Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

What's in (cyber) store? Online shopping puts Kenyan designs at your fingertips

By Teo Kermeliotis and Jessica Ellis, CNN
February 12, 2014 -- Updated 1121 GMT (1921 HKT)
Closet49 is a Kenyan online fashion marketplace that connects buyers and sellers 24-hours a day. Closet49 is a Kenyan online fashion marketplace that connects buyers and sellers 24-hours a day.
Digital startups transform fashion industry
Digital startups transform fashion industry
Digital startups transform fashion industry
Digital startups transform fashion industry
Digital startups transform fashion industry
Digital startups transform fashion industry
Digital startups transform fashion industry
Digital startups transform fashion industry
Digital startups transform fashion industry
Digital startups transform fashion industry
  • E-commerce platforms like Closet49 and Soko have proliferated in Kenya
  • More and more mobile phone users are turning online to buy and sell goods
  • Closet49 is an online marketplace linking buyers of clothes to sellers in the country
  • Soko links artisans directly to online global consumers using a simple mobile phone

Every week, African Start-Up follows entrepreneurs in various countries across the continent to see how they are working to make their business dreams become reality.

(CNN) -- It's grown from selling clothes to a handful of friends inside a small dorm room to a popular fashion website featuring more than 1,000 stylish items.

Admittedly, it's been quite a journey for Serah Kanyua, the co-founder of Closet49, an online marketplace that links buyers of clothes and accessories to sellers across Kenya.

Launched just over a year ago, the growing website features a mix of new and used fashion items -- from custom-made pieces by young designers and boutique stores to well-preserved clothes from women looking to de-clutter their closets.

Closet49: Kenya's 'guilt-free' shopping?
'African iTunes' targets mobile users

"We simply merged the idea to sell affordable fashion to people who just didn't want to pay too much," says Kanyua. "And also give people an opportunity to sell off clothes they don't want anymore in their closet but are still in good condition -- and you can be able to get extra cash," she adds.

Kanyua first began selling clothes to her friends back in 2008 while studying at the University of Nairobi. "They would tell me, 'well, where did you get this dress from?'" she recalls. "I said, 'if I see something that you like then I will get it for you.' And then it suddenly became a bi-weekly thing, where they would stop by my room and select what they liked -- so that really kick-started it off."

After graduating with a marketing degree, Kanyua then decided to expand her small venture, going into business with her high school friend Irene Abagi. Using Kanyua's living room as their base, the two business partners called their shop Closet49.

"When we met the first time to try to exchange clothes and buy from each other as friends, we had, like, 49 items so we picked 49," says Kanyua.

We simply merged the idea to sell affordable fashion to people that don't want to pay too much.
Serah Kanyua, Closet49 co-founder

While the two entrepreneurs still use Kanyua's living room as a physical store twice a week, they see the biggest opportunities for growth online, where buyers can connect to sellers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Kanyua says they started with about 10 customers a month and they're now getting about 100, while last year there were some 2,500 fashion items sold through the website.

"There is huge potential in this market," says Kanyua. "It is quite competitive but at same time there is huge opportunity," she adds.

Global connections

Kenya has experienced a major IT boom over the past few years, spurred by a rapid increase in the usage of mobile phones. According to the latest data by the Communications Commission of Kenya, the number of mobile phone subscribers rose to 31.2 million in September 2013, while internet users stood at 19.1 million.

The growth has the potential to revolutionize the east African country's retail sector. In recent years, several web-based marketplaces have proliferated as more and more mobile phone users turn online to buy or sell goods and services. Indeed, the widespread adoption of mobile money platforms like M-Pesa has turned Kenya into "a global leader in mobile money transfer service," according to Freedom House, a U.S.-based think tank.

But while websites such as Closet49 connect users and buyers within Kenya, other online marketplaces such as Soko enable small-scale artisans and producers sell their handcrafted creations not only locally but also across the world.

