Nduta Kiarie: How I started the first online branded stationery business in Kenya
The School Box, an online stationery store, is making parents’ work easier by availing stationery items required by schools.
When Nduta Kiarie went looking for stationery for Matthew, her three-and-a-half-year-old son, who was joining kindergarten, she never thought it could be such a hassle. What she thought would be a task that she’d complete within minutes – get into a bookshop, purchase stationery and get out – turned out to be a headache.
On her list were 15 items that her son’s school required, and to get all of them, she had to visit four stores. But when it came time for Matthew’s older cousins to return to school, Nduta was forced to think out of the box. “For sciences, say classes like physics, you have to wear an apron, and you can’t get one from a stationery store. You have to go to our local markets to buy one. And, you won’t easily find an apron for a four or five-year-old – you’ll find one for an adult,” Nduta said.
These dynamics didn’t work for Nduta, who set about to change them. With hands-on knowledge and skills in operational management, she quit her job in 2021 and set up The School Box, an online stationery store. Thinking of how hard a feat it was getting stationery for her son and nephews, Nduta took it upon herself to ensure that other parents and children didn’t have to go through the same experience. “I saw a gap and decided to fill it. This is the first of its kind in Kenya,” shared Nduta.
The School Box, Nduta explained, has eased parents’ work. They won’t have to queue, meaning they won’t have to deal with traffic while shopping at the last minute when schools are about to open. Parents don’t have to visit multiple stores to get all the stationery items required by the school. “We are bringing (them) convenience. Go to www.theschoolbox.co.ke, and find your school, and your grade or year; it will give you your list. You (can) add or remove anything from that list, then add it to your cart. Check out, and we will deliver it to you. It’s as easy as that. As long as you have a phone or laptop, you can buy from us,” Nduta stated.
Some schools across the country provide stationery for their students, while others provide a list and leave the task to the parents and guardians. This is where The School Box comes in. The online store, which provides branded stationary to Crawford International School and private institutions, also caters to public schools.
Currently, The School Box is implementing its phase one (providing stationery – rulers, rubbers, pencils, exercise books, pens, and such – that help students cruise through their school year). The company is also working on phase two, which will entail providing textbooks.
Besides convenience, The School Box also prides itself on adding value to parents. “We work with known brands. Some teachers are specific and want Crayola crayons or Staedtler HB pencils. We bring value to parents by (giving them) exactly what the teacher wants,” Nduta stated. On top of that, the stationery is packed in a fun box which the student can reuse multiple times.
Nduta revealed that The School Box doesn’t lock its clients into contracts but works with only those who will support them.
For the parent, using The School Box is also pocket friendly. As an online store, The School Box is passing on the cost of physically visiting various shops to purchase stationery. Most stationery is not manufactured in Kenya, so The School Box has taken it upon itself to source for them internationally. “I am a parent and know what it means to buy stationery. I do not want parents to…(pay) so much when they can pay so little. We are working with pricing models to reduce the cost for the parent and give them a cost-effective solution.”
Nduta shared that her major challenge was finding the capital to launch the online store. “We started last year in September, and a lot of input has gone into it. Like any startup, capital has been a major issue. But once we start selling and onboarding more schools, and more parents start taking up the solution (we are providing), we might cruise into profitable seasons,” she stated.
To get into the business, one needs to, at least, understand the different curriculums, even though they are not tied to stationery. “Everybody needs a pencil; everybody needs an exercise book regardless of whether you’re in university, secondary or junior school.” With international schools, when students start getting into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education and innovative subjects, they might require some stationery items that Competency-based Curriculum (CBC) students might not need.
There are at least 40 000 schools in Kenya, and Nduta foresees growing her customer base by tapping into more of these institutions. “If we can tap into at least 1 per cent of this market, we will be happy. We are here to bring convenience and ease to an already existing issue. I see us adding more schools to our panel of affiliate schools in the future. I see us branching out to Kiambu and Nairobi counties – and the rest of the counties. I see us serving schools in remote areas. The future is bright.”