Kazuri Beads Ltd: Tony Prior

The founder of Kazuri Beads Ltd, tells us how his company survived political upheaval in Kenya and went on to win exclusive trading contracts with John Lewis

A friendship struck in Nairobi, Kenya led Tony Prior to set up Kazuri Beads Ltd. With links to Kenya, France, Italy and Ireland, this British company has survived international political turmoil to double its turnover every two years since its inception in 2002. The fair trade jewellery distributor now trades with John Lewis and Fenwick, and turns over some £830,000 annually.

As the sole UK distributor of Kazuri’s handmade, ceramic jewellery, Tony’s company is primarily a commercial endeavour — and with trading partners like Galeries Lafayette, a very successful one at that. But his company is linked to social enterprise through its production partners, too.

“Kazuri has a unique story with an interesting heritage behind it. The manufacturing company was set up in Nairobi in 1975 by Lady Susan Wood,” Tony explains. “Her philosophy was to provide employment for single mothers around the area she lived in.”

While running Pepsi’s East Africa division, based in Nairobi, Tony met business executive Mark Newman, who would ultimately buy the ‘cottage industry’ of jewellery production from Lady Wood. Mark and Tony soon became good friends – and business associates. They both decided Kazuri had large-scale commercial and export potential, and Tony soon became involved in setting up a European export operation.

“Myself and my wife set up the UK business in 2002,” Tony says. “Initially it was a retail operation in East Anglia. Then I got involved full time in the business in 2003 and launched the wholesale side.”

It took a lot of time and investment to set the distribution company up. A lot of the early success was down to the friendship between the two friends, with Tony receiving interest-free credit on stock from Mark’s operation in Kenya. Even with such help, it was hard going: Tony and his wife Diana had to take subsistence wages for a few years before they could take any money out of the business.

To build up distribution, Tony looked to trade shows from the start, managing to get orders and build up customers, even though he claims they ‘did everything wrong’. Now he and Diana do about fifteen or twenty shows a year, and the hard work pays off: they have 500 stockists in the UK, mainly independent fashion and gift shops, but also department stores such as Fenwick. They signed a breakthrough contract with John Lewis in 2007, starting off on a trial basis, and have since increased the number of store listings to cover all stores.

“We pick up contacts through the trade shows,” Tony explains. “Once you’ve got leads, you mail them with your new material several times a year and invite them to shows. Eventually they come.” In fact, they came in such numbers, and the UK operation was so successful, Kazuri Beads Ltd soon won exclusive distribution rights to trade Kazuri jewellery in France, Italy and Ireland, too.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Kazuri Beads, however. Recent political clashes in Kenya severely disrupted production for a time, which put the distribution business in jeopardy. Negative media coverage decimated the Kenyan tourist market overnight and the future of the Kazuri workshop was uncertain. Tony worried the UK business might not survive. However, Kazuri distributors worldwide clubbed together to ensure that the workshop received all the orders required to make up for the loss of their entire local market, and both production and distribution arms pulled through.

More difficulties came with the sad death of Tony’s friend and close business associate, Mark. As a result, the pair’s ambitions to take management stakes in companies distributing Kazuri globally never materialised.

But ambitions to grow geographically and to extend the business’ product range have not diminished, and Tony has just launched a new range of organic necklaces and bracelets. “Taguabella jewellery’s made from seeds from a palm tree that’s indigenous to Columbia,” he explains. “It’s sustainable and provides land owners with an income which prevents them chopping down the rainforest to grow cocaine.”

He also has plans to develop a third range of jewellery from the Far East, with the same aim of supporting local operations by distributing fair trade products with ethical credentials. The hope is that these areas will benefit as much from Kazuri Beads’ success as the community in Nairobi: “When we started the UK operation in 2002, there were forty women in the workshop; now there are over three hundred. Nearly half of their output is coming to our European markets now. We’re very proud of the fact that we’ve established so many real jobs there.”

   

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