Ugandan-based company Kijani Baby is revolutionizing the baby products industry with washable cloth diapers. Entrepreneur Valerie Muigai shares how she used her innovation to create local jobs.
What is Kijani Baby and what problem are you trying to address?
Kijani Baby is a social enterprise based in Kampala, Uganda that manufactures high quality, washable cloth diapers as a way to create jobs for women and offer a valuable product in the local market. There is a huge market gap in Uganda when it comes to diapers for low income families – buying just 2 disposable diapers per day will cost a family $200 per year, yet the average family makes only $600 per year, making diapers out of reach for most families. The growth rate for Uganda is one of the highest in the world, which means there are millions of Ugandan families with babies that cannot afford diapers. As a result, babies are wrapped in rags or left naked, leading to the spread of diarrheal diseases which can affect the whole family and create unhygienic household conditions. In addition, the existing disposable diapers present a huge problem for the environment since they are not biodegradable or reusable.
We make a high quality, affordable diaper that can address the challenges low income families face in diapering their babies. In addition, by manufacturing locally and training micro-distributors to sell our products, we are creating jobs and income opportunities for women, addressing the high unemployment rates for women in Uganda.
What makes your product unique?
Right now, we are the only washable diaper company in Uganda and there are no other products like ours on the market. We make not only baby diapers, but also larger diapers for children and adults with special needs. We use a combination of imported diaper fabrics and locally grown cotton to create a product that is the same quality as anything found in Europe but far less expensive. Our diapers are adjustable and will fit a baby from birth to potty training. We use an “all in two” design to make them more cost effective – the absorbent part (soaker) is separate from the cover, so families can buy just one or two covers and several soakers.
The other thing that makes us unique is that we are the only company in the world that manufactures washable diapers locally as a way to create jobs in the target market. We believe in building the economy by manufacturing in Uganda and using as many locally produced materials as possible.
Can you please share your experience around the product development? How did you find your local women to produce the diapers?
I used cloth diapers with my own children, and a friend taught me how to sew them. When I moved to Uganda in 2012, I brought diaper fabrics with me and started making diapers for friends. Their friends saw them and started placing orders. As we started getting more orders, I realized the huge gap that existed in the local market. I spent about 2 years trying out different designs and different fabrics – I would try them on my own children and also get customer feedback. When I started getting orders, I found a tailor and taught her how to sew the diapers, and she would make them for me. We started very, very small and were running it out of my house. As the demand grew, I hired more tailors and also found women that wanted to learn tailoring but hadn’t had an opportunity. So some of the tailors we have were already trained tailors and some of them started from scratch and we first trained them in tailoring.
What successes have you experienced so far?
Our diapers have been very well received by the market and we recently sold our 10,000th diaper. We started a partnership with Living Goods in late 2016, a social business that trains micro-distributors to sell health and hygiene promoting products. They first did a trial in a few branches, and then launched our diapers in all of their branches in March 2017. The diapers were so well received that they called to reorder on March 7th, only 6 days after the launch!
We have also received great feedback on our cloth diapers for older children with special needs. We have received stories of children like an 8 year boy who was able to go to school for the first time because he finally had a discrete and dignified way to manage his incontinence.
We have also been able to provide a good income to 13 women so far. We pay our tailors per piece, and we are able to give them salaries that are well above the market rate for tailors.
What challenges have you faced so far in your entrepreneurial journey?
One of our challenges has been meeting the demand! We have been growing organically without any capital investment so far and it has been challenging to keep up with demand.
Another major challenge is fabric. Because diapers need very specific fabrics in order to work well, we have to import several fabrics from China. It can take 2-3 months for a partial container load of fabric to arrive, so it’s a significant cash investment up front that doesn’t start generating revenues for 3-4 months. Because we have been growing organically, we have had to do small orders which is more expensive in the long run, plus ordering so far in advance has caused challenges with cash flow, and our turnaround time for potential large partnerships is 3-4 months which can be discouraging to potential partners.
What do you expect from the IBA community? What would you like to see more of?
We are new to the IBA community and are just learning about what to expect! We are hoping to raise capital to order a 20 foot container of fabric, which will decrease shipping time, lower our overall costs, and give us enough fabric on hand to meet even large orders in good time, so I would love to see opportunities to be connected with investors. I also love the academy feature and the opportunity to learn more about best practices for running an inclusive social business.
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