Interview with Ken-knit, a garment manufacturing company based in Eldoret, Kenya

27 September, 2014

By: Timothy Wahome


1750For a company nearing its half-a-century mark, Ken-knit Kenya Ltd in Eldoret has weathered many external environment challenges, to emerge as one of the most resilient companies in the textile and garment industry in East and Central Africa. This is why the company won recognition from Kenya’s president in 2006 for the KRA Distinguished Taxpayer of the Year Award. The following is a tour into the heart of the company and its departments, while highlighting its vision and most importantly, challenges and how to wriggle out of them. In short, this is a journey into the secrets that make the company attain great staying power that still retains it ahead of the pack.

Company Profile

In the 1970s, the classic factory introduced a composite spinning and dyeing plant that vaunted 100 percent acrylic, wool-acrylic, hand-knitting and hosiery yarn. This trend went on to improve in the middle of the 1980s when the company inaugurated a woven blanket manufacturing unit, which could produce 1 million blankets. This was also the epoch when the brand images of ‘Seagull’ and ‘Winter King’ hit the market. During the 1990 period, the company introduced the dyeing plant which came alongside a ‘Two for One Twister,’ as well as, ‘Winding machine.’ This was also the period when Pearl Embroidery, designate for finishes that had more clout than those of reigning design factories. From the year 2000, onward, the company has gone on to impose its uniform culture onto the world through woolen jerseys made of one hundred percent of the material, for among others, the army and navy detachments.

After acquiring Rupa Mills Limited-formerly Raymonds Woolen Mills-in the year 2003, the company went on to become the nucleus of woolen products in the EAC region. Rupa is just across the road facing the mother company, Ken-Knit Ltd. It is no wonder, then, to note that the company has become the largest maker of woolen garments in Kenya. This is with the coercion of goat herders and other partners who are instrumental for the company’s success in the North Rift. Here the company leads as the biggest employer, with over 1200 employees in its various departments.

Modernization & Staff Training

Mr. Ravi Shah is a well-groomed scion of the company with an always thoughtful remark for relevant topics that come his way. He responded to a number of questions that I levied to him. One of these included the great strides the company has made in the fabric sector.

The most recent in-road by the company is availing modern machinery that has created efficiency in its operations.

“We have bought 200 semi-automatic machines, one person per two machines, creating efficiency and reducing labor costs. We keep on coming up with fancy knitwear.” He explains.

Mr. Shah also gave answer to the question whether the company has trained its personnel in readiness for use of the machines. How does the company respond to the transition to the next generation of gear, a thing it has done lately?

“Training is ongoing for semi-automatic machines. The technology (of the machines) is from Taiwan.”

Because production goes hand-in-hand with quality, it is only too necessary to ensure that pricing is competitive and sensible to the market.

Accordingly, Mr. Shah deems that his company has met the above stipulation. “We make sure our products come with quality. Although we are 10-15 shillings more expensive, somebody will prefer our uncompromised products.”

Distribution

“What we do is that we have selected several wholesalers.” Mr. Ravi Shah begins on the methodology of distribution of the company. Do all these wholesalers appropriate their prices to those of Ken-Knit or how does the company approach the wholesale price factor?

“Costing is done on a quarterly basis, “expands Mr. Shah, “especially because the dollar fluctuates. We review quarterly so we can pass on the benefits to customers.”

Ken-Knit has made in-roads in some of the biggest markets in the region. The distribution extent covers the entire East African region, where the company has made a name as the virtuoso in the woolen dispensation. This also brings in another essential factor to its current status: illegal copycats. Insiders from the Eldoret headquarters rile the presence of many counterfeit goods bearing the logo of SeaGull, which has the extent of ruining the company’s authenticity. To belabor the point, the company’s Managing Director meticulously showed EA Manufacturing & Export News’ editorial team the spun ball that should pass on as the real product in the market.

Despite this branding smear campaign, the company still has external markets that have yet to get blighted with this blemish of unscrupulousness.

“We are working with Ugandans and Rwandese,” says Ravi with a promise.

Customer Care

The gauge of success is not just an outcome of internal environment but an offshoot of external policies. Customer care is one of the most important essentials of communicating with the client world, and without satisfactory rapport, relations would go to the dogs and losses would ensue. How does Ken-Kit weave in customer relations into its eclectic mix of product distribution?

“We treat customer satisfaction importantly, “says Mr. Shah, “Every quarter we send our people to check complains and even compensate them.”

We would also go on to learn that the company engages in goodwill practice for the local community. Not only does the company engage in horticultural activities ’10 km’ from the factory, but also supports North Rift herdsmen, in Marakwet, by buying wool enmasse from them. Amazingly for an Eldoret company, some of the wool goes for export to the Orient, Europe and the Indian subcontinent. The company gives a sob to the local community by donating in-house blankets to houses of the needy.

Material sustainability

In vogue with the modern trend to maintain sustainable production practices, the company has cultivated a culture of material recycling. A visit to the engineering department shows a lot of greasy machinery, old and relatively new, with several mechanics manning them. This is where any repairs and regular checkup of existing or new equipment takes place. But first, the editorial team wanted to know how Ken-Knit sources its raw materials and how it dispenses with them.

