Azu Mohammed says she loves shoes. (What woman doesn’t right?) That was one of the reasons she started Azu’s Leather, a shoe company specializing in beaded sandals.
She is speaking to me at her office in Ngara, Nairobi. In between our interview, she has to pick calls or give instructions to her employees. She is a busy woman and it shows. When we are not talking, I stare at her office wall. It’s a dream for any woman. Lined with gorgeous sandals in different designs and intricate beads, you cannot not stare.
Azu stays with her family in India but has family living in Nairobi as well. She works from both places. Before 2011, she would outsource footwear to take back to India but she could never find what she liked. This frustration inspired the idea to start her own company. ‘If you can’t find what you are looking for, make it yourself,’ she told herself. In 2011 with six employees, she started Azu’s Leather. She has an odd look on her face as she recounts the good old times when she worked out of a small office that barely fit all her equipment. Half the employees would work outside, God forbid it ever rained. ‘Maybe they weren’t good times after all,’ she chuckles.
In that first year she would work night and day to ensure she sold as many shoes as possible. She jokes that she can sell ice to an Eskimo. ‘I’m that good, my biggest strength is in sales and marketing’ she says. It’s not arrogance and it did not happen overnight. She had a dream and she sold it to everyone she met. She now has over 40 employees, distributes her shoes to hotels like Ole Sereni, Heritage hotels as well as to clients in East African and South African countries and Europe. They have since expanded to selling beaded waist belts, dog collars, key holders and wrist cuffs.
She gives me a tour of her workshop, introducing me to her employees who are hard at work. They in turn explain to me that the beads are hand sewn and threaded onto leather using a strong fishing line. She tells me she prides herself in the fact that they make quality and unique products. The leather used on her sandals is premium grade. She insists that she prefers to have her products hand crafted and while it can be laborious and time consuming, she says it’s the only way they will not compromise on the quality. So unique are her shoes that when U.S President Barrack Obama visited for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit last year, he took some pairs with him. She gladly tells me she later got a thank you email from him.
She is passionate about creating jobs for the youth in Kenya and it’s one of the reasons she started her company. She says she was disheartened by how many young men and women are unemployed in Kenya. She made a decision to try and employ as any as possible and pay them better once her company took off.
When I ask what the biggest challenge is for her business and other SMEs like hers and she goes quite for a few seconds before answering, “Marketing and branding has got to be the hardest thing for any business.” She started out using Facebook as her main marketing tool which she says was more affordable compared to other traditional marketing methods. She adds that she has now incorporated Instagram and twitter in her marketing and branding strategy. “Word of mouth is simply not enough, and while it goes a long way, it doesn’t always help and traditional media is too expensive for SME’s to use for marketing,” she adds.
Azu’s Leather is among hundreds of SME’s that struggle with digital marketing at a time where consumers now depend on digital means to get services and products. Statistics show that in Kenya, 74.2% of the population have internet access. 42% of internet users use the internet to search for online shops. It therefore makes it important for SME’s to have effective digital marketing strategies.