When Steve Kumari left his Maua hometown for Nairobi in 1999, he was just 17-years-old, a naïve Form Two dropout who was tired of selling miraa (khat).
Mr Kumari, now 36, joined an 18-member gang based in Kibera and made an indecent living robbing people of their valuables. A close shave with death – when they unknowingly attempted to rob a policeman —forced him to reform. “While at it the man’s pistol fell from his back pocket. We ran as fast as possible. That was when my life changed,” he said.
Two of his closest friends were later gunned down, further cementing his resolve to quit the thug life. Today, he runs a thriving natural hair salon and a barbershop in Nairobi called The Roots.
The business also manufactures natural hair products under The Roots brand. The Roots, which is located at Nanak House on Kimathi Street, consists of three shops; one serves male clients, another women and children. The last shop deals in hair products that include waxing gel, hair treatment and conditioners, shampoos, hot oil spray and soaps, all of which are manufactured using locally-sourced materials.
“I gatecrashed what many perceive as a women’s affair. I have never been happier,” The business has more than 30 employees, the bulk of whom are the dreadlocks and natural hair stylists who are referred to as ‘locticians’ in street lingo.
The business handles at least 40 clients a day, he says, where dreadlocks retouching, for instance, costing Sh1,500. The business’ top stylist, Chris Kanyanya, handles at least 10 dreadlock clients every day and shares the revenue equally with Mr Kumari. The Roots is not a hairdressers’ business parse but that of ‘locticians’, he explains. “We are trained for this. The only thing we have in common with other salons are driers and sinks. Otherwise, we are different,” he insists.
Mr Kumari’s love affair with hair started when he was in Standard Seven. The fourth-born in a family of 13 plaited one of his sister’s hair and loved the outcome. He says he knew that is what he wanted to do for a living but did not know how to actualise the dream.
When he quit the gang, he was employed as a messenger in a salon in Nairobi CBD. He was promoted to become a shampoo boy, washing clients’ hair. His dream of hairstyling was rekindled. Mr Kumari, who also goes by the moniker Steve Roots, says he mastered the craft by observing how his fellow employees handled their clients’ different hair needs.
“I learned everything from observation for a year, and by 2004 I knew my way around locking hair,” he said. Mr Kumari saved for five years, surviving on the bare minimum except food and toiletries.
In 2009, he opened The Roots at its present location, starting off with old seats, mirrors and two old driers. This cost him around Sh10,000. “Finance institutions in Kenya would not give a start-up money. I saved up to my last coin to open this business. I never bought myself new clothes or shoes for six years up to when I opened The Roots,” he said.
One of his early clients, a local disc jockey, later introduced him to a group of budding entrepreneurs who wanted to set up a dreadlocks salon in the United States but did not have the know-how. The entrepreneurs flew Mr Kumari to the US to train them for a fortnight. He has since travelled to various countries including the UK and Italy where he has trained over 20 natural hair stylists. His dream had finally come true.
In 2011, he diversified into products that are suitable for African hair. With the assistance of engineers from the University of Nairobi, he developed the natural hair products. “The reception has been awesome. Many salons in town are using them,” he says. In last year’s Dreadlocks Kenya Styling Competition, Mr Kanyanya, was feted as best loctician while The Roots was awarded as the best salon.
The business and Mr Kanyanya have won several other awards. Mr Kumari, who is also a father of four (including two adopted children), says parents should not force their children to focus entirely on formal education at the expense of talent. “College alone cannot make you a businessman… education is important but you can make it in life without it,” he said. “My son is a very good deejay. I have a daughter who sings well too. I am not just encouraging them, but supporting them to do their thing. If parents encourage their children to follow their dreams, they will have less trouble raising them.” This year, Mr Kumari plans to expand his business by opening at least four branches in East Africa’s major towns.