“Our raw materials include wool from Marakwet, which we export to China, Europe and India. We source other raw materials from Thailand, Indonesia, China and India.” Mr. Ravi Shah offers.

There is also an aquatic facility for water recycling purposes.

“We used to use a lot of water for the dyeing department,” enthuses Mr. Shah, “now we recycle. There are 3 million liters of water in our dam.”

The secret to any company’s success, especially in the textile industry, lies in the way it manages the lees of the production chain: the practices that govern the acquisition and dissemination of raw materials, and the practices in place for dispensing with waste products.

“We have a quality service department (for that).” Mr. Shah expounds.

Better Industry Conditions

The conversation went on to approach the thorn in the side of the local fashion industry, if not the textile sector, as a whole. It is inevitable that the biggest blight of the garment maker is second hand clothes from Asian markets and the presence of high-cost goods. Which are some of the challenges, in this score, for Ken-Knit and how do they seek to mitigate these problems?

“Firstly, we need high import tariff on goods to help protect the local industry. We are facing up to 25 percent duty. (Furthermore), maximum wages were increased by 14 percent.” The latter refers to a recent bill which reviewed the minimum wage of company staff which saw a rise in layoffs for companies that became infamous in the KQ retrenchment of late 2012 that a court overturned.

There is also the challenge of “cheap imports and dumping of textile manufactured goods.” This is according to Mr. Shah. He ticks off the challenges by dismissing the sector as inoperable for any investor.

“No one will invest in textile. The return investment is not there. Cost of land is expensive unlike in the service industry.”

Future

Mr. Ravi Shah signs off with this remarkable thought on how his company will fare in the future:

“We want to survive in the industry. We want to be one of the strongest companies not just in textile but manufacturing. We need to buy new machinery and boost the local community come to work everyday. We want to work hard and ensure we bring in new products and continue to push through the industry.”

A Brief Look at the Various Garment Departments At Ken-Knit:

Yarn Department

This is the genesis of the threads that go on to weave blankets, coats, uniforms and other paraphernalia one may expect in any wardrobe or trousseau. There are rows upon rows of machines, each with overwhelming spools of yarn moving in and out to form long threads ready for use in the dyeing department, next.

“The machines are semi-automatic, “Mr. Shah guides us, fast, on the departmental tour. “It has a memory card and everything. 200 machines in total. Two machines per person.”

Dyeing Department

Next in line is the very important dyeing department. This encapsulates the majority of the tasks that the spools of yarn require before they can turn into the final knitting sector. Mr. Bosire is head of the Dyeing Department. He discloses why we soon find ourselves in an incinerator.

He explains everything from the beginning, including the operations of the machines, the temperature quotient and the final stages of knitting after leaving this key department.

“All are running at 100 degrees but there is a programmer. Inside there are cooling machines.

“The temperature is 67 degrees for the dryer.”

Mr. Bosire heads with us from the dryer, en-route the spinning department, to the storage room where yarn checking takes place. This is after the dyer has lent the yarns particular hues.

“After everything has checked in we take it to this department for yearn checking. They check each yarn one by one. We use it for knitting sweaters, the others we send to the market.”

Spinning Department

“For the yarn to be handled it must be made into balls,” continues Mr. Bosire as we move to the next section, that of spinning. All racks and machines display sizable multi-hued balls of spool, all ready for packaging to the market or checking in to the knitting section.

Mr. Bosire lucidly tells the editorial team, amid the loud hum of the crocheting and spinning machines, concerning the immaculate spun balls: “we either sell them in small ball packages or in wholesale packets. The rest go to the knitting department.”

Cutting Department

Our next tour is that of the cutting department. This is in fact in the same room as the knitting department. One can see piles upon piles of cut cloths, some with chalk drawings on their sides, where the automatic scissor will cut through. The “drawing is according to size and shape,” offers Mr. Bosire.

Knitting Department

The penultimate stage of our factory tour is perhaps the most extensive and bustling section of them all, the knitting department. This is where the fashion in the streets emerges. Hundreds of employees man the machines, one to two. Others are crocheting embroidery patterns all over the bodies of the pullovers. The rest of the embroidery takes place via automatic cards that are inserted onto the embroidery machines to make work easy.

Perhaps less demanding is the blanket-weaving section which produces heaps upon heaps of slumber coverlets. How do they come up with the patterns on the blankets?

“The cards choose the design’ Mr. Bosire expands, “unlike weaving where you use a single thread. Blanket weaving is a process where you use two yarns, the weft that runs across and the warp that runs up and down.”

Finally, we head out to the packaging area which is an orderly anthill of packaged products.

Packaging/Warehouse Department

Mr. Bosire has extended the dyeing tour here and gives us a snippet of what the packages towering over us in racks are all about. “These packages are different varieties. The large ones which are 50 kilos are for export but 14 kilos we sell within Kenya.”

Checking Out

Before checking out, Mr. Ravi Shah shows us around the gate area. “People who come in and go out have to use the thumb system at the gate.”

This is how advanced the company has turned, as the nucleus of the garment industry in the country. This is why biometrics also counts as part of the ever-expanding technological output.

All we could say before our exit was viva le Ken Knit!