In 2009, Wandia Gichuru decided to quit her high flying career as an international development advisor and return to Kenya.
After 20 years working for various international banks and development institutions like Citi Bank, World Bank and the Department for International Development, she no longer found life moving from one country to another thrilling. What’s more, she had two daughters whose lives she needed to stop disrupting with the demands of her fast-paced corporate life.
“We were doing projects to make people’s lives better but I did not like moving around every two years, especially with young children,” she says.
For about a year she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. Being in her mid-40s, she went through what seemed like the classic midlife crisis, filling her days with dancing, fitness and yoga.
It was then that she linked up with a friend to start a retail clothing business that would offer comfortable casual wear for the sporty woman and official clothing for the professional woman. They ended up starting Vivo Activewear in 2011.
Without a clear business plan or strategy and money from their savings, they initially envisioned Vivo as an online brand shop to compete with established local and foreign brands that dominate space in malls. They threw themselves into the deep end.
Wandia has a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Born of a Kenyan father and Canadian mother, she spent her early life shuttling between Kenya and Canada for her education until she graduated from university.
Her father was one of the Kenyans who benefited from what came to be known as the Tom Mboya airlifts of the 1960s, when young bright Kenyans were sponsored to study abroad just before and after Independence.
As the region grapples with the issue of secondhand clothes, known as mitumba, one business has set its sights on making off-the rack, fashionable, affordable new clothing for the discerning buyer in the region.
Vivo Activewear is a Kenya-based clothing retailer operating eight stores in major malls in Kenya, having started out with one shop in 2011 at the Junction Mall in Nairobi.
One of the two founding partners, Wandia Gichuru, says: “We did not have a plan of what it would become or imagine Vivo would be what it is now.”
Vivo, a Latin word meaning “in the living’’ was founded out of a love for dancing and fitness. And the choice of name reflected this and easily spoke to the brand.
Back then, the Vivo Energy brand had not launched in Kenya and neither had the Vivo phones hit the market.
“Vivo came at a time when I was in transition in my personal life,” says Wandia, adding that the first shop was a small space that luckily enough was strategically located and played a significant part in launching the brand.
Entering the fashion-cum-retail clothing segment at a time when Kenya and the region in general were experiencing an influx of leading foreign brands and local traders were flooding the market with imports from China, Turkey and Italy, meant that Vivo had to bring on board a unique proposition.
Critically, though, Vivo needed to clearly define its brand and clientele, and find ways to corner a piece of the market.
So the owners came up with a profile of the ideal client: A professional woman, in her mid-30s to late 40s, well-groomed, seeking fashionable, comfortable and affordable clothing at a convenient shopping location.
The brand was then built on this personality. “We want women to look good but also be comfortable without breaking the bank,” says Wandia.
However, the reality was far more complicated. The pieces sell for Ksh3,500 ($35) for a fitting dress made of comfortable stretch fabric.
Considering the wide variety of designs available in the market, and the fact that majority of the brands in the region are not designed with the East African woman in mind, Vivo settled on using stretch fabric, to offer the luxury of comfort and looking good.
“The idea of buying a designer dress and having it adjusted to a proper fit is not appealing,” says Wandia, adding that no one wants to pop a button or rip a seam after a hearty meal.
A fitting clothing item ultimately is meant to feel good and boost the wearer’s confidence.
While initially Vivo imported its clothes from China and Thailand, Wandia was alive to the fact that this was not sustainable and did not entirely differentiate Vivo’s products from those of it competitors.
Generally, women hate wearing clothes that are also being worn by other women (the worst fashion disaster is walking down the streets and meeting someone else wearing the same outfit as your), therefore Vivo had to offer unique pieces to build a formidable brand.
It was for this reason that within two years of the start-up, the brand ventured into designing and manufacturing its products in Kenya.
“Setting up a design and manufacturing unit of the business gave us more freedom to create what clients wanted,” Wandia explains.
Unlike other retailers who opt to manufacture in China, Vivo has chosen the less travelled path to help grow the Kenyan textile industry.
The challenge is in sourcing the fabric, which must be imported from Asia, Turkey or Mauritius, because local textile manufacturers do not produce stretch fabric.
But Wandia is optimistic that the ongoing revival of the cotton industry will eventually result in the availability of a wider range of locally manufactured fabric, something that must be encouraged by phasing out the importation of mitumba.
“Mitumba imports have messed up the textile sector in the region. Ultimately, Kenya will have to emulate Rwanda and ban mitumba. The bottom line is a question of human dignity,” she notes.
Currently, Vivo has 12 shops in major malls in Kenya and plans are underway to open up to three more this year.
Moreover, apart from manufacturing 65 percent of its products locally, it is targeting 100 percent production in a few years.
The brand’s visibility is high on social media, and Vivo is focusing on e-commerce as the driver of growth.
As part of its expansion plans, Vivo is already experimenting with chic everyday African wear segment to cash in on the rise of African print fabrics such as kitenge, lesso and Ankara.