Article by: MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
Ever since Christine ‘Kui’ Ng’ang’a bought her first piece of Kenyan art, a surrealist painting by John Silver Kimani at Kuona Trust in 2012, she has been fascinated by contemporary Kenyan art. But this financial consultant, who had formerly worked for Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York, didn’t start thinking how she might assist the artists until she heard in 2016 about the mess Kuona directors had got the trust into through gross mismanagement.
The artists were in danger of not only losing their studio space but also their sales since many visitors came to Kuona and bought art on the spot. It was their dilemma that got her thinking for the first time about how she might use her specialised skills as an e-commerce consultant to help them market their art online. It wasn’t long thereafter that Kendiart.com was born.
“I had never planned to become an art dealer,” says Kui, who initially planned to set up an online art marketplace as “a gift to the artists”. She was actually consulting for PricewaterhouseCoopers at the time.
“But then, after researching the Kenyan art scene, I realised there were many challenges, including the lack of infrastructure, lack of public sector support and also lack of a culture that’s accustomed to consuming (i.e. owning and appreciating) art,” she adds.
Nonetheless, Kui quickly got hooked on the idea of setting up what she calls an “Amazon equivalent” of an online marketplace that — instead of selling books, electronics or baby clothes — sells contemporary African art.
“The trick is finding the right business model that will work for this market,” says Kui, whose academic background gained in Canada and US is in economics, IT and project financing.
It wasn’t in fine art although she has spent a lot of time trekking around various artists’ collectives in Nairobi both to get to know the local art scene and get artists interested in Kendiart.
“It’s been a journey,” says Kui, who, in addition to being chief executive of KendiArt, is also managing director of the consultancy firm, Strategia Advisors.
The one key factor that distinguishes Kendiart from all the other online East African art spaces is that someone cannot only look at the art online, they can also buy it (either by Mpesa or a credit card). And they can also have it delivered by DHL with the shipping cost calculated on the spot with just one click. Kui continues to develop, test and perfect her business model so that Kendiart can do the best for the artists and also for herself since, like all art galleries, she takes a commission for her services. But hers is relatively less than what other local art galleries take.
The big challenge that she really wanted to resolve was the delivery factor, which is why she sought out the global parcel delivery service, DHL, and negotiated a contract with them.
“Now our online sales and delivery can be global,” says Kui, who admits that thus far, most of Kendiart’s sales have not involved direct delivery.
“Up to now, most of our buyers either want to pay by cash or cheque.” But she believes that will change over time.
Quoting Jack Ma of Alibaba (China’s equivalent of Amazon), Kui says Ma has found that initially people fear buying with a credit card, but they get over that eventually.
According to Alex Njoroge, an artist based at the Kuona Artists Collective, Kui is really helping the artists.
“The art industry is growing and we need a strong online presence like hers. Kui is one of the most energetic art dealers in town.”