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Willy Kimani: Ex-Naivas Chief Commercial Officer Redefining Kenya’s Retail Space

Former Naivas Supermarkets Chief Commercial Officer Willy Kimani is the founder and owner of retail brand Jaza – a hard discounted store targeting Kenyans in low to middle income households.

Kimani left Naivas in December 2023 after 7 and a half years at the retailer. He boasts vast experience in the retail industry having first entered the field in 2001. He has served in multiple roles for some of the leading supermarket chains in Kenya including the now defunct Uchumi and Tuskys.

Jaza already has 15 stores in Nairobi and is looking to expand to other parts of the country.

Willy Kimani: Ex-Naivas Chief Commercial Officer Redefining Kenya's Retail Space
File image of Jaza Founder Willy Kimani. |Photo| Courtesy|

Education & Background

Kimani developed a passion for business from a young age, reminiscing about the times he would accompany his mother to buy or sell to the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB).

“It has been interesting, and I can say my entrepreneurship skills are from the family culture. We were more of businesspeople,” he said during an interview with The Star.

He attended Lenana High School between 1996 and 1999, and his passion for business only grew stronger.

“I became more attached to business during my years in school. During my time at Lenana, I ended up being the best student in business and business for me was at the heart of everything. I had a very good teacher,” Kimani reminisces.

He proceeded to the University of Nairobi in 2001 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics in 2004.

Career

The Jaza founder began his retail career while still a student. He was first employed by Target Promotions Kenya in 2000 as a Trade Supervisor and was promoted to general manager after serving for 18 months.

In 2004, Kimani was recruited by Enkarasha Departmental Stores a sister company of fallen retail giant Tusker Mattresses Limited as a Business Development Manager, a role he held till his departure in 2010.

He was instrumental in the push for the rebranding of Tusker Mattresses Limited to Tuskys Limited.

Kimani joined Naivas Supermarkets in 2010 as the Business Development Manager and held the role till his departure in August 2015 when he transitioned to Uchumi as the company Chief Operating Officer.

He was also an instrumental figure in the Naivas rebranding.

“The whole idea was to transform Naivas from the re-branding side, it was really in need of rebranding. They had this purple look, we did the re-branding into the new colors, and we did marketing, system changes, and business development. Procurement and marketing departments came into place. We gave Naivas a fresh start,” he recalled.

He worked for Uchumi briefly until June 2016 and returned to Naivas as the Chief Commercial Officer, a role he held till his departure in December 2023.

“The eight months at Uchumi were a very important part of my growth because I learned a lot about how not to do retail. I learned the importance of how things look like when you have proper customers, and people love you,” he said.

He recounts customers walking into Uchumi stores despite the empty shelves to inquire about product prices.

“Unfortunately, we could not crack Uchumi because of a lack of funding. We were promised funds but they were not availed. The suppliers had a lot of goodwill. By that time, the bank had a bigger say,” Kimani recalled.

“If all the shareholders had come through, Uchumi would have been salvaged. Of all the collapsed giants, Uchumi was the one that could have been easily revived,” he explained.

Willy Kimani: Ex-Naivas Chief Commercial Officer Redefining Kenya's Retail Space
File image of Jaza Founder Willy Kimani. |Photo| Courtesy|

Kimani who has travelled to multiple countries to benchmark on the retail industry notes that their is significant untapped potential in the local landscape. This inspired the birth of Jaza.

“Anytime I would go to the outside world i would learn, what is Walmart doing, and what the next thing they are trying to do is. When I went to Turkey, for example, you would see the Turkish market and consumption habits is similar to Kenya,” Kimani said.

“I noticed there is a huge gap between what we can call the very high end and the very low end. The gap in Kenya is way high, meaning what you would call general trade and modern trade in Kenya, we were missing something in between.”

The retail guru explains that Jaza was founded to bridge the gap in retail – offering supermarket grade products for wholesale prices.

“We looked at the gap and said why don’t we give customers something with a supermarket feel, but has the wholesale price that was missing in this market,” Kimani said.

“We look for the best business terms possible, we get the price put and have a no-frill environment with no fancy light. It is just a clear nice well well-done setup that can give customers the best prices.”

Jaza Stores

Jaza already boasts 15 stores located within Nairobi and its environs in just under five months of operations. The company also has an e-commerce platform.

The stores are located in Buruburu, Kayole, Soweto, Mihang’o, Chokaa, Githurai 44, Gachie, Mombasa Road, and Utawala among others. The stores are stocked from the company’s Mombasa Road warehouse.

Willy Kimani: Ex-Naivas Chief Commercial Officer Redefining Kenya's Retail Space
Collage image of Willy Kimani and a Jaza Discounted Store. |Photo| Courtesy|

Kimani revealed that all their suppliers are paid in advance as opposed to after sales.

He explains that the biggest challenge so far has been onboarding onto the electronic Tax Invoice Management Systems (eTIMS) as directed by the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA).

“We have found ourselves in an environment where the taxman is trying to introduce something new, the providers are different, so setting that up has been tasking, but we are working closely with KRA to make sure that we are up and running properly,” he said.

Kimani looks to grow Jaza beyond the Kenyan borders leveraging on quality management, product knowledge, and good financial management.

“We want to be regional. We believe that this model will be in every street and corner and hopefully, by then, we will have listed on the stock exchange because we want this brand to be for Kenyans and for Kenya.”