- April 28, 2020
COVID-19 has thrown us all into wildly unfamiliar territory. Many people’s regular income streams have dried up, and now, they are facing potential financial crises of staggering proportions. For Chichi Seii, a Netflix starring performing artist and businesswoman, this situation became a frightening reality in the month of March. She talks to Damaris Agweyu about how she is facing the current challenges with an open mind, a brave face and a positive attitude.
Chichi, in terms of your profession, how has life changed for you?
My income is derived from the entertainment industry, where I work as a performing artist, and the hospitality industry, where I run an Airbnb business as well as host events.
2019 was a slow year for me as a performing artist. I wanted 2020 to be different. And so, towards the end of the year, I went to LA to create new networks and revive some old ones. Because in the entertainment industry, it’s all about your connections; if you want to be involved in a production, you’ve got to know the right people. I spent the last half of 2019 asking for contacts, making calls, sending out emails, setting up meetings and following up with reminders. Going to LA was a strategic move.
Now we are in 2020, the year where it was all supposed to come together, and I’m just like, what happened? Production budgets are non-existent, and the industry has come to a complete standstill. Inasmuch as Netflix subscriptions are shooting through the roof, right now they can’t produce anything new. Maybe with the increase in subscriptions, they will have big budgets that will enable them to churn out more content in future. And that’s a good thing. But for now, nothing is happening. Even networking seems pointless at this time. I no longer have the excitement that this will be the year, now I’m like, next year will be the year- that kind of thing.
When it comes to the hospitality industry, things have also ground to a halt. There is zero income from my accommodation facilities. I can no longer hold events on my grounds. No one is meeting. Not a single cent is coming in. I found myself in a very tough situation financially and needed a solution. Fast.
How did you come up with the idea of cooking being the solution?
I was sitting in my living room with my daughter, who was sprawled out on the couch next to me. It was the 30th of March, and things were changing rapidly. I didn’t know how I was going to afford anything- January had been a bad month, February had been a bad month, and March was the worst. I was sitting there and asking myself, God, what am I going to do? And the idea to cook just came to me. As soon as it did, I typed up this long text message saying, let me cook dinner for you. I added a menu, pricing, found a picture of some the food I’d made for a previous event and sent it out to my networks. All this was done within the first 2 hours of this idea coming to me. I didn’t think to ask my friends for their thoughts, I didn’t think to sleep over it or to do any research, I just knew I had to do this.
When you’re looking at no money, you don’t have the luxury of overthinking things. You don’t think of pros and cons. You don’t have time to start making comparisons. All that comes later, when you’ve already got the ball rolling. I just thought, hey if I can make some money from it, then I’d better start today.
Do you enjoy cooking?
I really enjoy cooking. And it’s nice to have something to do. With all that’s going on, it’s easy to wake up and not achieve anything all day because you’re feeling nervous, anxious and frustrated. So it’s great when you have something to occupy you, especially if it’s something you love to do.
There are currently a lot of people who are experiencing the feelings you’ve just described. What advice would you give them?
Do I have any? (laughs). As a spiritual person who believes there is a God who cares, I would say, ask the God who cares for you to help you out of this fix.
I know that I can cook. I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager. It’s funny because when I sent my menu to one friend of mine, he immediately said, “Of course Chichi Seii, I have to eat your food, it’s delicious!” And I said, “How do you know my food is delicious?” Because I could not remember ever cooking for this guy. He reminded me that when I was in Boma (The Kenya High School), and he was in Patch (The Nairobi School), I went to visit him with some food. “Why did I bring you food?” I asked. “Because you liked me”, he said, “and I remember your food, it was amazing”.
The point is, I’ve been cooking for a long time but why this idea never came to me before, even as a businesswoman, I don’t know.
So my advice is: There may be something that you’re naturally good at, but for some reason, you never saw it. How about you spend some time connecting with the Divine and asking Him to open your eyes? It may be something that you can do but haven’t had the confidence to do for whatever reason; maybe you feel you’re not that good at it or perhaps you feel a little embarrassed about reducing yourself to a certain level. Well, sometimes a connection with the Divine helps peel off some of these layers. It opens up your eyes in a way that you just didn’t see before. Because this is not a time to start learning new things, it’s a time to start using what you have in your hand.
In the bible, when Moses came in contact with God, he was asked, “What do you have in your hand?” Moses said he had a shepherd’s stick. Not one of those beautifully carved ornamental walking sticks that some of our leaders or elders use. No. It was just an ordinary stick. It was that stick that was used to perform all the miracles in Egypt, whether it was parting the sea, striking a rock to produce water or changing (the stick) to a snake. God didn’t tell Moses to go and carve out a beautiful staff from some Lebanon cedar tree and coat it copper and gold. He just told him to use what he had in his hand.
During this COVID-19 period, I would like to encourage people to look at what they have in their hand. It might look very simple, like that stick, but maybe it’s the thing that will do miracles for you.
So cooking has become your stick?
Yes, I intend to keep on using it because I cannot see anything else right now. And the bottom line is, people still need to eat.
You are competing with some well-established players in the food industry. What’s your edge?
