Kenyan man starts leather bags for kids business in SA

DURBAN – At school Samson Kabiro became known as “the kid who does cartoons”.

He says he is not sure where that talent came from but as soon as he had a pencil or a crayon in his hand, he would start to draw the faces of his school mates and teachers.

“I used to study their features really closely then I would put it down on paper in a cartoon style. It only took me a few minutes. I had books of them.”

But in the small Kenyan village where Kabiro grew up, there was no such thing as art classes.

“I had to teach myself. I learnt then that if you want to get good at something, you have to practice over and over again until you get it right. When I left school, all I wanted to be was an artist, but that was an impossible dream.”

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A cartoon design. Photo: Supplied

Relocating to KZN, Samson decided that if he could not earn enough money with his drawings he needed to do something with his hands.

“When a friend suggested that with my artistic talents I would make a good hairdresser, it sounded like a great idea. From working with my cartoons, I had learnt to be very observant, so studying hairstyles came easily to me.  Once I had mastered the cutting and shaping techniques and using different types of blades and scissors I offered my services to a local salon where I still work on a part time basis.

Kabiro says the multi tasking artist in him, was always urging him to keep his creative talents alive.

“One day I bought some off-cuts of leather at the market not really sure what I was going to do with them. When I got home I laid them out on a table and started to cut out shapes. By the end of the evening I had made a bag with an animal’s face on it.”

From his prototype Kabiro started experimenting with other styles of bags, and learnt “through a lot of trial and error” how to colour the leather.

“When I started off I didn’t think it was going to be really difficult, but as all craftspeople know if you want to create something that people would want to buy, it has to be perfect.”

The next few months Kabiro improved on his animal designs and sourced buckles, studs and leather sewing and cutting equipment, including special needles and thread.

“I have to admit it took a lot longer to get it right than I hoped, but being a determined person I wasn’t going to give up.”

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Wildlife inspiration. Photo: Supplied

Kabiro says that the first time that he walked along the beach with his bags, people wanted to know where he got them.

“When I told them I had made them myself they didn’t believe me. I managed to sell enough to buy more leather and that’s really how I started with my first range.”

He says his first venture into a craft market place was quite daunting.

“Firstly the people running the markets also thought I had imported them from China. So I actually had to prove to them that I designed and made them myself and that I could make them to order. At last they were convinced, so every month I take my bags to different markets, including Shongweni, Blythedale, Musgrave and Gateway.”

He says children are his biggest customers

“On my first day at the Shongweni market a little girl had seen my kitty bag. She asked her mum to buy it for her. The mum said she would buy it later, but when they come back the kitty bag had already been sold. The little girl burst into tears. I felt so bad so I told her I would make one especially for her at no charge. She came back next week and was all smiles. That was a nice day for me.”

Tapping into new markets, says Kabiro, is the most difficult thing for entrepreneurs like himself. 

“You need the money to travel and that eats into your profits, so you have to manage your business very carefully. I would love to take my bags to the game reserves, because I am designing a range to include the big five. Imagine a special rhino bag that would highlight what’s happening to the poor rhinos. So if anyone out there could give me some advice on how to go about it, that would be fantastic.”

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