Soko, which means marketplace in Swahili, allows jewelry makers and craftspeople to participate in the international trade. It helps them link directly with buyers from around the world, even if they don't have access to a computer or a bank account.

Using a simple mobile phone, artisans can create virtual storefronts by posting their products on Soko's e-commerce website. Consumers then can buy directly from the designers, with Soko facilitating shipment and payment to the vendor.

Soko transforms the ubiquitous mobile phone into a tool for trade that expands access to economic opportunity.
Catherine Mahugu, Soko co-founder

Catherine Mahugu, the Kenyan co-founder of Soko, says the site receives tens of thousands of hits per month and has helped artisans to sell thousands of products to consumers from places such as the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia.

"Soko transforms the ubiquitous mobile phone into a tool for trade that expands access to economic opportunity for developing world producers of handmade goods, giving them a greater share of the profits of the global creative goods industry," says Mahugu.

Looking ahead, the Soko team has big plans for the future. Mahugu says the e-commerce marketplace will be looking to expand its geographical footprint, scaling across East Africa and West Africa as well as piloting in India and Latin America.

Back in Kanyua's home, the young entrepreneur says she hopes Closet49's annual profits will make them a million Kenyan shillings in the next two to three years -- a goal of about $12,000 in profit a year.

"It's working, you can see the growth," she says. "So it's really exciting when you see all that working out," adds Kanyua. "I am not denying there are no ups and downs for anyone out there who wants to start but It's really, at the end of the day, very satisfying that you are building something that you are proud of, that you are working, that you like, and then still be able to pay your bills."

READ THIS: 'Nigerian iTunes' dances to mobile beat

READ THIS: Orphans launch Rwandan Craigslist

Part of complete coverage on
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
East Africa's vibrant music scene has been steadily gaining exposure, and now entrepreneurs and investors are catching on.
November 28, 2014 -- Updated 1503 GMT (2303 HKT)
 A woman sells Liberian flags on the street near an Ebola isolation ward on August 15, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia. People suspected of contracting the Ebola virus are being brought by health workers to the center, a closed primary school originally built by USAID, while larger facililities are being constructed to house the surging number of patients. The Ebola epidemic has killed more than 1,000 people in four West African countries. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
As the economic impact of Ebola in Liberia deepens, workers and entrepreneurs are struggling to deal with the crisis.
November 28, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
While public transport networks improve in many African cities, taxis remain a common mode of getting around. Is this three-wheeler about to change that?
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1409 GMT (2209 HKT)
Christine Mbabazi started designing clothes in her bedroom, now a store owner, she has bigger plans; to become household name.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1046 GMT (1846 HKT)
Dakar is the vibrant home of a growing community of surfers taking advantage of the warm weather, year-round waves and cheap flights.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Jeffrey Mulaudzi's tourism business is a learning experience on two wheels, giving visitors an opportunity to see the local lifestyle up close.
November 3, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
War long made Goma a difficult place to live in, but one woman has set out to change that -- and she's using soft croissants and fresh coffee.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
When you think chocolate, you probably don't think Uganda. But if two local entrepreneurs have their way, you will soon...
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
If someone has shined your shoes in a South African airport, it's probably thanks to Lere Mgayiya.
September 8, 2014 -- Updated 0924 GMT (1724 HKT)
Meet Kemi Kalikawe, the owner of Naledi Lifestyle Store which specializes in fashion and household items in Dar es Salaam.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1044 GMT (1844 HKT)
On the streets of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, scores of vulnerable children face uncertain futures.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1400 GMT (2200 HKT)
A student works on a laptop in Nigeria.
Five digital natives from five very different African nations have come together to transform the continent's approach to education.
September 3, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Translating local charm into eye-catching designs, Definition Africa is a booming t-shirt retailer staying true to its Ugandan roots.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1046 GMT (1846 HKT)
Janet Fredman Designs transforms modest materials such as seeds, wood and leather into high-end jewelry.
See the full coverage of CNN's African Start-Up -- the show that follows entrepreneurs across the continent making their dreams become reality.