Being an entrepreneur seems to be the career that many desire these days, and only some actually achieve this dream. Ciku is one who has reached this pinnacle and continues to climb.
She initially relocated to the USA from Kenya in order to pursue a Masters Degree. However, her path changed, and she is now involved in working with Kenyan artisans to help them maintain a dignified, sustainable living by using skills passed down through generations in beading, weaving, sculpting, basketry, art etc. This opportunity gives them a platform to share their love for the craft throughout the world. It also injects money into the artisan communities and helps them hire Kenyans and buy from Kenyans.
Recently, Ciku was featured on the cover and also in the centerfold of a popular magazine in Texas. “I shared the spotlight with two amazing ladies that help women in their home countries like I do: Tesoros Maya from Guatemala, and the Zuri Styles from Uganda. Seeing the community in Texas acknowledge and appreciate what we do has been humbling and inspiring. It encourages us to keep giving it our all and plan to make a bigger impact in the lives of the artisans back home. It also reminds us that we have beautiful, worthy products that are unique and appreciated. It has opened a whole new market for us and propelled our mission forward,” she related. Currently, she lives in Dripping Springs, which is located a few miles west of Austin, TX.
Like most Kenyans, Ciku believes that it is one’s own drive and ambition that contribute to a successful future. “This is a beautiful country with so many opportunities. It doesn’t matter what your level of education is or who you know – you can make something of yourself. If you have the drive and are willing to put in the work, you can make it.” However, she also believes that if a person chooses the wrong friendships and “bends the rules like we do in Kenya,” then all that has been achieved can be lost in an instant. She firmly feels that a person holds their future in their own hands.
When reflecting on her life in Kenya, Ciku remembers it as being “mostly good”. Her parents divorced when she was a young teenager. After the divorce, she and her sister spent most of their time with her mother’s side of the family. “It is a big, beautiful, loving family. Everyone is involved and close to each other. The women in the family are highly educated, successful, strong, and independent women. I grew up with solid role models and knew for sure that I could do anything. The family culture of supporting women and giving them the resources they need to be their best really shaped who I am today,” she said. Her education consisted of Limuru Girls School (Choxx) and Kenyatta University. Her hope is to live up to the examples that were set for her as a young girl and to raise her daughter as she was raised.
Moving to America wasn’t as dramatically different from Kenya as she thought it would be. Her family continues to remain the most important thing in her life as it did in Kenya. Her everyday decisions continue to be influenced by family expectations, culture, and religion. “I love my culture and heritage. I am also a woman of faith, but I love being able to pick and choose what affects my life and to stand up for my values and convictions,” she replied. One area that she feels is vastly different from her home country is the quality of life for poor people. She has seen that their basic needs are provided by the government and non-profit groups – housing, food, clothing, etc. In contrast, she said that if you are poor in Kenya then you are on your own.
Being featured in a magazine was a high point for Ciku. Her journey to this point began when she first moved to the United States and was able to see her culture from ‘outside the box’ for its uniqueness and beauty. She began buying a lot of jewelry, shoes, and handbags for herself and as a result of her fashion sense – she received a lot of compliments.
This led to her friends wanting to buy similar items from her. Ciku contacted her mother and asked her to purchase items from the villages and the Kariokor market. Her mother would then ship these items to Austin, TX. Because her mother was recovering from cancer at the time, Ciku felt that she was asking too much from her. Thankfully, she was able to reconnect with a former classmate, Kate, on Facebook, and they began to work together to bring life to the company, Sawa Sawa.
Kate Saich is the owner of Zafarani Afrika, and she handles the Kenyan side of the business. Ciku admires Kate and says she is amazing with everything she does. “Having a partner that is diligent, capable and honest has been such a blessing to me. Kate is hardworking, very driven and unlike many Kenyans I know, we are 2 sides of the same coin. She works directly with the artisans, and I handle the American side. We communicate about everything and make decisions together,” Ciku explained. In the near future, Ciku is excited about Kate running “our soon-to-come” center in Kenya. They hope it will be a resource center for artisans to make a sustainable living with beading, sculpting, basketry, art, etc. Further, she explained that Kate is passionate about culture, conservation and domestic appreciation of her home country and all of its splendor.
Because of Ciku’s love of her culture and people, she believes that those qualities continue to inspire her business venture and enable her to share this experience with her daughter. Seeing the economic impact on the artisans as people are lifted out of poverty really hit home for them. They were unaware of the positive effect that this business would have on the local artisans until numerous Kenyans began reaching out to them and seeking to work with them. Ciku expressed her pleasure in her ability to help Kenyans. “When we buy from the artisans, they are able to provide the basic needs for their families and take their children to school. It doesn’t matter where you come from, If you have a skill and are good at it, we will work with you,” she expressed.
Sawa Sawa continues to work with many diverse communities. The beading is from the Maasai, Kiondos from the Kikuyu and Kamba, sculptures from the Kisii, and Kikoys from the coast.
Ciku explained that their company is now an NGO, and they hope to get funding for many projects in the future. Ciku added that the artisans of Sawa Sawa take pride that the West appreciates the Kenyan culture. She was exuberant about the fact that it gives them a sense of accomplishment. They are delighted that the works of their hands are treasured and appreciated. Ciku’s hope is that the local Kenyans at home will appreciate the artisan’s work as well.
Ciku’s husband, Walter, is very supportive of her business. Initially, he was the one who saw the potential in her ideas and urged her to begin her business venture. “I am incredibly blessed. I run all my ideas by him and when I run into any problems, we solve them together. We are very similar in our thinking. We both have a Bachelor’s degree in Finance, and he has an MBA. He understands the concept of investing in the women in our lives. He is very good in all things business and has been a cornerstone for me,” she recounted. She further explained that Walter provides a good stable home for her and her daughter. He also gives her the emotional and mental space to undertake such a massive endeavor. Since Kenyan culture is new to him, Ciku is able to get his perspective on different aspects of her business. She has been able to see his appreciation of the artisan’s craftsmanship. Without his love and support, she doesn’t believe that she would have come as far as she has.
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All fashion companies need models, therefore, Ciku turned to her bright and talented daughter, Njeri. She said that Njeri was the inspiration behind her line. Her involvement brings joy to Ciku, and she hopes that when she is older, she will join her on trips to Kenya to meet the artisans. Eventually, she wants Njeri to run the business. Because Njeri is half Kenyan, Ciku wants to instill in her a sense of culture in the Kenyan heritage. “I believe we should expose our children to everything we can to properly equip them for their future. My partner Kate, has 3 beautiful daughters too who have modeled for the business and hopefully all 4 girls will take over someday and make it more successful than we could have ever imagined,” Ciku explained.
Besides running Sawa Sawa, Ciku has a side hustle. She lives in an area which has been dubbed “the wedding capital of Texas,” so naturally she has a wedding service business. Her explanation was, “Who wouldn’t want to work with love?” She enjoys not only assisting with the weddings, but being an attendee as well – and getting paid for it! She is also part of several women’s groups that give support to each other regarding their faith, child-rearing, and careers.
Ciku’s advice to other Kenyans is that they should learn to rise up by lifting up others. “Anything you give in service of other people is never lost but reinvested in your life and that of your children. If we all tried to do good by the people around us and do our part to help them shine, we would all be lifted. A candle loses nothing by lighting another.” Another favorite quote among economists is that when we succeed, “We all are standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us.” Ciku is the embodiment of the above quotes, and is an example to all Kenyans in Diaspora.