My edge is that I offer high quality, hearty, wholesome meals that are prepared with love. I make the kinds of meals that I would be proud to present to my friends if they came to my home as dinner guests. I’m not cutting corners and getting the cheapest supplies from some dodgy corner. If I’m cooking a goat stew, for instance, I will get my cuts from where I usually buy meat for my personal consumption.
And your pricing?
My prices are very fair. A meal that can comfortably feed four adults goes for 1500 shillings. The people who have ordered from me have come back and said that I offer great value for money. I’m genuinely proud to have my name on these meals because generally, in Kenya, we are so used to being shafted by so many offers that don’t live up to their promise. I would rather have small profit margins but be proud of my work.
Do you see this as a viable business going forward?
It’s funny you ask that because I have teamed up with my friend, Huyam Talib, who does the pastries- the samosas, mahamris and kaimatis– things that I honestly don’t know how to make. Earlier this year, she told me about a kitchen that was available but was just too big for her to manage- she neither had the expertise nor the financial clout to run it alone. Anyway, we said at the end of all this, we will have probably gained the skills to take over that kitchen. When you have small numbers, it’s difficult to make the business viable. Once we start getting about ten orders per day and our profit margins start to increase then maybe we could make it a fully-fledged business, who knows…
What new life skills are you picking up from all this?
There was one thing I was telling my friends at the beginning of this year. I said, “You know what? I really need to kill procrastination”. That is one of my biggest weaknesses and let me tell you when you are cooking you cannot procrastinate. I have been thrown into the deep end! I think this is sharpening my character, I can already feel it. And surely, my character is needed in everything I do. I’ve been laughing and saying, I’ve never had to stand for so long or work so hard for such little money in such a long time.
I’m extremely careful about the money that comes in and goes out. When you are in a situation where you have, its easy to tip over to the side where you don’t realize how wasteful you can be or how much you take things for granted. Right now I am not taking anything for granted, not that 100 bob and not that order that somebody has sent my way.
I am grateful when somebody makes an order, whoever they are whether I know them personally or not. I’m grateful that I have something to do when I wake up. I am grateful that I have the skills- did I know that one day this skill would be the difference between us eating in this house or not? I am learning how to be an even more gracious and grateful person.
What is this period teaching you about life in terms of lessons that you may not have known before?
I don’t think it’s so much that I didn’t know the lessons, but rather I ignored them—for example, the idea of having a safety net. I’m thinking of some money that I had saved last year, and I’m wondering if I really needed to have used it for what I used it for (laughs). I don’t think what I did with my money was stupid, but maybe I could have held back on one or two things. If I had known that Corona was coming and that my income streams would dry out, I might have done things a bit differently.
Right now, it’s not like I can call a friend up a friend and say, “Hey, I’m in a really tight spot. Do you think you can swing me 20 or 30k and I’ll pay you back in 3 months?” We all understand what’s happened to people’s jobs and businesses. So yeah, I’ve learnt the importance of a safety net. It’s not a joke. There’s a reason why its called a safety net. It’s there so that when you’re falling, at least you have something to break or soften that landing. A fall is painful anyway, but it would be better to land on a soft mattress than a hard floor.
Saving is something our parents’ generation did very well. Our generation tends to live day to day, believing tomorrow will be fine. I would, therefore, urge more people to save. Put money aside even if its 2k per month. Five years down the line, you’ll have something that will cushion you.
Are you taking this period as a positive experience, or are you struggling to come to terms with it?
It depends on the day (laughs). Sometimes I am fired up, and sometimes I am just like, God, now what is this? I am very fortunate because I don’t pay rent on my house and those are some sound investments that were made earlier. But even when you’re running your home, there are still expenses. A few days ago, I had an electrical surge where my AVS surge protector blew up. The electrician comes, opens it up, and says, “You have to buy a new one”. And I had to because where I live, we have so many power surges. I used everything that I’d earned that week to buy a new surge protector. I felt so defeated that day.
But I am grateful that I have a habit that I’ve continued with, which is exercise. It is a humongous stress buster. If I get my workout done for the day, I find that on the other side of it, I am more relaxed and grateful. My mind starts telling me I can do it, it’s ok, it’s never that serious. I mean, there are people who don’t know how they are going to eat tonight. I know how I’m eating tonight and tomorrow, and next week, honestly I do. You begin to see that there is so much to be grateful for.
There are people who are sitting in their houses, eating biscuit after biscuit- if you’re a stress eater like me, that’s what you’ll be doing, and you’re probably thinking it’s all gone to shit. If this is the case, you need to find out what pushes you into a more positive space. For me, its exercise.
But yes, some days are much better than others. I’d also say, routines are important. My daughter is with me now, and that has helped me feel a little more organized than when she was not here. When there is nobody to oversee or do anything with or for, it’s easy to say, “I’ll do it later”, and then its 4 pm and you’ve not done a single thing.
If you’re able to follow a routine, even if it’s doing entirely domestic things, it keeps things moving, and you feel like you’ve achieved something. And that’s a great feeling.
How can people reach you to make orders?
They can call me directly on: 0700 931313. I have also set up an Instagram page where I share more details; the handle is homecooked_with_chichiseii