How death turned into my business
“My three children are used to what I do. In fact, every evening after school, my lastborn son, who’s nine, comes to check up on me. He doesn’t find my business odd,” starts Caroline Wanjiru.
But while her children have no issues with her business, the 32-year-old does raise some eyebrows among her friend and relatives.
Even giants fall but great ones rise again
Caroline, like many other entrepreneurs, stumbled into business quite by chance.
After completing her degree in health science at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, she conducted research on the plight of people living in informal settlements.
“I wanted to go into something that would impact my community. I started my research in Huruma, and to my surprise, I came across many carpenters making coffins,” she starts.
Avoid fake news! Subscribe to the Standard SMS service and receive factual, verified breaking news as it happens. Text the word ‘NEWS’ to 22840
“It turns out this was a result of the high level of poverty and unemployment in the area, which of course leads to diseases and crime. This hardship reduces the lifespan of many people in the area, which makes coffins an inescapable part of life.”
Caroline Wanjiru during an interview at her coffin shop in Nairobi [David Njaaga,Standard]
In the course of her research, Caroline found herself spending time with these carpenters, helping them out with small tasks, like passing nails or hammers as they interacted.
“It didn’t escape my notice that their shops were doing brisk business every day. I finished my research, but this experience with the coffin makers wouldn’t leave my mind.”
How to get clients to love your brand
As she was heading to her house in Kasarani one day, she decided to look for a shop selling coffins in the estate. She found one and asked if she could become a broker.
“The owner accepted and we agreed he’d pay me Sh1,000 for every client I brought,” says Caroline.
So every morning she’d wake up early and head to Huruma, this time on a mission to convince clients to buy their coffins from Kasarani.
“The first step was to tell clients that the shop in Kasarani was mine, and then I’d offer a lower price than what the carpenters in Huruma had. Business was good.”
She took her interest in the business of selling coffins a notch higher when death came calling right at her doorstep.
Her father, who was diabetic, died in the house as she watched helplessly. She ended up involved in not only taking the body to the mortuary, but also planning the burial.
“It was a day like any other. My father asked me to prepare his best suit as he was going on a journey. It didn’t make sense then because, as much as he wasn’t that sick, he was bed-ridden. However, I prepared his suit and he put it on and then went back to bed. We were talking and he seemed ok, only for him to die few minutes later. That’s when I understood the journey he was talking about,” says Caroline.
Print and design: The pressure is high, but the cash is worth it
In the process of organising his funeral, she found the courage to start her own business.
“That was in 2015. The person in charge of my father’s burial became my mentor. He introduced me to the coffin market fully, showed me the various designs and helped me overcome people’s opinion of me in regards to the work I’ve chosen for myself. In 2016, I opened Carol’s Funeral Services.”
And she has no regrets. She averages turnover of between Sh80,000 and Sh120,000 a month, with the pricing of her coffins varying depending on the design and handles used.
For instance, the pentagon coffin, so called for its pentagon shape, is among the most expensive pieces and costs Sh40,000 to Sh50,000, without handles.
A client has a variety of handles to choose from, with the swing bar handle, for instance, increasing the cost to between Sh64,000 and Sh74,000.
“The high-roof coffin is my most popular product. It costs between Sh30,000 and Sh35,000 without a handle. Most people who select it usually ask for the last supper handle, which costs Sh2,500,” says Caroline.
She also has the double-stair coffin, which costs between Sh20,000 andSh25,000, while her cheapest handle is the plain handle, which costs Sh1,000.
“The biggest challenge in this business is the marketing part. Unlike with clothes or shoes, marketing coffins is tricky. People look at you weirdly, as if you’re wishing them death so you can get business.”
Caroline has also lost a number of friends who’re now wary of associating with her given the line of business she’s gone into.
“Many people have the perception that I’m happy when they grieve. Yet, the truth is taking money for a coffin from a customer is one of the hardest things to do since you can read from their vibe what they think of you. When a coffin costs Sh50,000 and I’m taking this money from a person who’s lost a loved one, it’s difficult to imagine that they view you as a friend,” she says.
Still, it hasn’t changed her mind about the need for the business she runs; she believes there’s an inescapable need for her services.
“I came up with the idea of branded T-shirts to market my services to more people, as well as reduce the negative perception around selling coffins and funeral services,” says Caroline.
“If I weren’t selling coffins, with my knowledge in health science, I’d probably be a mortician. But with the flood of people in the market who have the same qualifications scrambling for few jobs, I decided to think outside the box.”
And how hard is it to hire good help? Eunice Kafura started working with Caroline a year ago.
“At first I agreed to work here selling coffins because it was the only opportunity that came my way. But slowly by slowly, I’ve come to embrace my job and discovered that selling coffins is just like any other business. My advice to young people is to take everything positively, and make use of every opportunity that comes their way,” she says.
I quit my job to rent out storage space
Caroline uses the attention she draws to encourage people to venture into entrepreneurship.
“The future is only for those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. Gathering courage to start that business is the way to go. Waiting for the approval of the whole world will make you stagnant. Let the world find you walking your dream and join you while you’re at it.”
In future, she hopes to open her own mortuary. But she has no plans to be buried in any of her coffins.
“I want to be cremated. No coffin.”