Genteel is building a fashion technology giant from the slums of Kibera, Nairobi

There is nothing quite as breathtaking as cultural festivals, which bring a variety of forms of creative expression to life. This is especially true in large cities that are home to numerous ethnic groups and multiple nationalities. People have a variety of ways in which they choose to express their cultural heritage, and in Nairobi, Kenya, two dynamic entrepreneurs chose to show their cultural heritage through the sprawling beauty of fashion with Genteel.

This could be a story about any other creative brand; however, as you will soon find out, the startup is making a significant impact in Africa's creative industry, which still possesses a great deal of untapped potential.

The global creative industry, which includes the fields of fashion, film, and television and radio, is estimated to be worth between $2 and $3 trillion, depending on the sources that you put your faith in. It's interesting to note that the fashion industry accounts for a whopping $759 billion, while television and radio come in second place with $374 billion.


According to the limited information we have on Africa's creative economy, we can deduce that music, which is regarded as one of our most important exports, resulted in revenue of $101 million in 2019. And industry experts forecast that by the year 2025, this will have reached $500 million. The film industry on the continent currently has a value of $5 billion, out of a potential $20 billion.

According to the figures provided by the Afdb in 2013, the fashion industry once again and somewhat unexpectedly dominates the competition with a market value of $31 billion. Although this may seem like a long time ago, it is important to note that Africa now generates $8.8 billion in fashion exports, which is a significant increase from the $2.5 billion that it generated in 2013. If our calculations are correct, the current worth would be approximately $109 billion at this point.


When Sam Jairo first started his thrift clothing business in Gikomba, which is a huge market in Nairobi for secondhand clothing, he did not have these numbers in his head. Despite the fact that they may appear to be impressive, Sam Jairo did not have them in his mind. His close proximity to Gikomba stoked his interest in fashion, and the encouragement of his friends inspired him to launch the company while he was still a student at Strathmore University studying business information technology.

Jairo explains, "My family saw that I was interested in what I was doing, so they gave me an opportunity to travel to Istanbul, Turkey. While I was there, I technically got the opportunity to start importing clothes into Kenya." [Citation needed]

 2 790Gikomba thrift market in Nairobi

However, this opportunity brought to Genteel's attention a problem, which prompted him to have a "light bulb moment." There were articles of clothing that were wearable while others were not; typically, this was the case with the tops and bottoms of the same outfit.

I came to the conclusion that one of the contributing factors to this issue was that the vast majority of the products sold in this country were manufactured with Caucasian physiques in mind. The fact that we Africans have broad hips and shoulders is not technically taken into account when the items are made.

Jairo embarked on a journey of in-depth research after coming to the realization that he needed to find out the requirements to build a fashion brand.

Conversations about fashion around the world have been dominated by brands from other countries. When they can chase after Gucci, you won't find many young people in Africa pining after prestigious brands like Imane Ayissie or Christie Brown. Instead, they chase after Gucci.

I embarked on a quest to gain an understanding of how to establish a fashion brand that is not only welcoming to people of all backgrounds but also has its own unique cultural identity. After becoming familiar with the Henry Poole and Gieves & Hawkes brands, I started the process of developing something that is inherently associated with Africa. The question is, "How can we incorporate elements of African culture into the pieces that we already have?"

Soon after, Jairo went to see Brian Baliach, a fellow student and thrift trader, and the two of them got together to found Genteel with the intention of utilizing clothing to connect with the African consciousness. Since then, the brand's popularity has increased, and it has been given significant validation as a result of the fact that it has been responsible for dressing Kenya's current President, Uhuru Kenyatta.


Even though it makes for interesting news, not many people are aware of the process that goes into making these flashy suits.

How Genteel works

 4 790Genteel’s main store in Gigiri Kenya

Genteel appears to be an upscale fashion brand to someone looking in from the outside. The company has a website and a store in Gigiri, which is the location of a sizable expatriate community in Nairobi. But there is a whole process that takes place behind the scenes that leads from the opulent parts of town to the slums of Kibera, which are home to a number of unofficial businesses including tailors.

Since the beginning, the company has used unprofessional tailors to serve a professional brand that is aiming to provide high-net-worth customers with apparel service of world-class quality.

" You are able to schedule an appointment with us if you have interacted with our brand in any way, be it through Google, social media, or our website. In order for you to choose a fabric, either we will travel to you or we will ask you to visit our store. We will take your measurements, provide you with a schedule, and request a deposit from you.

At this juncture, Baliach, who is also the Co-founder and Director of Operations, takes over.

