It’s a “winter” evening in Nairobi when I reach Gladys Macharia, the soft-spoken jewelry designer and creator who co-conceived Siafu Home, an ethical Kenyan-made homeware line. I say “winter” because it’s winter in East Africa—as in, the time “before you get into serious sunstroke mode.” Macharia describes this, her favorite season, as, “Cold and gray, nice and cool. And then you get this beautiful afternoon sun where all the leaves and flowers glisten. The sky is clear, and in the morning I can look out from my balcony and see Mount Kenya.”
Everything Macharia utters sounds like poetry, starting with her description of the tin-roofed nursery school she attended in the north of Kenya: “I still remember the little holes in the tin—you would have all these dust particles dancing off the light in the classroom.” It was there she encountered the concept of craft for the first time, and clearly honed a skill for noticing beauty in the little things. Her first jewelry project? Drilling holes in maize and beans to string a necklace. Later she graduated to forming clay beads. Fast forward a few years, and she was taking a beading course on a back street in Florence, Italy, while studying fashion design at university. This after convincing her “typical African businessman” dad that politics, science, and law weren’t in her future, and agreeing that as the cradle of arts and literature, Italy was the best place to learn craft. (The destination also held great fascination for Macharia, whose mother’s late father was Italian.)
After graduation, Macharia worked for internationally recognized designer Ermanno Scervino before returning to school to study fine jewelry and gemology. “This was my eye opener,” she recalls, “when I finally felt I had found that missing equation in my life.” The budding jeweler returned home to begin her own bespoke jewelry line, Loyangalani, made 100% in Kenya with locally sourced materials. A stint consulting with Ethical Fashion (supported by ITC, a branch of the UN) followed, her first proper introduction to working closely with artisan groups across the continent.
Observing Kenya’s prolific and long-established—yet little-known by the world—artisans was a revelation. “There was a sense of entrepreneurial spirit where these individuals were not put off by the fact they didn’t have fancy equipment or machines. They were able to immediately find a way around not having that thing and achieve the same quality as someone who did,” says Macharia. “That for me was a real turning point in my own personal growth, in the most humbling way, to learn how to work with what you have.”
It reminded her of a time in boarding school when she begged for a pair of the latest sneakers, and got a life lesson in return. “You have to learn to measure yourself by your own self-worth. Never look at others and want what they have,” her father said to Macharia, striving to fit in. “You have to learn to live within your means.” (Ultimately he bought her the sneakers, but several sizes too big so they would last years.) “I realized I’m never going to be the same as everyone else, and it’s OK to be different,” she says.
Working with what you have, working with what Kenya has, is Macharia’s wheelhouse. She’s director of design and development for Ubuntu Life, an espadrille and accessory brand sold at Whole Foods and, in collaboration with Vermonter Niccola Milnes, cofounder and designer for Siafu Home. The latter passion project was realized after she was invited to join the African design competition FA254—in the homeware category. “I was upset and confused, questioning what I was doing if I wasn’t chosen for the jewelry category. I spiraled into my bed and cried my eyeballs out,” says Macharia. A friend turned things around by saying, “Everyone in East Africa is doing apparel and jewelry, but you’ve been asked to participate in this category because you have a versatile skillset.”
She gave it a try, researching heavily to mine the rich tradition of scarification among nomadic tribes for motifs that appeared screen-printed and beaded on textiles and bowls made of locally sourced materials. Macharia was a finalist, which set off a whole new internal reckoning. “I spent a nomadic childhood trying to fit into groups or communities, yet constantly on the move. Now my design process is nomadic, too. I have such a vast expertise, from textiles to homeware to apparel to shoes to leather-making, and I finally found a recipe to life where all these interests and skills can rest within each other and complement each other.”
It was Milnes’ prodding that led to Siafu, which means “ant” in Swahili, the national language. The American, who spent years working in Kenya and had returned to Vermont with Africa’s beautiful furniture and furnishings in tow, noticed every visitor to her home wanted to take it all with them. Milnes’ tiny Charlotte, Vermont, potting shed was converted into a small shop (currently open!), and during every trip back to Nairobi the pair would put together a shipment of artisanal local goods. “That was the initial birth of Siafu,” says Macharia of the two-year-old business. “It was a conversation between two friends who have a passion for homeware, and saw a need in the market for unique finds and gifts.”
