Karimojong jeweler Nyangan wants to transcend borders

Tuesday June 11 2019

Ms Karen Nyangan makes a necklace from beads

Ms Karen Nyangan makes a necklace from beads at her home in Kirinya, Kampala. Below: A necklace made out of beads. She introduced an advance payment to ensure sustainable cash flow in her business. Photos by Eronie Kamukama  

By Eronie Kamukama

At 25 years, Ms Karen Nyangan is not a tycoon. She is a simple woman finding her way into the fashion world. She designs and makes jewellery, such as necklaces from beads. Like it is in some Karimojong families, Ms Nyangan’s mother introduced her to beading at the age of 14 years.

Growing beading skill
She later picked the up the skill in 2017. Little did she know a Facebook post by a friend would give birth to a business, Afri-Kay Accessories.
“I did not take it seriously as it was a leisure time activity until I decided to make a choker one evening. I sent a photo to my friend and she said she would buy it. I did not even know what price to tell her but she gave me Shs10,000,” Ms Nyangan says.
The jewelry soon caught the eye of a craft shop in Gulu which then served as the first distribution point for the young jeweler. But like many budding businesses, the procurement graduate’s startup began to suffer.
“I would stop beading for months. So in 2018, my job became rocky, my expenses increased and I did not have enough money. I realised I had a talent that I was not putting to use,” Ms Nyangan says.
“You know with startups, you need passion which I had but needed a reason or goal to have the business. I was doing things for the sake of having an extra penny so if I had money, I would abandon it. If I did not have, I would get back to it.”

Business name
In 2018, this and more thoughts were followed by creating a business name and finding publicity in Facebook groups that focus on selling its members’ products. It is possible not to have confidence in your business sometimes and Ms Nyangan is no stranger to the same.
“But it got to a point when people were buying the jewelry at the craft shop and I had to send in every week. In the same year, I joined Miss Uganda and was crowned Rising Woman, who is someone who empowers other people. It was then that I took to training young girls in Nabilatuk District to bead,” Ms Nyangan says.
Today, given that her plan is to grow the business, her trainees are providing the much needed support for her to meet her customers’ orders, especially now that she has moved to customising jewelry for brides.
“My market has grown from my friends, to the two Facebook groups to having a larger group of brides from around Uganda in the last two months. I used not to buy advertising because I felt I would create a false marketplace. But this time I realised it is better to create that space for people to see my work,” Ms Nyangan says.

However, her top challenge is sourcing the beads which are the main ingredient in her production process. The beads are sourced from Karamoja but should there be any friction between Kenya and Uganda, there is no supply.
Also, customers are yet to fully appreciate the work that goes into producing a quality necklace. For now, their expectation is that prices for such African jewelry should be lower than those from competing raw materials. As a startup, Ms Nyangan has learnt that it takes a lot more work when your business is online.
“There are customers that will not trust you. There are people who want you to have a physical location where they can find you in case of anything,” she says.
The other lesson she learnt is that a startup online needs to get paid beforehand.
“Some customers made me do so many things and did not take them because they decided they did not need them anymore. Because they are made on order and customised, it is hard to sell them because what one loves, another does not. So, I introduced an advance payment.”

Afri-Kay accessories makes between Shs500,000 to Shs1.5m in a good month depending on the orders.
High on her agenda is to tailor clothes but also are big plans for her jewelry line as African themed crafts take centre stage in the fashion industry.
The girls she is training must learn to deliver products without her supervision. Like traditional commerce, she hopes to find a physical location to spend more time with customers. But most importantly, she must find her place in the international market.
“Everyone wants something African on them which is why you see many people going to craft shops to buy themselves something,” Ms Nyangan says. But what is going to make her line stand out is selling a unique story.
“I was Miss Tourism Karamoja. I got to attend exhibitions and was identified as the girl from Karamoja. When people want Karimojong beads, there is one girl they know. Yes, I do have a way of interacting with my customers but eventually someone will buy your work because of the story behind it, being from Karamoja,” she says about using her culture as a selling point.