Meet Nkatha Gitonga: She designs digital retail channels for African and African inspired impact-driven jewelry brands

Mbula Nzuki (L) (Yakutti design partner) and Nkatha Gitonga (R) (Yakutti Founder & Managing Director) 

Mbula Nzuki (L) (Yakutti design partner) and Nkatha Gitonga (R) (Yakutti Founder & Managing Director) 

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Yakutti, Inc. designs digital and experiential retail channels for African and African inspired impact-driven designer jewelry brands to retail their collections, engage their customers and tell their brand stories.

Nkatha Gitonga is the Founder and Managing Director, Yakutti, Inc. This is a story of how she started her company, and most importantly, why she started it.

Before starting college, I taught at a rural secondary school in Kenya’s countryside where every day, I watched helplessly as my students struggled to communicate and understand curriculum that was taught in English. Over time, their once vibrant personalities would begin to dim out, and their self-esteem would be affected. I didn’t have the power or know-how to change the system, so I began to think of a long term solution that would re-ignite the passion and zeal for students who experienced this type of rejection.

I didn’t have a policy related answer for this educational system that failed many students, but I felt it was important to come up with a solution that would make young people who experienced ridicule and embarrassment aware that there is life after examinations.

Motivated by my experience prototyping energy harnessing shoes in Cape Town, South Africa I joined the Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge to build an incubation foundation of my idea which was to support high school students that did not qualify or afford to join college with opportunities to build or join the teams of profitable businesses. I also wanted to create a strong network of alumni (who were a part of the Foundation) with a chance to pay it forward through donations, mentoring and participating in training programs.

When I made my pitch, the judges praised my idea but faulted its sustainability model. I didn’t feel bad about their comments, and decision, but rather, realized that the challenge opened me up to the ideation process and the potential it had to influence many lives.

Not too long after that experience, I had the opportunity to visit several African cities and see amazing art and design spaces – spaces that very few people knew about. This experience, led me to ideate my way into Skylook, which later became Yakutti, Inc. 

With Yakutti, I envisioned bridging the gap for designers and creatives to access new and growing markets, new retail channels, financing opportunities, reliable manufacturing spaces, training in emerging technologies, and novel business models.

I started Yakutti in 2015, right after graduation. After incorporating the company, I began sourcing and working with African-based designers to create innovative digital and experiential retail channels for impact-driven jewelry brands. Our first channel is a storytelling marketplace that has caught the eye of a wide range of brands with compelling visions and stories. These range from a brand working with conservation organizations in Tanzania, to one providing employment to artisans in Kenya, and another that’s training women to make high-end jewelry that celebrates the ornamentation tradition of the Ndebele in South Africa.

Yakutti is designed to inspire a mission that advances the design space in Africa and one that contributes to a relevant and necessary movement towards ethical business practices and responsible lifestyles.

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Yakutti has built an integrated high-value platform that allows access into the US market and has a flexible business model that lets the designer select which pressing problem we (the customers) can help with. This can be a cash flow problem or low margins.

As the Managing Director, I curate designer collections and partner with designers who run impact-driven businesses to provide new technologies, new design concepts, unique raw materials, and new impactful and innovating business models within the African design space. This way, customers get chic and meaningful items that are deserving of the novelty that goes into the design process.

A majority of my clients are middle-aged professionals who care about impactful visibility because their personal and professional success depends on it. They are willing to invest both conceptually and financially to build a personal aesthetic that matches their values and aspirations.

I've learned so much since I started Yakutti.

From my experiencing seeking funding:

  • Raise funds from people who believe in you. Even better, look for people you can approach a second and third time about urgent business financial needs.
  • Have your skin in the game – use part of your savings, if you have it. This is more convincing than being empty handed.

I have built a successful customer base by partnering with individuals and organizations who share similar values to those of Yakutti.

So every time I travel, I borrow a leaf from the people I interact with and try to implement them at Yakutti. Wider reading has also helped shape my way of thinking, and how I run my business. Here’s an excerpt from Phil Knight’s book – Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike

“Let everyone else call your idea crazy. . . just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where “there” is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop. That’s the precocious, prescient, urgent advice I managed to give myself, out of the blue, and somehow managed to take. Half a century later, I believe it’s the best advice—maybe the only advice—any of us should ever give.” ~ Phil Knight

From Team Thelela, all the best Nkatha! Here’s to curating more beautiful African and African inspired jewelry, and to sharing the stories of the brands behind them - brands that are socially responsible, eco-conscious and value driven.