14 October 2011

Kenya: Flying Kenya's Business Flag in S. Korea

One fine morning, pandemonium broke out in a South Korean supermarket, and customers and shop stewards alike scampered for safety.

Babies strapped on their mothers' backs, others in prams screamed as their parents sought the nearest exits.

And it wasn't a terrorist attack, neither was it a band of robbers who had raided the convenience store. No, it wasn't a fire alert either.One Kenyan woman had just walked in to make a purchase.

"It was terrible!" recalls the woman, Everlyne Nyambegera. "Children were crying, their mothers dashing for the exits and all this made me also break down and start crying too."

"I was so upset and I said to myself that I will never go back to Korea again . . . one of my aunties in Kenya told me I'd be mad to return to Korea," she told Lifestyle in Seoul recently.

It was the first time in their lives that these Koreans had seen a black person, live, and their fright makes Ms Nyambegera smile in hindsight each time she narrates the amusing story to friends and family.

Ms Nyambegera is Kenya's only trader in the Republic of Korea, her Kisii soapstone and curio shop the sole Kenyan business in this fast-growing Asian nation.

The shop incident is just one of many hardships that she has had to endure to break even in a market that is so conservative and wary of foreigners, especially black people.

Ms Nyambegera runs her curio business along with her mother and they employ a team of craftsmen back at their home in Kisii who make soapstone products and ship them to the port city of Busan in South Korea, from where Nyambegera picks them up for sale in her store in Seoul and a number of trade exhibitions across the republic.

It all started when her mother, Teresa, visited Korea in 2005 for a trade expo. The overwhelming interest in her crafts by Koreans earned her invitations to many other exhibitions in the country.

"My mother didn't go to school and we had a curio shop in Kenya already, and so she gave me some money to invest in a business in Korea after she saw the potential here," Ms Nyambegera says.

She completed her secondary school education at Itibo Girls High School in Nyamira in 2002 but became actively engaged in the soapstone business in 2004.

"It was hard for an African to do business in Korea and to even get a business visa. One had to wait for over one and a half years for the visa application to be considered," she says.

Her mother had a curio business at the famous Kigari market in Nairobi, which was brought down to give way for other developments, leaving many curio dealers without a base.

But Teresa quickly pulled herself together and challenged the Korean market through the trade fairs.

Besides the rigours of getting a Korean business visa, there were other stringent measures in place before one could get a trade licence to operate a business in Seoul.

For instance, it was then a requirement to have at least Sh10 million in one's account to satisfy the trade authorities in Seoul that one had the necessary finance to cushion such an investment.

Then one also had to show that he or she had an acceptable warehouse and accommodation in the Republic of Korea and the items on sale were required to meet the high Korean standards.

Trade fairs

It took a while for Ms Nyambegera to meet all these requirements, and, in the interim, she had to make do with operating at the trade fairs and exhibitions.

"When I told her to make an application for a business permit through the embassy, it was not easy as, like many Kenyans abroad, she and her mother viewed the embassy's involvement in their business with a lot of suspicion," says Mr Ngovi Kitau, Kenya's ambassador to Korea.

"But now she is always grateful to the mission for helping her get the necessary documentation and licences to operate what is now Kenya's only known business concern in Korea.

Ms Nyambegera's brothers and sisters handle her business interests in Kenya, making sure the soapstone carvings are made to high standards at the source in Tabaka, Kisii, before they are transported to Mombasa and shipped in containers to Busan.

"Besides the Kisii soapstone products, I also purchase wood-carved giraffes from Indonesia and other artefacts from South America and Dubai. Having such a variety in my shops offers customers a good option," she says.

Ms Nyambegera, who runs a shop in one of Seoul's busy subway stations at Jung-gu Underground Shopping Centre, hopes to move into bigger premises given the overwhelmingly positive reception of the products.

At one time, her business received a major endorsement when, upon seeing the soapstone products on display at an expo, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a purchase.

"The President was very impressed by the standards of craftsmanship and personally came to purchase some soapstone carvings from Everlyne. This was very good for Kenya and for her business," recalls Mr Kitau.

Ms Nyambegera's business was further boosted by the success of Kenyan athletes at the World Championships in Athletics that ended in the Korean city of Daegu early last month.

Seven gold medals

"Each time a Kenyan runner won a gold medal, Koreans would flock to my stand and make purchases," said Ms Nyambegera, who had a stall just outside the Daegu stadium, the venue of the 10-day track and field competition that saw Kenya finish third overall on the medals table behind superpowers USA and Russia with an all-time highest count of seven gold medals.

"It was a great period and I sold more than what I usually sell. The Kenyan athletes really dealt a great positive impact to my business here.

"Koreans know Kenya for two main reasons - marathon running and wildlife. When the Kenyan women won gold, silver and bronze in the marathon on the opening day of the championships in Daegu, I received a lot of customers who made purchases even without bargaining," she said.

By their nature, Koreans are very inquisitive people and it has taken Ms Nyambegera a lot of patience to do business in this Asian nation.

"They look at my carvings and I have to explain to them what the people in the carvings are doing and what some of the artwork means," she said.

"Most of the Korean children tell their parents that they want the elephant carvings and, recently, I have been encouraged to do both wholesale and retail business as some Korean dealers come to my shop to make bulk purchases so they can sell the art in their shops across the country."

Now a Kenyan ambassador of sorts in Korea, Ms Nyambegera has also ventured into the promotion of Kenyan music.

Last year, she helped manage performances by a Kisii band, Abana Sungusia, hosting them for several crowd-pulling performances in Korea.

"They had shows for about four months and were good cultural ambassadors although some contractual disagreements meant they could not extend their stay.

"But the fact is that there is a very good market here for Kenyan music and performing arts," she said.

In Korea, Kenyans operate under the aegis of the KCK (Kenyan Community in Korea), made up largely of students in Korean universities, and currently headed by Daystar University alumnus, Mr Benson Kamary.

They will be joined by the odd Kenya-born US military serviceman serving in the forces at the demilitarised, Joint Security Zone that protects Seoul from their nemesis in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) under the iron grip of supreme leader Kim Jong-il.

With the Kenya-Korea trade imbalance heavily in favour of the Koreans, Ms Nyambegera's business acumen has shown that the will to succeed can open up the Korean market to more Kenyan businesses.

Besides the students, Kenyan artistes have found the Korean market quite enticing. Fashion model Eric Omondi is slowly developing into a popular figure on the Korean fashion runways.

There is also the Faith Brothers, gospel singers Francis Munene and Daniel Gathuma, whose performances have been quite endearing to the world's largest congregation that gathers at Seoul's Yoido Full Gospel Church.

The church has a membership of over one million people and its church hall can accommodate 26,000 people.

The Faith Brothers recently released a single in Korean titled Songy'ong'e Ushone, which they performed live at the Jinju Full Gospel Church in Seoul with a team of 30 back-up singers and six main vocalists.

The duo, along with Ms Nyambegera, Mr Omondi and the runners, have played a huge role in driving tourist traffic to Kenya with the numbers of Korean tourists to Kenya slowly rising.

In 2009, for instance, 5,275 out of 83,856 Asian tourists were Korean. The number rose to 6,677 out of the Asian total of 110,359 last year.

"Our aim is to get 10,000 Korean tourists visiting Kenya by the end of 2012," Mr Kitau said.

Ms Nyambegera knows that such interaction between Kenya and Korea will only mean better times to come for her soapstone business.

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