“I’ve travelled and lived in many countries, but I honestly feel that Kenya is a place where people are generally positive and happy—even if some don’t have much.”
When Rui Yamashita speaks about her adopted home in East Africa, she does so with a passion that’s immediate, authentic, and infectious.
A Japan-born graphic designer and artist, Yamashita is the founder of Kangarui, a Nairobi-based design and fashion company inspired by the beauty of Kenya and its people.
Her voice bursting with enthusiasm, Yamashita told The ACCJ Journal that she wants her work to go beyond mere utility. She hopes to embed it deep within the hearts of her customers, reminding them of their origin.
“Kenya is full of very rich hearts, and I want to spread that. I want people to eat with my art, carry my art, or wear it so that they can feel that happiness as well.”
From household wares to clothing, bags, and accessories, Yamashita’s creations are sold in East Africa and the United States, as well as the Middle East and Asia. In Japan, her creations have appeared in pop-up shops at Seibu Department Store’s Shibuya location and Daimaru Department Store in Osaka.
ROOTS OF PASSION
Born in Kochi City on the island of Shikoku, Yamashita spent her childhood in Thailand, Kenya, and Indonesia due to her father’s work as an engineer.
When she was four, the family settled in Nakuru, the fourth-largest city in Kenya, located near Lake Nakuru National Park.
“It was normal for me to go to the bush,” she remembers, looking back on a rather idyllic childhood. I didn’t grow up with lions in our garden, but we did have monkeys and chameleons, and access to the national park.”
Waking up, she would peer into the mid distance and see the lake covered with pink flamingos, which would gather there every day to drink and dine.
On other occasions, the Yamashita family would enjoy barbecues, camping, or safaris in the area.
“Oh, the horizon! And the beautiful blue sky! And the endless grassland in front of you! I feel that it could change people’s lives if they see that once.”
Joining the dots is easy with the benefit of hindsight, but it’s hard not to imagine that the roots of Yamashita’s passion for design—and the seeds of her blossoming career—were planted there on Lake Nakuru’s shores.
Yamashita attended the private Braeburn High School in Nairobi and International School Kenya—the latter having been founded through a collaboration between the governments of Canada and the United States.
But even in childhood, she already showed signs of creativity and a passion for transcending cultural barriers.
“I’ve always been creative—I had my own origami class in school, for example—and that’s why I chose to study art and design in university.”
So, when she relocated to England for college, Yamashita had every intention of following a creative path.
And yet, she wasn’t sure exactly where her passion lay. Was it fashion? Design? Art? To find out, she took an art and design foundation course in London.
“But when I first tried fashion, I realized that I couldn’t stitch to save my life, and I didn’t care much for drawing people.”
ON THE ROAD
If not fashion, then what? At first, graphic design proved to be a challenge, too, “because you’re always in front of a computer and sat in one place.”
This was a hard field to plow for someone who, as a child, had run free on the plains of Nakuru.
However, when she did sit down and try her hand at graphic design, a strange thing happened. “My teachers often complimented my work, so I realized that it may actually be what I’m best at.”
After her foundation course, Yamashita enrolled in the graphic design program at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom.
When she graduated and returned to Japan for work, she was in for a shock—after all, she hadn’t lived here since shortly after her birth.
“I was around 22 years old when I came back to Japan. But, as I didn’t grow up there, I really knew nothing of the life there and what to expect.”
So, it came as no surprise that, after working in a variety of design-related roles in Tokyo, she found herself back on the road—this time to Germany.
FROM HOBBY TO BUSINESS
Working mostly from home as a graphic designer in Germany, Yamashita’s interests led her to try user interface design, a fortuitous path that introduced her to digital art.
Inspired by digital art emanating from the United States, she soon began creating her own variations of the form.
“When I had a collection of such work, I realized that they were all connected to Kenya,” she remembers.
Not only were her creations related to East Africa’s wildlife, they were also filled with dynamic colors that harked back to her globetrotting childhood—particularly those years spent in Kenya.
“I thought: This is a sign. I must be missing Kenya so much.”
Even with her collection of designs in hand, she never thought that this would become a business.
However, there was a website in the United States that allowed users to upload images and have them printed on cushions. “So that’s what I did.” At first, Yamashita made cushions to furnish her new home in Germany.
It was not until her friends started to request—and pay for—similar creations that she thought of turning her passion into a business. Thus was born Kangarui—a combination of her first name and a Kenyan fabric (kanga), as well as the Swahili word for guinea fowl (kanga), her favorite bird.
The colors, she says, reflect the rich positive hearts of the people of East Africa.
Whether pillows with vibrant flowers, dishes sporting a speckled guinea fowl, or a tote-bag design inspired by local fabric, Yamashita’s creations have an uplifting effect—or so her customers tell her.
FINDING HER VOICE
This is not to say that her entrepreneurial journey has been a road lined with roses; it has not. As far back as her first, post-graduation foray into the world of work, Yamashita believes she has always had to prove herself to naysayers and doubters.
In Kenya, Yamashita initially felt she was not taken seriously because of her age and relative inexperience—and being a woman entrepreneur—especially by industry insiders, such as suppliers and manufacturers.
In her first professional position, she worked as a designer for a public relations company. The challenge there was to navigate Japan’s corporate world—a place notorious for being a cultural minefield, especially for returnees such as her who are not versed in the way things are done.
Even today, she confesses, she still triggers the occasional cultural mine in Japan.
Despite the challenges, which have included expanding her business from its initial business-to-consumer model to include a business-to-business strategy, Yamashita is finding her feet and entering new markets. Her customers include major home-design retailers, hoteliers, souvenir stores, friends, and family.
Interestingly, it’s not just the wildlife and nature of East Africa that have spurred her entrepreneurial spirit.
“In Kenya, I meet so many powerful women who are very open about their success. They are strong and live independently and are so happy. They push really hard to do the things that they love; and they are all around me. It’s very inspirational.”
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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