How Working in Kenya Inspired UK Woman to Start Business Empire

  • Undated image of Jamii founder Khalia Ismain
    Undated image of Jamii founder Khalia Ismain
    Picture courtesy of A&O Studios
  • A British businesswoman identified as, Khalia Ismain, gave a candid interview explaining how visiting and working in Kenya inspired her to start a business supporting black-owned ventures in the United Kingdom.

    Ismain stated that she came to Kenya as a volunteer under the UK government's International Citizenship Service programme.

    While working in Kenya with micro-entrepreneurs, she would doubt what she wanted to do after the programme ended, but over time she started getting inspired by what the locals were doing and how they were running their businesses.

    Her observation skills and curiosity inspired her to start her own business venture, Jamii, which offers a discount card and marketplace for black-owned businesses in the United Kingdom.

    Jamii, which offers a discount card
    Undated image of a Jamii discount card
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    She narrated that being in Kenya inspired her and set off on her entrepreneurial journey. Ismain added that she carried out extensive research while still working in Kenya and her confidence levels in the idea grew even bigger.

    "I worked as an extra pair of hands and a sounding board, helping them pivot their business and understand certain key concepts to raise money. It was a completely life-changing experience because, before I'd gone there, I had no idea what it meant to start a business, whereas when I came back, I realized that you just have to start; just take a small step and see if that works," she stated during an interview with UK-based publication, Popsugar.

    "I came back from Kenya with the mindset that starting is so simple. That very first step is asking businesses if they would want to be on the card, and I didn't need to worry about anything else," she added.

    The name of the business, she says, was also inspired by Kenya, which is a Swahili name that means community. She explained how she has built a successful business community helping black businesses in the UK.

    "Jamii is the Swahili word for community. I’m from the Caribbean but it was my time in Kenya that first inspired my journey. I wanted a word that was inclusive. I want everyone to have Jamii cards no matter what community they’re from," Ismain explained.

    "I was speaking to one of my friends who I met when I was in Kenya and I was like, Oh, maybe a name that is Swahili would make sense because that's where I got the confidence to actually do this. He was like, "What about Jamii? It means 'community' in Swahili" — and that was it, it just captured everything."

    Ismain stated that the Black Lives Matter movement also helped boost her business since most people were now open to discussing the effects of racism and colonialism in the advancement of businesses owned by people of colour and specifically black people. 

    "After the first wave of Black Lives Matter, people wanted to start supporting Black-owned businesses, but that was easier said than done," Ismain stated.

    "It was so difficult to find local Black businesses to support that weren’t takeaways. I also love my haircare, skincare and clothing: I felt strongly that something that brought all of these brands together needed to exist."

    But the start was not easy and Ismain had to work two jobs as well as support her own business. After being overwhelmed and noticing that her business was not growing rapidly, she decided to quit her other jobs and focus on Jamii.

    She managed to convince more businesses to join Jamii and also launched a marketplace where people would be able to shop online.

    When the George Floyd tragedy happened, the world was faced with the reality of what black people actually go through in the western world. This, she says, gave her leverage on her business plan and ideology.

    As the world was having tough conversations around race, people also started having conversations around the lack of support for black businesses and how this affects their communities. An interest in supporting these businesses spiked and Ismain and her team reaped big.

    "When the murder of George Floyd happened, everything exploded for us. Everyone was looking for a Black-owned business to buy from, and we had a huge influx of orders and traffic. The website crashed multiple times because everyone was trying to get onto it. It felt like everyone was talking about Jamii," she recalled.

    Undated image of Jamii founder Khalia Ismain
    Undated image of Jamii founder Khalia Ismain
    Photo credit: In Other News
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