An In-Depth Interview with Valerie Muigai of Kijani Baby
By Erin O'Connor | Mon Jul 05 2021
For more pictures from Kijani, download our recent Impact Report, and read an abbreviated version of the following story called “Fighting for Women’s Jobs Amidst Uganda’s Strict Lockdown” on page 19 of the report.
When the COVID-19 crisis nearly shut down Kijani Baby, the Uganda-based reusable diaper company persisted through every roadblock, ultimately increasing local business, maintaining production and ensuring staff employment and safety, while adhering to regulations amidst one of the world’s harshest lockdowns.
Before the world barely knew of a pandemic, Kijani Baby was facing the first of many hurdles. Fabric production in China and imports were halted, abruptly cutting off raw materials for Kijani’s production. Soon Uganda’s very tight lockdowns and transport restrictions paused local operations and sales, while international border closures followed, impeding the business’ ability to fulfill export orders—just as demands for reusable diapers skyrocketed around the world.
Around every corner, Muigai and team found a creative and resilient solution. When public transportation was banned, they kept the workshop open with staff who lived in walking distance. When private transport for delivery was halted, they shifted to a local online delivery service. When airlines shut down cargo flights and halted exports, they trialed new ways to move products with DHL. “Everyone on the team stood their ground to make sure that the business came out alive on the other side of the pandemic,” Valerie said. “Now it is exciting to see that growth has picked up again, and we can continue to hire more women, expand our production and expand our brand.”
Here’s what Valerie had to say during a recent conversation.
How did you and Kijani experience the pandemic?
It was quite a year. For us in Uganda, we heard about the pandemic from China because that is where we bought our fabric. Quite quickly, the hardest lockdowns in the world came to Uganda. Thankfully, we managed to keep our workshops open because many of our staff lived within walking distance.
Even while operating legally, we were stopped by police while dropping our products to our customers nearby. Around April, our suppliers in China became operational again but before then we were working on keeping the company alive and people paid. April to June, we had very low sales. We had to figure out a way to push out the delivery of our items and push out our inventories.
We didn’t let go of our staff. Tailors are paid per item so our costs decreased of course, but we didn't have to let go of anyone. I was always in the office where we taught our staff about COVID, gave everybody masks and sanitizers, and worked to keep everybody safe. Even if there was fear at first, we managed to keep everybody employed.
Does the term “standing ground” mean anything to you in light of your 2020 experiences?
I am a very determined person and quite optimistic, so every time restrictions came, I remember saying “we can move through anything.” But there was a time when basically nothing was working. That was when our air shipment had been sent back to us, private cars had just been banned and shops had just been closed. And I remember feeling like I had to lower my expectations. January and February 2020 were really great months for us; we had a lot of plans for growth, but I realized I needed to shift my priorities from growth to survival, and growth would come afterward.
I don't think there was a time we really considered shutting down. We were all determined to find a way to get through this and stay alive. People needed to keep their jobs. And so many people with day-to-day work had lost their jobs. It was so important for us to make sure that our people kept a source of income during the pandemic, and to make sure that we protected the business so that they can keep a source of income after the pandemic. Those were the two goals that I thought of. Growth doesn't matter right now -- we have to 1) stay alive and 2) keep our people paid. In those few months, everybody on the team pulled together to make sure we continued operating. It wasn’t only me, but the team did stand their ground to make sure that we came out alive on the other side. Not alive as people, but as a business.
What was your biggest personal challenge?
Keeping everything together. I have three kids homeschooling at home, my husband was stuck in the UK and with the uncertainty of the restrictions, I had to keep the business going. I had to be optimistic for my family and employees and not show this side of me just to keep them going.
What was your biggest lesson from 2020?
The ability to think quickly, change plans, find a way to make things work; this was felt throughout my team. Persistence and creativity. The year put challenges into perspective. I have been running Kijani for six years, but the most challenging times were the first three months of COVID. I hope the future challenges don’t change life as this one did, but it gave me and my team more confidence that if challenges come, we can find a way to go through them.
What’s Next for Kijani?
It's exciting to see that growth has picked up again. We are excited to see that we can build the export market, especially in the UK, with our brand story -- that the products are made by women and women are paid well, and the product is reusable. I want to hire more women, expand our production and expand the business.
Disclaimer: This blog is provided as a recounting of the IAN’s and RENEW’s interactions with Kijani and the happenings at Kijani. This blog is not intended as performance data related to the IAN’s investment in Kijani. Information about Kijani pertains only to Kijani and is not indicative of other companies in the IAN’s portfolio or the performance of investments in them. Any discussion of the performance of Kijani or its social impact is no guarantee that such performance or impact will be realized by other IAN portfolio companies or other investments managed by RENEW, now or in the future.
Renew Capital is an Africa-focused impact investment firm that backs innovative companies with high-growth potential. Renew Capital manages investments made on behalf of the Renew Capital Angels, a global network of angel investors, foundations and family offices who seek financial returns and sustainable social impact. For the latest on investing in Africa, subscribe and follow us at our social links below.