Women in Business: Rose Mwebi fights to stay afloat amid COVID-19


Women in Business: Rose Mwebi fights to stay afloat amid COVID-19
Rose Mwebi (top left) owns the Sheilamo Investment Uniform Centre and Noa Printing Press in Kisii. PHOTOS | COURTESY

In Summary

  • Like many other businesses in the world, Rose’s has not been spared from the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • She began to cut down on operations in March when Kenya recorded its first case of the virus. By May, she had shut down completely.
  • Her employees had to stay at home. Business was slow. Worse, schools would remain shut for up to 7 months. The demand for uniforms went down drastically.

Rose Mwebi, 42, steels herself everyday to keep her business ventures in Kenya’s Kisii County afloat at the time of a global pandemic.

She cannot afford to fail. “I have my goals set. Let us fight, we are there to fight, let us continue fighting,” she asserts.

Mwebi owns Sheilamo Investment Uniform Centre and Noa Printing Press, a printing firm and also operates a transport and security firm in Kisii, one of the fastest growing towns in southwestern Kenya.

She also supplies stationery and customised uniforms.

She established her business in 2002 with her husband Richard Merikwanga who is the Managing Director of the investment.

18 years in business have taught her to value a business driven on meeting the customers needs.

Currently, she has 32 permanent employees. Her small market enterprise is valued at Ksh. 10million (USD100,000).

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), Kisii County Statistical Abstract, there are 102 trading centres, 16,199 registered businesses, 12,110 licensed retail traders, 49 supermarkets, 365 licensed wholesale traders in the county.

The COVID-19 Effect

Like many other businesses in the world, Rose’s has not been spared from the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She began to cut down on operations in March when Kenya recorded its first case of the virus. By May, she had shut down completely.

Her employees had to stay at home. Business was slow. Worse, schools would remain shut for up to 7 months. The demand for uniforms went down drastically.

“This has been the most difficult time for us. The economy was badly hit and we were not spared either. We have just resumed. We have loans to pay. We have work that we have done that we have not yet been paid. This is our biggest challenge. How will we be compensated?”

The challenge for Rose is not unique. Small scale traders who secure tenders to supply to county and national governments have to contend with long waiting times for their payments to be remitted.

Businesses that have relied on loans to finance an order have been crippled when payments delay.

Rose also cites the high costs of obtaining a business permit as a deterrent for many entrepreneurs. In Kisii county, it cost Ksh. 20,000 (USD 200) to obtain a permit for a large trader with (21-50) employees.

Picking up the pieces

There is a constant staccato sound in each of her printing press work stations.

The sound of metal against metal is not an unfamiliar one for Shem Mogaka. He learned the art of sewing and has been skilled at it since 1991.

He specialises in the production of uniforms. Working for Mama Rose (as Rose is fondly referred to), he says is rewarding.

“She is a very good employer who has a heart and business acumen to help people.Now that schools are opened and the economy is slowly recovering, I hope we will have more work.”

David Okelllo has also worked for Mwebi for two years. He holds a yellow football jersey printed for one of the local teams in Kisii.

The pandemic has dealt a great blow to gatherings. If sports meets don’t happen, they also cannot supply the uniforms they produce.

Giving Back

Rose believes in giving back to society. She gives priority for employment to the less fortunate in her security firm.

She also organises visits to Kisii prisons .Her focus is on cushioning mothers who have children born in the prison environment.

A Vision For Expansion

Like many Kenyan entrepreneurs who start small, Rose aspires to expand her small market enterprise and employ more people.

SMEs make up 98 percent of all business in Kenya, contribute 33 percent of GDP and employ over 30 percent of the population but experience a very high mortality rate of over 75 percent within 3 years of inception.

Many of the employees in the informal sector do not receive a stable salary.

Rose is in this for the long haul and wants her business to adopt a model that will be more sustainable and will significantly eradicate poverty.

She is meeting a significant need and demand by offering both product and service.

There’s no telling when the pandemic will abate and life resumes to normal.

However, Rose has faith in her vision and the resilience that has defined her near two decade experience in business.

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Story By Dorcas Wangira
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