous. Furthermore, it was not necessary to squander another three months yet she had mastered the skills. It is this relentless clarity that would see her start businesses again and again despite setbacks.

In the following year (1987), she moved to Nairobi. By this time, she had young children who kept her fully occupied as a house wife. Noting her limitless enthusiasm for needlework, her husband bought for   her a digital sewing machine; the very first ones in the market back then. With the new machine, she launched her sewing right from her kitchen table. She would make designs from the house for friends. By word of mouth her happy clients would refer their friends. Gradually the business picked.

Come 1988, she resolved to scale up. So out she went to look for clients within Nairobi.Armed with nothing except passion for designing clothes, she would walk into a boutique. “I was very green in marketing. I could walk into a boutique to just talk to people, I could buy fabric and make children’s clothes,” she happily recollects. Her designs were so appealing that soon boutique owners would request dozens of clothes. Understandably, the growing orders overwhelmed her only sewing   machine. She would start stitching as early as six to meet deadlines. It was at this point that she began thinking of opening a tailoring shop.

Some of the items on display at Priscilla Muchinyi’s shop.

In 1991, a friend introduced her to a programme   that was going on between Government of Kenya and the Directorate of Industrial Training (DIT). Not one to miss an opportunity, Muchinyi quickly seized   the opportunity with both hands. The programme   was aimed at training women in the East African region in textile design, weaving and leather work. In order to enhance learning, the women were taken to several exhibitions for benchmarking. Out of these experiences, Muchinyi learnt marketing and how to apply it to her craft.

No sooner had she left the programme   than she landed a formal job as a secretary. Around this time second hand clothes (mitumba) started flooding the market. The advent of second hand clothes forced her to find ways to make ends meet since it was becoming hard to compete. She had a brief two-year stint before resigning due to her son’s illness. He   unfortunately passed away in 1998. After mourning the loss of her son, she took another job at the Canadian High Commission for two years before joining the USA refugee programme in 2000.

TEAMWORK: Priscilla Muchinyi, proprietor, Salibra Fashions, Betty Wekesa and Walter Jared.

Taking a plunge

All this while, her love for stitching kept on growing. “At the back of my mind, there was still the tailoring aspect, something that I loved, I could not ignore it any longer,” she says. Tired of letting her passionfor designing die, she opened   a shop in Umoja in 2013. All went well in   the beginning, and then the business collapsed since she was travelling a lot.

Being a believer in never giving up, she again opened a shop in 2015 and employed tailors.  Nevertheless, since   she was not around most of the time, the business faltered again and closed. Around this time, she had opened a branch in Kisumu which managed to keep going thanks to loyal customers. When Covid- 19 hit, she had no choice but close all her enterprises.

Lessons

The two business failures offered her   lessons   on how to   run   a successful enterprise. Worth noting is that, when a business is taking off,  it needs close supervision. Keeping up with the trends, she recently opened a shop in the Eastern part of Nairobi that sells ready- made clothes. “We had to move to something different and do business in a different way,” she observes noting that the shop’s business is   encouraging.

Early on,   some boutiques used to copy her designs.  One time, she pitched to a boutique owner colourful designs of baby clothes.  Before long, the owner had instructed his tailors to make baby clothes modeling on her design. It was discouraging and frustrating, she says. Nonetheless she soldiered on.

“It has been a journey of disappointments as well as achievements,” she shares.  In the process, she has learnt the importance of tracking progress of one’s business. “Costs should be monitoredon a monthly if not daily basis,”   she suggests. Just like management gurus infer that what gets measured gets done, Muchinyi has come to appreciate the need to measure progress.

Another key lesson that she has learnt is meeting clients’ timelines.  “If a client needs her clothes made by a certain date, it’s of utmost importance to honour the promise,” she remarks.   “Being straightforward with clients will also enhance their retention,” she adds.

Customized accessories.

Road ahead

“In a few years’ time,   I would like to do more online sales and to grow my brand,” she opines hinting that she is in the process of recruiting more staff members.  Additionally, she is looking forward   to increasing   sales via online marketing. Despite technological changes she opines that, “designs keep on repeating themselves.”

Her advice to entrepreneurs   interested in venturing into tailoring: “First identify what you really want to do. Use your mind and be creative. Before you open a tailoring shop, resolve whether you want to make ready-made clothes or want people to bring you material. What machines you are going to buy and the people you’ll work with. Start by testing out children models and don’t forget to pick a good location.”

Beyond work

Hobbies: Creating designs, travelling, cooking and meeting new people.

Strengths: Creative thinker who can make beautiful patterns with fabric.

Marital status: Happily married.

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