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Inspired by a Nigerian influencer, Emily Wangui is crafting success at the Furniture Zoo

Emily Wangui posing for a photo in the showroom of Furniture Zoo in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Vikki Keingati, bird story agency.

Inspiration from a Nigerian furniture maker and funds stashed for a trip to Dubai allowed Emily Wangui to start her dream journey. Less than 2 years later, Furniture Zoo is thriving.

Hope Mukami, bird story agency

A rainbow of brightly coloured furniture fills a showroom on Nairobi's Quarry Road, with the noise of hammers and saws serving as background music for the craftspeople and visitors in the busy space. Sunlight shining through the showroom windows, illuminates a massive white board with the word "PROGRESS" written across it.

Emily Wangui - who goes by the name of Wakeji Kamore on her social media sites - is a ball of excitement as she moves around from workstation to workstation, adding an extra layer of energy to the already bustling room.

“I like to describe myself as a perfect balance of an aggressive and bubbly lady," said Wangui, 38, proprietor of the space aptly named Furniture Zoo.

Pulling her team around her, Wangui used a bright blue marker to update a list of projects under the PROGRESS sign. Nothing escaped her interrogation; raw materials quality, joinery craftsmanship, and wood finishing are all evaluated.

Emily Wangui giving a one of the workers furniture instructions from a client file at the workshop of Furniture Zoo in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Vikki Keingati, bird story agency.

While Wangui says she has always been an interior designer at heart, everything she has built at Furniture Zoo is the result of a serendipitous moment online, when she came across 26-year-old Jumako Dada, a Nigerian, who built her successful furniture store, Taellio, from scratch.

“I happened to search Furniture Manufacturing on YouTube and I bumped into her interview. The fact that she is a young lady in the wood and carpentry sector was so inspiring, what she has achieved is exactly what I was dreaming of doing, and in that moment, I realised that every dream I have is already someone else’s reality and it can also be mine,” Wangui explained.

Driven by an insatiable need for creation, Wangui knew she had to find an outlet. Dada's vision was her answer.

However, starting a furniture business from scratch required more than just a dream. A huge effort was required to find funding for the warehouse space, machinery, raw materials and employees.

“Fortunately, my friends and family believed in my business as much as I did, forming my own personal loan squad. I had made some savings for a vacation to Dubai, but this enterprise offered the prospect of an endless journey. A birthday in paradise or building something that will last? My business won!”

Emily Wangui giving a one of the workers furniture instructions from a client file at the workshop of Furniture Zoo in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Vikki Keingati, bird story agency.

With 18 months of doing business under her belt, Wangui currently manages a team of roughly 20 people, with 14 salaried core members handling administration, joinery, and finishing, and five contractors bringing experience in sofa framing, upholstery, welding, and lathing.

“We facilitate about 10-15 orders per month and each order can have anything between 2-100 furniture pieces depending on whether it is residential or a commercial space,” Wangui said.

A well-coordinated team helps Wangui meet client expectations from the first order, through to delivery. Client favourites include cozy accent chairs, dining tables, sofas, and beds.

Wangui ensures that products are custom-made to the client’s requirements, including style, size, wood grains, staining, and varnishing. This is made possible by her vast number of employees who have perfected their niche. Morris Ouma, a wood joiner, is one of them.

“Not only have I found stability and security in my job, but I've also been able to pursue my passion for woodworking on a whole new level. For instance, I remember one project where we were tasked with designing and building custom furniture for a local cafe. Seeing the finished pieces in use and knowing that my work is enhancing someone else's space was incredibly rewarding,” Ouma said.

Some of the furniture pieces at the Furniture Zoo showroom in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Vikki Keingati, bird story agency.

“But perhaps the most significant impact this job has had on my life is the ability to provide for my family in ways I never thought possible. Thanks to the steady income and benefits provided by Furniture Zoo, I've been able to give my loved ones the stability and security they deserve. Whether it's putting food on the table or taking my children to school this job has made it possible,” Ouma added.

A few moments have stood out for Wangui at Furniture Zoo.

"You know, there are two moments that really stood out for me. The very first order - that a complete stranger trusted us online, sight unseen, to deliver their dream furniture - that was a massive confidence boost,” she said.

Another moment was their first restaurant furniture project, when they nailed the turnaround time and impressed their client with the final pieces. This cemented everything for Wangui.

“We weren't just furniture makers anymore, we were building the heart of someone's business, and we did it right,” she said.

Wangui delights in the diverse number of customers who walk through the doors of Furniture Zoo. 60% of her clients are foreigners who have made Kenya their home. Another 34% are Kenyans who live in the city's suburbs and are looking for distinctive pieces for their homes.

Some of the furniture pieces at the Furniture Zoo showroom in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Vikki Keingati, bird story agency.

Furniture Zoo's reach is now extending beyond houses; 6% of their clients are resorts, hotels, and restaurants, who rely on Wangui's staff to create the ideal mood for their establishments.

“I'm thrilled to share that Furniture Zoo craftsmanship truly exceeded my expectations. From the moment I stepped into Emily’s showroom and workshop, I was impressed by the quality and variety of her pieces and Emily’s interior design insights. Not only did I find exactly what I was looking for, but her staff's expertise and friendly assistance made the whole process a breeze,” Nishit Shah from Tavo Fusion, a local restaurant, said.

Wangui is tapping into a growing furniture industry, with rapid urbanisation in Nairobi and across the region driving demand for furniture to fill a fast-growing housing market. Residential construction in Kenya makes up more than 50 percent of a market worth over US$16 billion a year, according to London-based global analytics and consulting company, GlobalData.

Wangui's challenges started early on.

Workers working in the workshop of Furniture Zoo in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Vikki Keingati, bird story agency.

“My first challenge was knowing what machines and tools to purchase for the business. I was completely green in this area, which meant that I had to trust a carpenter to list for me everything that was needed for furniture manufacturing, from the electrical planing machines to the power tools, all the way to the size of the nails we needed. That carpenter is still on my team in the joinery department,” she said.

She also believes that being a woman has set her apart in the industry and even opened more doors for her.

“Being a woman in the furniture manufacturing business works out in my favour, mostly women are tasked to furnish homes and even hotels, and restaurants. While there are spaces that will be hard, like buying timber from the yards and leading a team of more male employees than women, it is also an opportunity for growth, and if you come into that space ready to learn, there is more benefit than challenges,” Wangui concluded.

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