Children's furniture maker Funkidz shows the value of retraining (Daily Nation (Kenya))

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  • August 24, 2015
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Early on Wednesday morning last week, I visited Kikuyu town. When I got there, the sun was fighting through the cold July-August mist, penetrating with but a few, lazy rays.

To the southeast Nairobi could barely be seen, sleeping in a valley.

I was visiting Funkidz, a children’s furniture manufacturing enterprise. Unlike many of our furniture-making Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), Funkidz is a one-of-a-kind SME that has invested heavily in technology and breaking through the ceiling of scalability.

Wanjiru (Ciiru) Waweru-Waithaka, the founder of Funkidz, gives me directions the old-fashioned Kenyan way. Stay on your left until you see a small kiosk and turn left to a dirt road, then you will see a PCEA church and turn right. Ok, ok, I can see your car. I neighbour the wall to your left. Just keep on driving straight.

She is standing outside with her supportive husband. Karibu, she says. I tell them that Kikuyu is a historic town and many older residents call it ‘Shesheni’, a corruption of the word ‘Station’, referring to the nearby colonial railway station.

It is famous for its schools, including the Alliance high schools, Thogoto Teachers College and Musa (Moses) Gitau Primary School, named after a local pioneer African who later led the local people into Christianity during colonial times.

There are also many historical landmarks here, including the Thogoto PCEA Church, an 87-year-old masterpiece designed by Scottish architect Bernard Gaymer, and the caves built by Indian coolies. Nearby is the Undiri Swamp. Legend says that if you sunk into it, your body would be recovered in Lake Naivasha.

MASS-PRODUCING HIGH QUALITY

We build children’s brands here, she tells me once we are in her modest office. She has built two complementary businesses here. The flagship is Funkidz, which manufactures children’s furniture. There is also Funkidz Tech, which promotes technology for children, with more emphasis on ‘edutainment’ for home and school.

As part of her public service activities and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), she takes an issue like security and lets the kids build solutions. Using a ‘K superhero’ robot, she is able to let the children have fun while they learn new things through augmented reality.

In some cases she uses animations to teach complex issues to kids aged one to16 years.

The CSR program has seen more than 30 children sponsored from the Kibagare slums near Kangemi to attend the Kidz Go Tech sessions at the Safaricom headquarters.

These children work in teams with those from middle-class areas. Alex, a 13-year old, is one of the wonderful young men who have attended the program from Kibagare village and now goes to Koinonia School in Limuru.

His drawings are detailed and well thought through. He did them not as part of school course work but because he wanted to innovate and create a solution for his home and his neighbourhood.

The furniture side of Funkidz has grown in leaps and bounds over the past three and a half years since it was started. It now has a market throughout East Africa.

It is one of the very few local furniture manufacturers that can mass-produce with exact specifications. This means that some of the large imports we purchase like hotel chairs can be manufactured locally.

Since the factory leverages technology to manufacture its products, the company has greater efficiencies that lower the cost of production. It also means that they can mass-produce for the market and take advantage of economies of scale.

The company has achieved this by investing in Computer (or computerised) Numerical Control (CNC), where computers are used to ensure quality and consistency. One design can be reproduced over and over again, without compromising on quality.

At Funkidz, there is a large printer that can print exact designs (see some of the prints in the next picture) for as many units as the order demands.

SKILLED LABOUR SHORTAGE

The absence of these technologies has held us back for many years. The implication is that we have continued to produce visually unappealing furniture in a subsistent manner, while major organisations import attractive furniture that we could easily manufacture locally.

The downside of this investment is that there are no technicians. At the moment, Funkidz is utilising the labour of expensive engineers from the University of Nairobi to do the work of technicians.

There is an urgent need to train technicians to operate these machines and make Kenya as competitive as the Asian countries. The few technicians working at Funkidz were trained by a German agency through the SOS Village in Buru Buru.

A few others are being trained at Don Bosco Training Centre in Karen, a faith-based enterprise. None of the government polytechnics has labs and equipment capable of imparting these modern techniques of manufacturing.

The labour situation at Funkidz is so bad that Ciiru is considering importing it from places like India. It is a shame that the government is not leading in this game as a strategy for creating jobs for many unemployed Kenyans.

Innovation from young as well as older people is happening everywhere. We must nurture it. We need not look elsewhere to make products for our internal, quality-conscious markets such as hotels and certain high net worth individuals.

We have sufficient market to innovate for locally. This only will happen if we articulate our problems and think of new solutions to deal with them.

For example, simple robotics could help farmers deal with the menace of birds eating crops before they are ready for harvesting. This is problem is pervasive in Africa and as such, scaling such a product will be easy.

