Makena Mwiraria – Keeping Africa’s heritage alive through art

Makena Mwiraria abandoned a lucrative career in pharmacy to venture into the arts. Her African Heritage Design Company (AHDC) – now trading as ARI Africa Limited has been instrumental in raising the profile of African crafts from mere souvenir trinkets to objects of art with world-class appeal.

Born in Meru in the 1960s, Makena Mwiraria attended primary school in Arusha where her father had been posted to work for the East African Community. She later enrolled at Limuru Girls’ School, although her family continued to live in Arusha. While in Form Four, she wrote an article that won her a scholarship to live in the United States (US) for a year. This was an eye-opening experience because she got to learn about other cultures and also became aware of the preconceived notions people had about others.

“It was a fun and easy year. I was a cultural ambassador and would do presentations about Kenya,” says Mwiraria about her year abroad. But she also experienced racism first hand and realised that some people had preconceived notions about black people. “They didn’t see the person, they saw the stereotype,” she says. These experiences taught Mwiraria that Africans don’t tell their own story, and neither do they share their values and rich culture.

She applied to a university in the US where she was admitted to study pharmacy, even though that was not her passion. In those days art, which was her first love, wasn’t considered a career that could give you sufficient income, she explains. Because she needed a ‘real’ degree, she went on to pursue pharmacy and afterwards got a job in the Virgin Islands. But she realised that even though the job paid well, she was in a profession that she wasn’t passionate about. So she decided to open an African crafts shop. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo. Mwiraria then came back to Kenya and established Makena Designs, a company that produced screen art. She gained a lot of experience and even received a graphic arts award. Her one negative experience was the fact that Kenya lacked a copyrighting policy, which meant that protecting one’s art from duplication, was a constant challenge. Despite this challenge, she ran a successful business combining her love for screen art with fashion. She designed clothing that won her awards in the 1990s.

Despite her success, Mwiraria returned to the US and went back to her former profession in pharmacy. Her turning point came in 2003 when her mother fell sick and had to travel abroad for treatment. During this time, Mwiraria returned to Kenya and decided to explore art as a full-time job. In September 2003, she acquired an ailing pan-African gallery from local art aficionado Alan Donovan, and renamed it the African Heritage Design Company (AHDC). The original African Heritage company was established in 1972. She kept up the former African Heritage locations and also opened others along the way. She also took over most of the jewellery workshops. In addition, AHDC opened a shop in Ghana. AHDC has been described as “having raised African crafts from mere souvenirs and trinkets to objects of art with world-class appeal”. Its designs and fashion collections have been worn around the world by contestants in Big Brother Africa, Miss Hong Kong Nairobi and participants at various local and international events organised by the Kenya Tourism Board. Mwiraria’s designs were also featured during the launch
of Virgin Atlantic, and she has also created accessories for numerous organisations around the world.

Besides realising her love for art, Mwiraria creates jobs for hundreds of Kenyans. At the time of this writing, ADHC had several warehouses where they put together items for export to large markets. The production process is exacting and has to be strictly followed to ensure exports aren’t shipped back at extra cost. Through exporting African art to Western markets, Mwiraria is proud of the role she has played in sharing Africa’s heritage to the world
through art. “Challenges in this industry include flooding of quarries, lack of funding and lack of storage space for the art designs,” says Mwiraria. For big export jobs, she hires extra hands to tag the pieces with stickers, which have to meet a certain standard. Penalties are imposed when deliveries are late, or packing is not up to standard. “All these challenges reduce our income, so we aim to get it right the first time,” says Mwiraria. “The development of the industry has allowed better copyright policing to be done, although it is still a difficult task,” she says. “There are various governing bodies that are trying to enforce this.”

She uses technology to source new clients, and markets her goods on the Internet, a tool that is especially vital for finding export markets. “Before, we would create designs and let other people put their brands on Kenyan products. Now we are putting on our own logos,” Mwiraria says “The trade shows in Kenya promote competition, allowing growth for artists within our country.” She adds that creating original products that can be sold directly to clients has increased profit margins because no fees are paid to agents and middlemen. “I love what I do. I design something and see it made. It is a challenging exercise that stretches your mind,” she says. She notes that it is also very fulfilling to go through the creative process and see the crafts people conceptualise the design then make the art a reality.

AHDC designs are pan-African designs that find their inspiration across the entire continent of Africa. AHDC makes minor changes to ensure that the designs blend in with contemporary homes, offices and hotels. Mwiraria got her values and work ethic from her parents, Jerusha and David Mwiraria. When she was young, her mother encouraged her to be creative and original. She was raised with the love of art, evident in the layout of their homestead which houses one of the AHDC workshops. Her mother was an amazing creative and cheerleader who saw potential in people’s passions. She used to make banana fibre chairs using natural products. The chairs were original creations. She encouraged Mwiraria to follow her heart and achieve her dreams.

Mwiraria loves her job, and because of this she enjoys working late into the night and waking up early with birds singing outside her bedroom window. She takes a few minutes each morning to meditate and plan the day. She tries to schedule her appointments after 11am, by which time she has visited the workshop, scheduled the day’s tasks and shared her ideas with the designers. For leisure, Mwiraria sketches future designs. She urges everyone, especially artists to “give yourself the luxury of thinking by allowing the space and time to get ideas, going to places with creative concepts, seeing what others have created and travelling to other cultures.”

She is quick to add: “Be mindful of your health, ensuring you reflect on your African heritage and the African medicine of your forefathers.”

“Africans should promote their own creations by trading with each other; this will ensure we are empowered as a continent.”
“Cultivate staying power. Do what you love, be passionate and share it with others.”
“What you want to do is not as hard as you think – just take that first step.”

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