BY VICTOR ADAR
It is a hot Monday mid-morning at the open-air food area on top of Prestige Mall on Ngong road as Esther Wanjoga Otieno talks about simplifying shoe search for big foot individuals. She is the CEO and founder of Feet First Footwear; a company that focuses mainly on big shoes size.
Mrs Otieno says her grandfather had heavy bones, as well as big foot, genes that she picked. At an early age, her foot was literally growing faster than her body so much that at class 8 she was already wearing size 10 shoes. There was no way her shoes would be small when her bone structure was huge.
From 1995 to 2000, she had to resort to second hand shoes because that’s where one could find big shoes because of imports especially from Europe (size 44), United States (12) and United Kingdom (9). She would shop at the section meant for adults and not class eight or high school going children.
“Even though I am not athletic, I struggled in high school a lot. Bata, Kenya’s only renowned shoe company had size 42 as the biggest for ladies. So if you are a size 43 or 44, where do you shop for shoes?”
Fortunately, she landed a corporate job at Shell (now Vivo energy) that sponsored her in September 2009 to go for a trip to Canada thanks to good work performance. Some of her relatives are in the diaspora so she extended her stay. In between a girl talk with one of her cousins, she asked for a place where she could get shoes. The lady had encountered a shop that had big sizes and straight away she was taken to a shop that had a section of size 11, 12, 14 all the way to size 15 for ladies. Getting shoes that could fit her was the last thing she thought of as she anticipated not to get any.
To her, that was a golden opportunity, and perhaps the end of her troubles. She can vividly remember how she sold a few pairs to her colleague once she came back to the country. That’s when the business idea was born.
“I just shopped because I knew this is it. So I gathered enough of them; it was about 20 pairs. You buy like three and get one free. I bought casual shoes, sports shoes, evening shoes, and because of the excitement I ended up even buying some which were small,” she says.
With a growing need to cater for this underserved market she registered a company in 2009 and spent around Sh150, 000 on the first consignment. She imported 40 pairs and started selling from the boot of her car after work hours – driven by the needs to cut costs and maximise on profits, she would park strategically and sell. But it became unsustainable because a boot is not convenient as compared to a physical shop.
“I used my savings to increase my stock and I did not take a loan until when we started expanding. At that point we had to get some additional capital but from the onset it was more to do with starting small and not picking the money from the business but turning it over. I also had one employee and would do it as a side hustle. It was part time. The vision was not there yet,” she says, adding that the company currently has 10 employees.
More than a month later, it was clear that customers could not go to every location she had parked pushing her to open a shop where she stocked footwear ranging from size 10, 11 and 12. She says it cost about Sh250, 000 to set up the shop, which originally traded under “Wide Shoe” but has now re-branded to Feet First thanks to the realization that looking good is not all of the head and face but also the feet. This time she purchased 300 pairs of shoes.
While noting that the price of her goods ranges from Sh6, 000 to Sh10, 000, she says that a paradigm shift is necessary. That is why her shoe company is not playing in “that market of low affordability”. On average, she says, retail price for ladies would be Sh5, 500 while men’s averages at around Sh9,000.
“We are focusing on a specific niche and the reason for this particular niche was out of a personal real life experience. Which was a good experience. I also have to put in more time, more marketing to make sure that I have repeat customers so we are not for the mass market. Mine is for people who want to feel and look good. Price is on the higher side but not compared to buying cheap ones and keep going to the market after two, or three months. If you want to buy shoes, you don’t want a shoe that is going to last for one month. In the long run you spend a lot of money. So for us we are not an ordinary shoe retailer because we primarily go beyond and primarily focus on the width,” she points out.
Growing up, Mrs Otieno, a professional marketer, thought that one day she would be a farmer. A footwear business was not anywhere within her radar. But today she is in a venture that a majority of people dream of with branches in Nyali Centre in Mombasa, Garden city Mall, and two stores at the Two Rivers Mall (Nairobi). In all these stores, there are 60% ladies footwear, 35% men shoes and 5% children school shoes, an indication that the company focuses primarily on the ladies.
Looking at the shoe industry, it is evident that there are so many companies vying for a piece of the pie. But Mrs Otieno’s super power lies in the kind of brands she stocks that include Naturalizer, Franco Sarto, Lifestride, Sofft, Softspots, Ryka (an athletic footwear brand made exclusively for ladies), Woods, and Woodland. Sizes range from extremely small to half sizes and extremely big, wide and extra wide fitting shoes. At the same time, customers can buy accessories such as insoles, heel grips, shoe care polish and shines, socks, and shoelaces.
“There is a lot of potential in the footwear industry and you don’t even have to look far. The stores that provide footwear are many. Gone are the days when you would appear without shoes. This is an essential so there is potential in footwear industry,” she says.
SOCIAL & FAMILY LIFE
Esther Wanjoga is in her early 40s and is married to Felix Otieno Onyango, and are blessed with two children, Jesse Otieno, 13, and Jessica Otieno, 11. While Mrs Otieno has good grasp of sales, marketing, retail business and customer service having worked for an oil company as well as a financial institution in those capacities, Mr Otieno is a passionate land valuer. The two are also keen on the hospitality industry and together with other partners (Jaki and Ken) run Carvers Bistro Coffee and Steakhouse situated along Kiambu road.