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Business start-ups: A look at Wild Rose

Author: Gordon Hewitt, Wild Rose

Published: 16 Apr 2021

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Gordon Hewitt an ICAEW member based in Kenya tells us about Wild Rose, his family clothing business that makes men’s shirts destined for the local, UK and USA markets. We hear about starting a business, finding partners who have high ethical and sustainable standards, innovations including making buttons made from nuts and his plans for the future.

Tell us about Wild Rose

I moved to Kenya in 2015 having worked in London in the finance and accounting sector for around 10 years. Initially I took up a role as the Financial Controller of a renewable energy company and then went on to set up a small financial consultancy. During that time, I met my now wife who is a jewellery designer and spends a lot of time Rajasthan in India. The area is very famous for its block printing industry and a rich heritage for producing beautiful fabrics and provided inspiration for our brand. In 2019 we took the plunge and decided to concentrate more time on Wild Rose, making men’s shirts predominately for export to the UK and USA.

Rosie very much takes care of the design side of the company, whilst I am more focussed on the operational side of things. We have a small team, employing only one full time tailor who is now focussed on product development and quality control.

Can you share some insights into logistics and operations?

The starting point for our shirts is our fabric. We source high quality block printed cotton from Jaipur in India. All of the fabric is hand printed by highly skilled artisans. We are very proud to work with fabric that has such an amazing heritage and we champion the artisans who produce it.

We reduce our environmental impact wherever possible. Last year, we shifted from using plastic buttons to corozo. Corozo is a natural material made from the nut of the Tagua palm. These trees are located in tropical forests and the nuts are only hard enough to turn into buttons when they fall naturally to the forest floor. As a result, these are a very sustainable material which helps contribute to forest protection. Whilst this switch has increased the amount we spend on our buttons, it is certainly worth it to have a more sustainable product.

At present we are producing all our shirts here in Kenya. For those that we export to the UK, we have been working with a manufacturer called Soko. They supply companies such as ASOS so have a lot of experience producing clothing for the UK fashion market.

The main reason we are working with Soko is their high ethical and environmental standards. They are an organisation that puts people and communities at the heart of everything they do. Their social standards are second to none, ensuring that all employees are fairly remunerated and work to bring education and skills to the wider communities within which they operate. They are also doing some great work reducing their environmental footprint. For example, their machinery operates on solar power and rainwater is collected for use in the factory.

Soko is situated in an Export Production Zone (EPZ) so we are able to import our fabric from India duty free. We work with the same logistics partner to get our fabric from India to Kenya and shirts from Kenya to the UK.

In the UK, we are working with a partner who takes care of our inventory, fulfilment and delivery needs. Their warehousing system is integrated with our website, so once a customer places an order it is a seamless process to dispatch our shirts. Delivery is usually next day, and our delivery partner also takes care of any returns.

As we are based in Kenya, being able to track our inventory remotely is essential. We are able to log into our partner’s inventory system to check the status of our stock and can perform reconciliations between their system and our e-commerce platform very easily.

What lessons have you learnt along the way?

The key lesson though has been the importance of creating a good team with complimentary skills. I believe our core team is very strong in some key areas and my accounting experience helps pull things together in a coherent manner.

My first job out of University was with PricewaterhouseCoopers in their Assurance practice. During the 4 years I spent at PwC, I was taught the importance of delivering a high-quality service and ensuring that we listened to our clients’ feedback to improve what we do. I have applied these lessons to my work at Wild Rose, ensuing that we listen to our customers and provide as personal a service as possible. Here in Kenya we have a high degree of contact with our customers, often producing bespoke items for special occasions such as weddings. Translating this into an online experience for our UK customers is a challenge and certainly something we are keen to take on.

How have you coped with tough trading conditions?

We had planned a full UK launch last summer, which would have been a combination of popup shows, events and festivals. Due to COVID, this was all put on ice. We did launch our website and created some interest through social media and some online / print advertising. Whilst sales have been modest, what is very encouraging is that around 30% of our new customers have returned at least once. We have received great feedback so are optimistic about the future.

Due to the way we have structured our team, our overheads are low, so when COVID hit we were able to contract quickly to avoid running into the red. We have been in close contact with our manufacturing partners here in Kenya, who switched their production lines to make PPE. We have even had masks made in our fabric, which look great!

The pandemic has hit the Kenyan economy especially hard, with lockdowns and travel restrictions significantly impacting millions of people’s ability to work. We have partnered with a few grass roots organisations that have been providing assistance to communities’ worst affected by COVID in the form of food, medicine, clean water and other basic necessities. We have been channelling a proportion of our profits to these projects as a means to help vulnerable communities where we can.

Last Christmas as markets were cancelled, we launched the Kenyan Design Collective virtual Christmas market. The Collective brought together a range of Kenyan designers, artists and artisans so people were able to purchase some great gifts from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

What are your plans for the future?

We have a lot of plans for the future, but are wary about investing too heavily whilst the world is still in such a state of flux due to the COVID pandemic.

We feel that our current operational model of sourcing fabric from India which we ship to Kenya to be made into shirts is inefficient and can see some very quick wins moving our production to India. We want to find a manufacturing partner who has at least a strong an ethical and environmental record as Soko, which will involve substantial vetting. With travel restrictions, such a move will be difficult at this time.

Another change where we are very keen to make is to switch to using organic cotton. We need to ensure that the quality of the cotton we source meets our high standards, so again this will involve time spent meeting suppliers which is a challenge at present.

One thing that the pandemic has given us is a lot of time to focus on our core values and brand, so when the situation improves, we feel ready to move forwards with confidence.

*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW