After finishing graduate school in the U.S., Zoe Cohen took a job with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an international relief and development agency. They paid for her to move to Nairobi, Kenya, to take their one-year management training program. When the program ended, Cohen had fallen in love with Nairobi, and decided to stay (instead of getting posted to another country though the program). She negotiated with CRS to transition onto a consulting agreement.
Around the same time, Cohen started a company that hand-crafted fashion bags, using recycled leather and colorful African fabric lining that she could find at sprawling Gikomba markets in Nairobi. Each bag, named a Zoko Bag, is customized according to the specific preferences of each customer and takes about six weeks to deliver.
As Cohen mentions in this podcast interview with me, she sells about 50% of her bags to local expats in Kenya, and the rest are sold through her website to customers as far reaching as Swaziland, Switzerland, and the U.S. Clutches cost $40 to $60 and tote bags cost up to $100.
Despite a recent terrorist attack on Gikomba market, which caused temporary disruption to her production, Cohen's story of slowly building a small business in her spare time is a wonderful example that destination enterprise can be done at extremely low cost. Here are some lessons from Cohen’s story:
Cohen had never been to Africa, yet her transition to Kenya was easy because CRS paid for her flights from the U.S., and provided her with an apartment, a car and an immediate support network in Nairobi. As Cohen notes, the fact that CRS looked after all the administrative details meant that she could immediately focus on her quality of life, making friends, and finding her feet in a new country.
The year Cohen spent with CRS allowed her to figure out how business was done, and what opportunities existed in the market—all the while getting a weekly paycheck.
Cohen made a conscious decision to keep a paying job while she spent time on Zoko Bags. She did this because she knew that there was a chance her business idea wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t grow as quickly as she wanted. She didn’t have enough savings to support a struggling business, so continuing to work gave her a safety net. Meanwhile, she was able to devote enough time on the weekends and nights to continue figuring out the problems with the business model and working out the kinks so she could get her production line running smoothly.
Cohen attributes much of her current success with Zoko Bags to her friend Ruth, a Kenyan businesswoman who studied leather handbag design in Italy, and runs a local fashion company called BlackFly. Ruth introduced Cohen to all of her suppliers in Gikomba market, helps her with handbag design, and assisted Zoe with all sorts of simple administrative things like where to find someone to make business cards. As Cohen herself notes, Zoko Bags wouldn’t exist without Ruth.
When you are an expat, it’s sometimes easy to only meet other expats, and miss out of the real experience of living in another country and making friends with local people.
Zoko Bags allowed Cohen to meet the "real" Kenya, away from the expat scene. Cohen buys materials from Kenyans in the clothes section of Gikomba market, where she often doesn’t see another foreigner. She has become friends with her suppliers, and enjoys hearing their stories because one of the benefits of living in a different country is mingling with people who are brought up in a totally different culture, and have different perspectives.
She has met many Kenyans through her business partner, Ruth, who also connected with the art community in Nairobi, which Zoe describes as "a really vibrant visual art, design, music, theatre world."
At some point, Cohen will make a decision about whether Zoko Bags is something that can grow into a financially sustainable business or should remain a fun weekend outlet for her creative passion. But there is no pressure on her to make that decision, and until she does, she will continue to bring in a regular paycheck.