After eleven years in a foreign land it was time to go home. Wangari packed up her bags in 2005 and left America, heading against the brain drain that sees many Kenyans heading west in search of greener pastures typified by cards of the same name. Armed with a degree in graphic design and product development she had been freelancing in the US and was ready to put her skills to work, where her heart still lay – at home in Kenya. It was a new beginning, entering a world as an adult that she had left as child. Life back home was familiar yet different after the hiatus of more than a decade. She was excited.
Diving into the Nairobi hustle she registered her graphic design business – Black Butterfly and within a short time had two employees. Things were looking up as she got a couple of regular clients who appreciated her services. Business was growing. Who said creatives can’t be guys of biashara?
Wangari had deeper dreams though and decided it was time put her academic background in product design to the test. The first step was translating her designs into three dimensional functional art. She went back to the place that always had an answer in times of need, home to her parents to seek some help. The help she sought? A sewing machine. But not just any sewing machine. Her mother's Singer machine was the asset that provided collateral for a loan when her parent needed money to build their first home back in the seventies. It was a treasured heirloom and it was befitting that it was embarking on a new journey, passing from mother to daughter. She got to work, bringing to life her designs under the needle as she worked the forty-year old treadle. The year was 2011 and Peperuka – a product development company, coined from the Swahili word to soar, was born.
Wangari’s work has always been linked to her passion – an innate love for her land and its people. Her first product, T shirts recognising heroines representing mother Africa– Wangari Maathai, Winnie Mandela, Miriam Makeba and Rita Marley. Shortly after the line came out, Kenya’s iconic Nobel winner Prof Maathai passed on and there was a scramble for memorabilia to honour her. Peperuka’s Wangari Maathai T shirts became iconic and a life-long partnership began. For every Wangari product purchased Peperuka plants a tree in conjunction with the Green Belt Movement, the grassroots organization established by Maathai .Each year the small Peperuka team physically plants their commitment in Kenya’s forests. Its #theirlittlething
Peperuka has grown over the last six years, albeit in fits and starts. All entrepreneurs will tell you that growth is never a smooth upward line, no matter what the newspapers tell you. Wangari’s most heart-breaking moment was having to let some members of her small staff go because the business just couldn’t sustain them. The journey continues though. In 2016 Peperuka opened an online store to sell their locally made and eco-friendly products. T shirts, fleeces, pillows and fridge magnets that celebrate Kenya and our innate Kenyanness, the wonderful, warm and yes peculiar people we be.
Did you catch Lupita and Trey Songz in their “Me I Love Nairobi" T shirts? Peperuka.
Or photographer Mutua Matheka loving Nairobi atop the cities buildings? Peperuka.
Did you see those magnets that were floating on social media with the familiar slogans of “Tuma na ya kutoa” and “Mine is just to say something small”? Peperuka.
How about DJ D Lite at the Safaricom International Jazz Festival rocking Wangari Maathai? Yep, again Peperuka.
To round it all, Wangari is in the business of giving back. She established the Peperuka foundation which works with Seeds of HopeCentre a resource centre working with disadvantaged youth in Nairobi. Through the programme the mentors focus on supporting personal growth and teach the ropes of building a business for nextgen Kenyans; dispelling myths about needing to be a big corporate in order to be a socially responsible business. After all, small businesses are the heart of Kenya’s economy, responsibility is best ingrained from day one.
In her own way with her own talents, Wangari in the words of her namesake Wangari Maathai, is a hummingbird, doing the best she can in her own way every day. Her thing? An unwavering push to design and responsibly produce products that celebrate our identity.
Shukrani Wangari and the team at Peperuka for keeping it Kenyan and shining a positive light on our ideas, people and ability to produce top notch products that celebrate our unique Kenyan identity. Amazing things happen when people move wholeheartedly into unknown territory with boldness.
Photos courtesy of peperuka.co.ke