Mother-of-two, Rakhee talks about how she got into textiles, why she wakes up at 5:15 am, and how her family came to live in Kenya thanks to a boat trip by a 14-year-old
This month our That Mama is Kenyan-born Rakhee Shah. Rakhee is a mother to two daughters Leyla who is 6 years old and Uma, 4 years old. She’s also the mamapreneur behind sustainable fashion and lifestyle brand Maisha Concept. We speak to Rakhee about her business which is aimed at the globally conscious consumer who appreciates handcrafted vibrant fabrics made by local artisans in India and Africa. Rakhee’s family story is fascinating – her orphaned grandfather made his way from India to Kenya on a dhow (boat) aged just 14 years old where he eventually set up shop – a textile shop – and so his child and grandchild have followed in his footsteps! Having grown up seeing poverty, Rakhee shares her down-to-earth parenting philosophies, and how she instils gratitude and awareness of others in her children. Plus hear all about why she joined ‘The 5am Club’ and how she tries to do one new thing with her husband every week!
Read on for a fun interview and gorgeous photos courtesy of Irina Nilsson Photography!
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your family?
I am a third-generation Kenyan of Indian origin. I was born and raised in Nairobi where my immediate and extended family live. Following the completion of my undergraduate and Masters degrees in the UK, I worked in finance for nearly a decade, both in Nairobi and Hong Kong – I then made the bold move to change my career and follow my passion. That was when Maisha was born!
I met my husband back in 2001, in my final year at University. We dated for nearly 10 years before we got married! In that period he moved from London to Hong Kong for work while I remained in Kenya. After a lot of long-distance, I decided to take the plunge and move to Hong Kong in 2010. A LOT of life-changing moments happened in Hong Kong – I got married, we had our two kids and had the most incredible time there – it is a city that will always have a special place in my heart. Subsequently, in mid-2018 we moved to Singapore, and have been here ever since.
Tell us about growing up in Kenya?
I was one of the lucky ones who was born and raised in Kenya! Kenya was and still is one of the most magical and visually stunning places to live. When I was growing up Nairobi was not the concrete jungle that it is now, with just a few high rises and a couple of shopping malls. Any new building was a fascination and the whole town would go to see it. We were surrounded by breath-taking landscapes and an array of the most exotic wildlife. Camping and going on safari were our form of weekend activity; kids knew how to pitch a tent and even fix a punctured tyre from a young age!
So you know the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’– that was literally me, my siblings and cousins! I have a HUGE family, and we grew up together. I remember spending a lot of time with my cousins playing all sorts of games in the backyard, having big family meals that went on for hours, going on impromptu family trips to one of the national parks, and having Sunday picnics overlooking the most beautiful lakes or valleys.
Everything we consumed or used was locally made, from the food we ate to the beauty products we used, to the clothes we wore. Life was simple and fun – we grew up in the outdoors and our house was open to everyone (as it still is now)!
How have your experiences of childhood affected how you bring your kids up or what you want them to experience?
I feel truly blessed to have had the childhood that I had, and whilst my girls are growing up in a very different environment and under quite different circumstances, I am passionate to instil in them the values and behaviours that have made me who I am today. For example, given the exposure to poverty I had growing up, I was brought up in a very simple way where my parents taught me to appreciate the value of money. No matter where life has taken me, I still make sure I live life simply, trying to put myself in other people’s shoes and appreciate what I have. And that’s exactly how I try to raise my girls. I also always instil in them to be kind, appreciate others and to speak with and be friends with people from all walks of life.
I also think it is important for my girls to understand that I grew up in a place that is very different from where they are growing up in. I feel it is never too early to give kids a perspective of the world we live in – it helps them be well-rounded individuals with their feet planted firmly on the ground. As a result, I have made it a point to take the kids to Kenya twice a year since they were babies, and feel this exposure and cultural experience for them is priceless.
Finally, a formative experience of my life was seeing my mum suffer from and ultimately succumb to cancer. This started when I was 7 years old and she fought that battle hard for over 20 years. This has given me one clear goal in life, which is not to take anything for granted and to treasure every moment I have with my children.
How did you come to set up Maisha Concept?
Both my grandfather and father have been in the textiles business for the last 80 years. Also, my mother’s family were the first to open a textile mill in Kenya. As a result, growing up I have been surrounded by role models like my father and uncles. Thanks to their guidance and upbringing, I developed a fascination of how textiles, culture and history come together to tell life stories.
So where did it all begin? My grandfather was from a very poor village in Gujarat, India. He lost his parents when he was 12, when a plague hit his village in the 1930s. Someone told him to make his way to Africa for a better life. I think it’s amazing: he had no idea where Africa was, knew no one there, and spoke not a word of English or Swahili. Yet he and so many like him took a dhow from the west coast of India heading to somewhere on the East Coast of Africa. His dhow landed in Kenya. Here he started his new life, aged 14, working at a small shop in return for food and a place to sleep. This was his life for many, years, working and saving until he was able to open a small shop of his own. Over time the shop got bigger and his brothers and sons joined in the business. My father was not even able to finish high school given he was needed in the shop. That shop is still going strong, 60 years on, with my dad running it 6 days a week. My grandfathers and my dad are such an inspiration to me, and I thought of them continuously when I was contemplating my career change. I guess being an entrepreneur was always in my blood!