NEW, DIFFERENT SKILLS

The world is changing fast and perhaps I need to demonstrate using a recent example. When Sam (not real his name) was moving houses, his five-year-old girl keenly observed their assets.

There was one strange asset, and she sought to know what it was from Daddy. Mummy, her father responded, that was our house phone. House phone? She retorted, with credulity written all over her face.

The father explained that is was a rotary phone. There was a short silence before she asked, But Daddy, how did you send text messages from this thing? Everybody was stunned. The dad explained further that there was no text messaging then.

The rotary phone is obsolete now. It is really a museum item that most families are still holding on to for sentimental reasons. Yet, just like the land lines have disappeared, some manufacturing processes are disappearing too, and manufacturing equipment used in such processes will certainly end up in a museum.

Virtually everything is changing but people have refused to change. Many young people are looking for non-existent jobs when there are plenty of new jobs requiring new, different skills.

These skills are not available locally as the government has not updated the equipment in our training institutions, and our youth are still focused on white-collar jobs. The situation is so dire that the country may need to import the skills required to meet the demands of these new jobs.

RUNDOWN GARMENT FACTORY

The pace of change is such that you may be in school studying history but five years down the road you will be an operations manager for outsourced manufacturing systems.

In the US, it is not uncommon for individuals to change careers, not jobs, at least six times in a lifetime on average. Ladies and gentlemen, we are in an age of flexibility where rigid professional affiliations are being torn down.

Old ways, doing things as our parents used to do them, are no longer guaranteed to put food on the table. Today some of the best programmers never studied computer science in any university. People like Ciiru, having spotted the weakness of local furniture manufacturing, have become living legends of change.

Ciiru is a creative serial entrepreneur. After graduating in Interior Architecture from The Glasgow School of Art in the University of Glasgow, she returned to Kenya and set up a company specialising in Interior Architecture for individuals, hotels and corporate organisations.

Some of her clients included Coca-Cola, which gave her a first design project, dubbed Amber Africa. She later set up a fashion house called Dawn of Creation with the label, “Spice.”

In 2011, she bought a rundown garment factory in Kikuyu and ventured into children’s products under the Funkidz flagship. Having bought a failed textile firm, she is aware of continuous improvement to remain competitive.

REFUSING TO RETRAIN

She wants to develop a global brand like IKEA. Through Funkidz Tech, she hopes to transform education in the African continent experientially, using technology, animation and robotics. These kids, graduates of Funkidz Tech, will grow up and create new innovations for Funkidz Limited.

This creative entrepreneur believes in mentoring young men and women whenever she can, to believe that they can be anything they dream they can be. Their dreams do not have to be small, regardless of the environment they live in or were born into.

She has no fear of doing what it takes to achieve her dreams. Prior to setting up Funkidz, she climbed down from her Architecture high horse and enrolled at the Lutheran Church’s carpentry training facility to learn first-hand, before venturing into the business.

Many people simply refuse to retrain, although circumstances may demand it. Yet, retraining does not mean that the older skills will disappear. If you trained as a lawyer and retrained as a musician, your lawyer skills will still be with you and could even enhance your new music career. Take it from Ciiru – nothing comes easy.

Ciiru exudes confidence, passion and great dreams of changing our Jua Kali (small road side trading) mentality in Kenya and Africa and of becoming a continent of industrialists, both men and women.

She isn’t just dreaming. Many have noticed her passion for change in Africa. She was recently asked to be a judge in a ‘shark tank’-type two women strong panel by the leadership team Acumen, during recruitment for the Acumen East Africa Fellows Program in August.

UPGRADING EDUCATION

Ciiru was also selected by the MasterCard Foundation, together with the African Leadership Academy, to be a judge during the Anzisha Prize week and awards scheduled to take place in South Africa next month.

As a member of Rotary International and being past president of the Rotary Club of Muthaiga, community service is also at the core of who Ciiru is. She wants to make a positive contribution and difference in the world she lives in.

As in every other sector, we must continuously upgrade our educational programs to meet current and future demands for labour. We are lagging behind at the moment.

Industry is ahead of the government in reacting to these changes. It is imperative that government, industry and educational institutions create formal reviews of the state of technology and make plans to catch up.

There is no reason why we should perpetually complain about poverty and unemployment when we can stop them in their tracks through rigorous examination of where we should be as a nation.

Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and a pioneer of the concepts of microcredit and microfinance, once said:

Unprecedented technological capabilities combined with unlimited human creativity have given us tremendous power to take on intractable problems like poverty, unemployment, disease, and environmental degradation. Our challenge is to translate this extraordinary potential into meaningful change.

We must join people like Ciiru in leveraging technology to change our society for the better.