We have a database where we keep track of all of the client's measurements, and our staff at the shop provides us with information about the fabric that the customer has selected. After that, we use Trello to organize the work for the tailors by creating cards for each individual client, as Baliach explains.

When the work is finished, the company makes use of various delivery services in order to send the garments to the customer.

In addition to providing bespoke fittings, the company also operates an online store where customers can place orders for a variety of apparel items and receive them within five business days. Retail prices for Genteel's ready-to-wear products range from as low as 5,000 Kenyan Shillings (approximately $46) to as high as 143,000 Kenyan Shillings (approximately $1,212).

Excitingly, the new company is compiling a measurements database to assist its eCommerce process, which will pave the way for fashion management software.

We are going to use the data to create a size chart specific to Kenya. The majority of the measurements that you come across are for the United States and the United Kingdom. Africans have their own unique interpretations of the terms small, medium, large, and extra when used in a sentence.

The scalability of Genteel's business model is likely something that would be on the mind of anyone who is familiar with the startup world in other locales. In contrast to companies such as Uber, the tailors are not independent contractors or freelancers but rather full-time employees.

In a typical scenario, a company would develop software with the intention of connecting users with service providers; however, the African market has not been favorable to this business model.

How then could the company achieve the rapid growth that is typical of most new businesses?

Jairo concedes that in order for the startup to scale, the emphasis on its website will need to shift from bespoke goods to ready-to-wear products in order to cater to a wider customer base.

" We would create a limited number of products, market them, and then receive orders through our digital platforms because it is more convenient to have that. In contrast to the bespoke model, which is highly individualized, it also creates new opportunities for distribution.

However, he maintains that the company has considered the marketplace model but will be sticking to an approach that is more measured in order to preserve the aesthetic and story associated with the brand.

A Kenyan investor who wishes to remain nameless is a strong proponent of Genteel's hands-on approach. This investor contends that the construction of a high-quality marketplace model is impossible until both the supply and demand sides of the spectrum have reached an adequate level of development.

They pose the question, "What are you connecting to if there isn't the necessary infrastructure and systems in place?"

Of course, things are never simple.

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To this day, I have not come across anyone who has not had a negative experience with a tailor, with the emphasis on the word experiences. Whether it's unnecessary delays or clothes that would make other people ask, "Why bother?" or "Who did you offend?", it's important to make sure that you're not offending anyone.

You can imagine how shocked I was when I was told by the co-founders of Genteel that they would take me to Kibera, which is where they make their incredible clothing.

Jairo asserts, " We've had to canvas the brand of professionalism that exists with informal tailors and try, as much as possible, to give a professional outlook in order to prevent customers from having to deal with experiences such as unmet timelines."

When you add this to the fact that neither of the co-founders studied fashion in school, the learning curve was extremely steep for them. This was especially true when they were attempting to comprehend the technical details while simultaneously delivering quality products to their customers.

In addition, the new company must contend with the high expense of importing high-quality industrial sewing machines, which can cost as much as one million Kenyan shillings, which is equivalent to $8,500. According to Baliach, it has been difficult to acquire the necessary investments and funds in order to purchase more sophisticated machinery. In addition, the lack of investment to fulfill these requirements has, up until this point, prevented the startup from becoming profitable.

Despite this, Genteel is able to highlight a number of significant victories along the way.

Before fitting President Uhuru Kenyatta for an outing in Europe, the startup had already amassed a database of 250 customers for the bespoke model and up to 2,500 customers from its website. President Uhuru Kenyatta was one of those customers.

The British Council Connect has acknowledged the new company's achievements and awarded it grants of up to $25,000 in recognition of its efforts. It is anticipated that it will make at least $100,000 in 2022, which is an increase of 30% from the amount it made in 2018.

Perhaps most significantly, the introduction of Genteel to Kibera has been beneficial to the professional careers of a number of the neighborhood's informal tailors. After finishing his secondary education, Martin, a married man and father of two, decided to pursue a career as a tailor and has nothing but positive things to say about Genteel.

GenteelMartin and other tailors at work at the Genteel shop

We continue to educate ourselves through the course of our work. We have been working in a professional manner here in Genteel; however, when certain adjustments are required, we make them according to the requests made. Now that I don't have to worry about getting clients, they just bring fabrics and measurements, and you arrange yourself to work. " Martin says.

Even though Genteel is having a positive impact on the lives of tailors like Martin, the company intends to keep its focus on refining its manufacturing process and enhancing its distribution network within Kenya.