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July 11, 2012

Japanese company opens doors to Kisii products

"This is very beautiful," says Ms. Akiko Masuda, holding up a unique carving made from soapstone. Ms. Masuda was part of a MUJI delegation from Japan that had visited Smolart Self Help Group in Tabaka, a Division in Kenya's Kisii District that is renowned for its soapstone products.

Ms. Masuda, accompanied by Ms. Reiko Ishizaki, was here to follow up on an order of Christmas gift soapstone items to sell in MUJI's stores in Japan and other countries. Ryohin Keikaku Co. Ltd., popularly known as MUJI, is a Japanese company whose concept is "good price with reason". It has a presence in 21 countries worldwide, with a total of 535 stores. MUJI emphasizes on stocking only good quality products, which has earned them a good reputation. Their goods range from household goods to fashion and food items.

In July 2011, JICA, in collaboration with the Ministry of Industrialization and the Export Promotion Council (EPC), held a seminar to introduce Kenyan small scale producers of commercial crafts and household items to MUJI and other Japanese exporters. This was under JICA's One Village One Product (OVOP) Programme. The OVOP programme is a development concept promoted by the Japanese Government to facilitate rural economic development in developing countries. In Kenya, the programme is one of the proposed action plans in the Master Plan for Kenyan Industrial Development. It aims to empower communities in Kenya to achieve economic growth by utilizing locally available resources.

One of the groups identified as potential exporters to Japan was the Smolart Self Help Group in Kisii, dealing in soapstone products. MUJI then placed a Christmas gift items order to Smolart. The 2011 order comprised of 5 animals made from soapstone – elephant, gorilla, buffalo, pelican, and crocodile carvings. They were well received by MUJI customers, who appreciated the natural beauty of the products. This paved the way for a second order in 2012.

At a workshop held for the management and staff of Smolart, Ms. Masuda expressed her joy at working with Smolart for the second year and hoped that the relationship would continue for years to come. "We now await this year's products in Japan, and plan to sell them across our shops globally," she said.

PhotoMs. Masuda explains about packaging

PhotoA section of workshop participants


The team went around the workshop and observed the production process. After touring the workshop and observing all stages of the production process, Ms. Masuda was very appreciative of the work being done by the artisans. This year's Christmas gift order is for candle holders and soap trays. The soap trays will be branded with rhinos and giraffes.

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PhotoCutting of stones, Shaping, Carving, Sanding, Washing and Waxing


"We want to share with our customers across the world the story of Kenya, and Kisii, where these beautiful stones come from. That's why we decided to have rhinos and giraffes carved onto the soap trays, showing some of Kenya's wildlife," she said.

The team, accompanied by the Kisii District Industrial Development Officer (DIDO), Ms. Mary Kalerwa held a meeting with the management of Smolart. They met the Chairman, Mr. Jim Kenyanya and Mr. Moses Ongesa, the Marketing Manager.

PhotoMs. Tachibana, Ms. Ishizaki and Ms. Masuda

PhotoMr. Moses Ongesa


Mr. Ongesa informed the team that in addition to producing soapstone items, Smolart also gives back to the community. "We have built a Library as part of our corporate social responsibility. We bought half the books to stock the library, while the others were donated by well-wishers". This was one way in which Smolart gave back to the community. The community members read in the library and also borrow books.

"However, most of the books in the library are fictional (novels), and Smolart would like to provide educational books that would benefit community members pursuing studies in fields such as accounting, management, IT and others", adds Mr. Ongesa. "We are appealing to MUJI, other organizations and well wishers for assistance in the form of donated books, new or used."

Team members then visited 2 soapstone quarries used by Smolart to observe the stone extraction and cutting process, as well as the different types of stones available.

PhotoThe team visits one of the quarries

PhotoDifferent shades of stone from the quarry


PhotoSome finished soapstone decorative products


The JICA OVOP Expert, Ms. Yoshiko Tachibana expressed her gratitude to Smolart. "The Smolart products provide an exciting opportunity for all involved. We appreciate your special skills and great effort which make the business a success."

The Kisii District Industrial Development Officer, Ms. Kalerwa thanked JICA and the OVOP programme on behalf of the Ministry of Industrialization. "OVOP is helping to create employment and is of great benefit to the local people as they create wealth using locally available resources", she said. In support of her sentiments, the Smolart Chairman, Mr. Kenyanya promised that they would continue to work hard and market Kisii and Kenya through soapstone.

PhotoGroup photo with staff and management of Smolart

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