Six months later they began custom designing everything in-house. Each item is a collaboration between the pair and artisan groups specializing in horn and bone, basket and textile weaving, beading, metalwork or wood carving. “All the artisan groups I’ve worked with for the last 12 years, we’re giving them a platform to shine,” says Macharia. What’s more, the dreamy tablescapes Siafu builds tell a larger story, of upcycling waste byproducts. The horn and bone that become votives, napkin rings, and serving spoons is rescued from Kenya’s massive meat industry. (The craftsmanship in carving these natural materials dates to precolonial times). Aluminum and brass—bezels for stone-studded tumblers, gilded ants crawling up flower vases—is all smelted down building pipes and car parts. The glass carafes are reused wine bottles, in pre-COVID days collected from Nairobi restaurants and hotels, painstakingly etched over days with motifs including frogs, octopus, and butterflies, and dressed with an upcycled brass bottle top.
Siafu’s ant mascot represents women’s role in a community. “The ant works within a group, constantly foraging, searching for food, constantly building and constantly evolving,” says Macharia. “For any community to be successful we have to work and collaborate as a group. And none of us is an island, because the growth of all of us around the world is given to the communities that raise us. The ant symbolizes community, partnership and working together.”
And to create all their goods, Siafu does just that. Kenya is especially renowned for metal craftsmanship in jewelry—collections for international fashion brands such as Ulla Johnson and Vivienne Westwood are produced there—which Siafu repurposes for the hand-cast Nigiri bottle opener, shaped like a warthog tusk. Beadwork, which Macharia calls “the fiber of Kenya,” is a tribal tradition since trade routes brought them. “Tribes have a unique storytelling through their beads,” Macharia explains. “All the Maasai in Tanzania bead with white beads with an accent of black or sky blue, and that has a very unique symbolism. And the Kenyan Maasai focus predominantly on bright, bold colors within their beading—the colors translate to rain or blessing the land, for example.” There’s history in the practice. Fascinatingly, other tribes no longer bead. “When Kenya was colonized by the British, it’s believed some of these beading patterns lent themselves to superstition or witchcraft, because a person would go to a beading doctor, who would give you your symbol and its meaning to bead on your skirt or belt.”
Siafu’s success is celebrating Kenya by representing all its unique communities. Lamu, an idyllic, historic island off the coast, was the inspiration for one of their new pieces: a cheese board that exhibits its old carpentry style that mixes wood with decorative cement patterns. Other pieces are elevated riffs on wooden knick-knacks popular in Kenyan markets, for example, serving spoons carved with a finer finish and more elegant, elongated shape, in sustainable wood sourced from friends’ farms. Ubiquitous block-printed kitenge fabrics are sewn into double-sided scalloped-edge napkins, and bamboo grown in a collaborator’s backyard is used for petite new flower holders. “The idea was to create a corridor where we could have a table that touches several groups of artisans in East Africa, and tells a story of that artisan group, where it’s from and how it’s made in a sustainable way,” says Macharia.
Furthermore, “We’re trying to make a global table,” she adds. “That means we have to break away from the mold of trying to be too ethnic or too European, to create a well-balanced symmetry that is true to traditional forms and borrows inspiration from art and tribes, but the translation and execution is done in a way that allows people from all cultures, all backgrounds to appreciate it.”
One of Macharia’s favorite pieces for Siafu is a votive made of cow horn, punctured to imitate a starry Kenyan night sky when a candle is lit. “If you’ve gone on safari or had the opportunity to sit out in the wild and look up at the stars, this votive mimics that,” she says. “It emits the most beautiful, magical light.” Macharia may not realize another moment her conscious gift references: those dust particles dancing around the light filtering through her nursery school’s tin roof. In Kenya, and especially Siafu, everything is connected.