VaaKenya is the first-ever online platform on a mission to revolutionize how we buy made in Kenya. We started off in 2017, selling made in Kenya shoes. A few months into it, we were getting unending requests for customization and were not able to meet them due to a lack of skill and capacity from our artisans. This opened up to the issues we had in our industry. One was that lack of standard African sizes led to a lot of African outlier sizes missing out on fitting footwear. Second, the biggest challenge our manufacturers were facing was a lack of both financial and talent capacity. To be able to solve these problems, we needed to understand how the industry works from the inside, from a point of empathy. This is what led us to open our first workshop where we started manufacturing shoes customized for African feet. We used this period to make patterns, create standards for footwear manufacturing and learn ways of customizing footwear in respect to different shapes and sizes. Our biggest challenge remained to be artisans. We had limited artisans and retaining them was very hard. Most were entrenched in the informal sector with minimal skills. It was always quantity over quality. To scale, we needed to be able to retain artisans and also increase our production capacity by buying more machines and equipment. We thus set out to look for an investor and as a result, met our first angel investor. He invested KSH 1.3 million and with that, we were able to scale, afford good talent and retain it, retrain constantly, and most importantly, the space to do more research and development into our products.
In March 2019, we legally registered our company as a limited liability company. We immersed ourselves deep into the industry to learn all its aspects from suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and consumers. At the same time, our sales were increasing and we had started doing bulk orders which brought us back to our capacity deficit. We received a $20,000 grant from USADF which enabled us to launch our apprenticeship program where we trained ten young people with no prior experience in the art of shoemaking. The intention is to increase our talent capacity.
We are talking about an industry with an annual consumption capacity of 32 million pairs and a local production capacity of 4 million pairs. That is a 28 million pairs deficit. Our slogan had always been dignifying African feet. We realized that we could not achieve this alone. Our company name VaaKenya means wear Kenya and was inspired by the fact that made in Kenya is best for Kenyans as it is made for us and with us in mind. For Kenyans to embrace made-in Kenya, it would take not just a single company but a whole industry to work together. More than 50% of shoes produced locally are produced in the informal sector, 50% being produced in Kariokor market, where we began the business. Kariokor market informal market in Nairobi with hundreds of small-scale manufacturers. They manufacture shoes, sandals, bags, wallets, and jewelry. Despite being the biggest manufacturers made in Kenya, they never get the chance to grow their businesses, most of them living in poverty.
At this point, our business model was evolving, and instead of just manufacturing and selling our own shoes, we went back to where we started, the Kariokor market, with the sole intention of fixing the challenges we have in the informal sector so we can avail more made in Kenya products to Kenyans. We thus started partnering with manufacturers in the Kariokor market to help each other grow.