Tales from Kisumu: Soi Cate – How a low moment in my life birthed my business idea
The government knows her as Catherine Wanjiru Chelang’a Soi, but her friends just call her ‘Soi Cate.’ Today she is a carpenter and runs her Soi Design Studio from her three-bedroom home in Ogango estate, Kisumu. She specializes in the production of rustic furniture – her pet raw material being wooden pallets.
“I make furniture using recycled wood and wooden pallets in a way that we do not interfere with the natural wood,” she explains during an interview with me at her studio.
Growing up, she wanted to be a radio journalist, even ended up attending one of the renown media schools in Kenya, but as fate would have it she dropped out being unable to raise tuition fees.
Her industriousness has seen her try her hands in many ventures before finding her love for wood. She attempted agribusiness growing and selling potatoes in Bomet, she has run an MPESA shop, and did sales for a phone manufacturer before losing her job.
“My business was born out of a difficult moment in my life. I had lost my job at the phone company and was also going through a difficult time in my personal life. I needed furniture in my house but I did not have money to buy them so I decided to make a seat for myself,” she says.
Soi’s grandfather was a carpenter, when not moving from one town to another with her parents as a child (she went to eight primary schools in Thika, Nairobi and Bomet as her parents kept moving because of work), she spent a lot of time with him and her uncles who also shared the trade. Handling hammers, different kinds of saws and other workshop tools came naturally to her.
But before this moment, she did not know that she could tap into that side of her life to make a living.
“I went for pallets because they were the most easily available materials for me at the time. I, however, had no idea that the one seat I was making for myself would turn out to be a business that would later sustain me and my four children,” says the thirty-six-year-old single mum.
When she made her first seat and posted a photo of it on Instagram, she was moved by the comments she received from her friends, with some asking if she would mind making some for them.
“I know you don’t remember this, but it’s interesting that the first comment on my photo was you telling me you liked it and would love something like that,” she said looking at me and smiling. “Then the comments just started flowing in and I got my first orders that very day,” she continued.
(I was pleasantly surprised by this…I did not remember that bit. Anyway, this is not my story)
“My first big job was Club Da Place, Kisumu. They paid me Sh. 500,000 for a project and after delivering on that a lot more people started taking me seriously.”
“People like my products because they are unique, nobody else is making these kinds of furniture in this market. The fact that I use recycled wood instead of timber allows me the flexibility to play around with a lot of different designs,” she explains when I ask her what makes her work so porpular.
The internet has proved to be a very useful tool in her design process. Pinterest, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram are some of the platforms that she used to check out different designs and also to share her work with other enthusiasts and potential customers.
“Lately though, I have been doing a lot more of original designs. I just sit down and draw sketches until I find something that looks good then I build it,” she says.
She says she gets most of her clients through social media. Her main clients are Kenyans living abroad who mostly buy furnishings for their Kenyan homes and people she describes as “lovers of nature.” Her most selling furniture are counters for bars and restaurants and seats for individuals.
“Not everybody finds this stuff fancy. You have to have the taste for it. You have to love the cracks and the burns,” she explains.
It’s the third year since she started her business and she says what keeps her going other than the passion she has for what she does is the support that comes from her friends whom even though they don’t always buy, consistently leave encouraging comments on her social media posts.
The biggest turning point in her business she says came from attending a BLAZE by Safaricom summit in which she won an award. The business training helped her to properly position herself.
“They helped me to understand my business as a business and a separate entity from myself. They taught me how to handle my finances and keep the business money separate from my own. Previously I would just mix them up. I also learnt how to keep proper records and how to do pitches for clients.”
If there was one thing she knows today that she wishes she knew when starting out, she says it would be the importance of having a properly registered business with all the statutory documents and records in place.
“The banks have money, but they cant give you the money. They just tell you “show us the books.” The day I learnt about that I was able to be given a loan by Equity Bank.”
“I am grateful to Equity for walking with me and ensuring that I am now compliant in that front. They have spent time teaching me how to keep my books in a better way and during this COVID-19 period, they have been pretty much understanding when it comes to my loan repayments.”
Soi currently employs seven people on a permanent basis and regularly hires between five and ten casuals depending on her workload.
Her main challenge is getting good carpenters. Her style is unique and she needs to first teach them how to make her kind of furniture. She says the cost of equipment she uses is also high.
Today, she also works with women from various minority groups trying to teach them what she does and what she has learnt so far in her entrepreneurship journey.
“This is a skill I thought I needed to teach other people, especially women being that this is a male dominated field. I think teaching someone else to do what I do is my greatest achievement.”