Kitenge designer stitching together a business empire

Apprentice tailor is winning over Nyahururu with her African designs

A bale of beautiful African print materials are ready to be measured, and fit those ready to sparkle. Her sharp pair of scissors cuts through a neatly drawn curve. Her measurements precise, so accurate, probably to make things perfect to please her customers.

“I can comfortably handle ten orders in a day and I think this is what makes Maalin Designers different from other vitenge lines,” says Agnes Ngatia, the proprietor of the Nyahururu based clothing line.

For five years now, the 39 year old Ngatia has been working so hard to establish her business empire.  “I started as an employee at a tailoring shop and my pay could only pay rent and afford food for my young family then,” she recalls.

“Armed with only three pieces of fabric, I decided to venture on my own, making clothes that attracted customers who I purposed to please and keep,” she said.

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She is pleased that the Kitenge business has never let her down since it is a preference to many Kenyans of all walks of life.

“People really love our work and particularly the use of Vitenge fabrics in embracing our African root in dressing,” says Ngatia.

Maalin begun as a small tailor shop that could only handle few orders. Her small income, could not also allow her to neither expand nor employ an extra hand to help in her delivery.

“I decided to start my own shop from what I got from my salary, After two weeks I got an order to mend curtains, the profit I got from them added my stock and was able to employ two employees and the customers who trusted me with their deliveries contributed to my growth and as at now I have employed three more.”

Agnes Ngatia.

A customer walks in freely and places an order, with the promise of a week’s delivery; the soft spoken tailor swings into action, quickly takes her measurements and draws the preferred design against the records in a large pre-printed design book.

She then proceeds to write a receipt, receiving the down payment the customer places.

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She sells a complete outfit at between Ksh3,500 and Ksh4,500 if the client purchases the material from her shop and at an average Ksh2,500 if the client brings his or her own material.

“I prefer a customer chooses his or her own design as this has grown my knowledge on different patterns while challenging me to invent more. But if the client does not have any idea of what cloth fits best I come in and chose a design,” adds Ngatia.

A display of Kitenge clothes ready for sale at Maalin Designers in Nyahururu town Laikipia County. PHOTO: Agnes Kaninah/KNA

Her work drive is faithfulness and commitment to her clients. Her approachable personality draws customers and admirers of her work in equal measure.

“I handle my clients with the virtue of faithfulness and commitment and I believe they trust me because I deliver their goods on time and never let them down,” she says.

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The mother of three notes that in Ruracio (cultural bride-price ceremony), vitenge are fondly worn as they symbolise African heritage.

Kitenge is mostly worn at ruracios compared to other designs since the bride and the groom can perfectly match in them and also it expresses our African nature,” she pulls out a long sleeved shirt alongside a long well designed skirt suits  to complement it,  for both bride and bridegroom to be.

Ngatia’s skills she tells us is a God given talent and not something she learnt from school.

“I have never gone to any Fashion and design school but got skills from local tailors that I worked for. My wish is that I will join a school and earn a certificate, to get a competitive edge in the market.”

Agnes Ngatia

Ngatia says that her source of inspiration for choosing the line is because there are no major competitors in the area.

Maalin designer markets her clothes through displays at her shop, situated along the stadium street. Referrals from her customers have also attracted clients who only have to send measurements and an image of what they want to get their fit.

“I only market my clothes by displaying them outside since it is an open place and many people use this road making it easy for them to see,” she noted.

Her biggest challenge is meeting different customers with different moods, needs and tastes.

“Some customers choose for themselves the designs they want and if it fails to suite their taste and needs, they put the blame on me, sometimes it becomes difficult for me since I can’t make to pay back the undesired ones,” she complained.

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African print fashion has been trending tremendously over the years and has been embraced by both male and female thus overtaking other modes of dressings for Kenyans and Africa as a whole.

She gets her raw materials from Thika which serves as an advantage, considering the fact that she gets them at fair prices when she buys them in wholesale.

“I have been in the business since 2014, I normally get my raw materials from Thika, Kiambu County and see it as an advantage since they sell to us at wholesale price compared to Nyahururu where they sell at retail price,” she stated.

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