Nancy Akoth Obonyo refused to let unemployment determine her destiny. As a master’s degree holder, she had been unlucky in securing formal employment so she decided to venture into self-employment in a foreign land. She talked to Vice Versa Global’s Cynthia Omondi on how she got there, her journey so far and her aspirations.
Nancy Akoth Obonyo was born and raised in Homabay County located in the Western part of Kenya, where she cleared her primary and secondary education. The thirty one year old was lucky to join University of Stellenbosch, which is in the Western Cape province of South Africa, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, a course presumed to be male dominated. This came with pride and the assurance of securing a job once she graduates, only for tables to turn. “In the engineering school in South Africa we were often told that as ‘female black’ engineers we were guaranteed a job. It’s the same thing we were often told when we were young, to work hard and get good grades and we would eventually get a job regardless. I came back to Kenya after my graduation, ready for employment, and applied enthusiastically for numerous jobs. Two months later, nothing. Six months, a year down the line, absolutely nothing came my way. I started wondering why!?” Nancy recalled with disappointment. She told me that only about 30% of her classmates got employed.
Moving to Thailand
“I was not doing so well due to the frustration of tarmacking. Luckily, my brother was working in Thailand by then, so he suggested that I join him there for a few months just to refresh as I figured out what next,” she noted. She resolved to pursue a master’s degree and joined Stamford International University, Bangkok, to study for an MBA in International Business Management. “Having an experience in a technical course, I felt I needed to study something that relates to people. My assumption was that marrying these two would give me a better chance of securing a job but sadly, that was never the case. After my master’s graduation I equally did countless job applications to a point where I gave up. I went back to Kenya to try my luck yet again but it was all in vain,” she revealed to me in dismay.
Thailand, known formerly as Siam and officially as the Kingdom of Thailand, is a country in Southeast Asia. With its diverse geography, unique culture and friendly people, Nancy felt she could fit here as she looked into ways of making ends meet. “It seemed like nothing was ever going to come my way so I decided to teach.” She secured a job at a government high school in Thailand, despite not having a teaching certificate. In Thailand, most schools require just a degree certificate, not necessarily one in teaching. She was good in mathematics and that is the subject she found comfortable handling. I never saw myself as a teacher but once I began teaching and saw the impact I had on the students, I loved it. However, teaching is not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I looked into so many things just trying to figure out what could be comfortable for me in the long run. Eventually, I settled on fashion. I am passionate about fashion and I have always received compliments from my friends that I have an ‘eye’ for what people like,” she told me.
Starting an Online Fashion Business
She used her savings from the teaching job to invest into what her heart desired, a risk she felt was worth taking. An entrepreneur tends to bite off a little more than they can chew hoping they’ll quickly learn how to chew it, and that is exactly what she did. “It is that first bold step that mattered, even though I had no idea how it would go. I settled on women outfits for all sizes, simple, unique and elegant. Coming up with a name, was the greatest hurdle I never imagined. I needed an authentic Kenyan name but all the ideas I had, to my surprise, were already taken. From all the simple Swahili statements and Luo words, none came through. I have a Maasai friend who helped me out and that is how ‘THE NALELEK COLLECTION’ was created,” she explained.
‘Nalelek’ is Maasai word for ‘simple’ and Nancy couldn’t have been happier with the name. She calls this business her baby and is determined to see it grow. “Most of my clients are in East Africa. What I do is source the outfits here in Thailand then ship them to Nairobi. My sister-in-law, who has been very supportive, helps in sending some to Uganda and Tanzania by bus. I am really grateful because she is doing exactly what I would be doing, delivering everything on time and talking to people nicely. We have been receiving very good feedback from our clients,” she affirmed with gratitude.
Nancy sources the outfits from Thailand, models in them and posts on her social media platforms for clients to buy. She has supportive friends who have been helping her to model the outfits in different sizes in a bid to elevate her. “I want my clothes to be worn by both a small girl and a big a girl, the entire range, like ‘anybody’ type. If you check on my collection, whether it’s a jumpsuit or a shirt dress, you will notice there is a small girl model which is me and a big girl model who is my friend,” she explained with excitement. She wants her collection to be accommodative as she assures her customers that everyone will look beautiful in all her collections, regardless of size.
Despite her business doing well online, Nancy believes that she can do even better with a physical shop. “Having an online business is very difficult because people cannot see it. Chances of me selling more are high if I had a physical shop because people could walk in, see the varieties and pick their preference. When it comes to online business, at times posted outfits go unnoticed.” She also mentioned that the COVID-19 pandemic largely affected her business, since people were no longer interested in buying clothes but were sticking to essentials for survival. She pointed out that even the shipping period is quite long and some clients lack patience.
Her dream is to one day own a big physical shop in Kenya and create employment to the youth who are unemployed. This is what she had to tell the youth across the globe “No one will come to your rescue, you have to get up, do something and change your life. You don’t necessarily have to do something grand, start with that small thing and as each day passes you will come to the realization that you are not where you started. Take one step at a time do little changes and in the long run you will realize that is was worth it!”
Vice Versa Global is a platform spearheaded by young African journalists who are keen on telling the African story from the youth’s point of view by creating socially conscious content through vlogs, columns, video, articles and discussions in order to share ideas and spark dialogue about social change. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.