So with such a strong heritage, it gave me the confidence to start Maisha. I started out by sourcing fabrics from different parts of Africa and creating small, bespoke collections working with artisans across Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Ethiopia. These early days were so special, as it allowed me to travel back to Africa more, while sharing what is truly special in terms of heritage and culture from this beautiful continent. I have also recently branched out to partnering with artisans in India, again allowing me to forge stronger bonds with my homeland in India and the local traditions and customs.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
I feel like the pandemic has in some ways created some tailwinds for brands such as Maisha. We have always had a strong online presence and a global customer base. The pandemic has made people more conscious about how they shop and what they buy – at Maisha we have always prided ourselves on showing full transparency of who made our clothes, how they are developed and where they are made. We love sharing the journey of our heritage textiles on our Instagram stories – and our customers love it!
However, the creation of new collections virtually has been hard. Lockdown resulted in workshop closures, transportation delays and labour uncertainties. The process is much slower, but despite the challenges, we managed to overcome these hurdles and even create some amazing new styles. I think it makes a difference having built strong relationships with our artisans, and having the desire to create a positive change in the communities in which we operate. We are also thankful to our understanding customers, that respect slow fashion and what goes into it.
We love your IG stories sourcing in India and all the connections you make with the people there. Tell us about the printers and designers in India and your relationships with them and their families?
Whether it is a particular state in India, or rural communities in the heartlands of Africa, they often have their own cultures, traditions, tribes and artisans who specialise in certain skills which have been passed down through generations. I feel very blessed that I get a chance to represent these through Maisha. To my mind it is critical to preserve these traditions, so I do my best to showcase this on our Instagram stories and highlight the skill of the artisans who make our products.
In particular, Maisha has been working with a family of artisans in India for the past 3 years. We have built a strong relationship with them and often stay with them on our trips to the workshop. We work as a team when we create new products – and they are just as excited as me when a new print is successful!
Maisha is a small enterprise; however, our goal is to enhance skills, create employment, pay fairly and value our artisans for their artistic and technical skills. They really are masters at what they do! So I want to show the world that these skills cannot be replicated by anyone or anything – their practice is passed down from generation to generation. They are talented, creative individuals and to be able to work with them is an honour.
Our products show a story. A story about skill, about life, about traditions – so do check these out on our IG stories to see more.
How do you balance life, family and work? Any organisational tips?
I try as much as possible to compartmentalise my day. It is something my husband taught me – I found myself trying to do five things at the same time, and feeling that I was not really excelling at any, and at the same time feeling very overwhelmed. Now I try to divide my day, where I set time aside for work where I focus on ONLY work, I give time for myself e.g. working out, reading, listening to a podcast, and I set quality time aside for the kids, where I am fully present, give them undivided attention, play and listen to them – so yes, phones away!
Something that I have really embraced is the concept of goal setting – so at the turn of every year I now take the time to set out what I would like to achieve across work, family and personal aspects of my life. I believe the key is to set realistic goals, understand the intention behind them and write down the steps you will take to make them happen. Also, check how you are doing regularly, and don’t be hard on yourself if you need to course correct!
Tell us about ‘The 5 am Club’!
Most people get surprised when I tell them my daily routine. Since becoming a mum, fitting in that “me” time can be a challenge, so I find the early morning is a great time in the day where it can be just for myself. So what do I do? I get up between 5.15 and 5.30am. I aim to fit in a 20/30 minute workout, 10 minutes of meditation, 10 minutes journalling and 10 minutes sipping my hot water, and if the weather plays ball, watching the sunrise! For me it is the perfect start of the day – I feel organised, motivated and by 6.30 I am ready for the day, all before the kids wake up. So try it – feel free to make adjustments to the component parts to create your own power hour – but top tip is try not to check your emails, social media or phone messages!
Favourite family-friendly activity in Singapore?
What to choose! There are so many given the variety of family activities in Singapore, but one of our faves is heading out to East Coast Park with our bikes. Cycling along the coast, taking in Marina Bay and then having a picnic on the beach – it has a bit of everything! It may not be Koh Samui or Lombok, but my two will make sandcastles whenever they get the chance!!
How do you maintain a close relationship with each child?
I feel like my girls are quite different personalities – I’m sure this not a surprise for many, as I hear the same feedback from many of my mummy friends. As a result, I try to make it a point to have individual dates with each one, either going for a swim, ice skating, a milkshake or to the local trampoline park. I also try to make sure when I am with them, I am fully present and listen to them – they do have the best stories.
What is your self-care routine?
As well as my morning routine I mentioned above, for me it is super important to maintain a regular and consistent exercise routine. For me that entails a workout three times per week, yoga at least twice per week and a game of tennis with the hubby. I will also try to go for a hike once per month and explore one of the many trails we have here in Singapore. Aside from that, I am also religious about my monthly facials!
What’s your favourite family ritual?
As sad as it may sound, we are huge fans of rituals and routines in our household! For us, Saturday morning breakfast family dates are a mainstay. We have our favourites, but will also mix it up with some newly opened breakfast/brunch places as and when. I also try to cook a traditional Gujrati lunch every Sunday for us to enjoy as a family – this is something my mum used to do for me and my brothers back in Nairobi, so whilst it never tastes as good, it brings back such fond memories of my childhood!
Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
I think you just have to be very deliberate to make sure you make time for each other. Trying to balance work, being a mum and personal time it is inevitable that something has to give! So my husband and I have now made it a point to aim do one new thing every week. This doesn’t have to be too elaborate, it could simply be trying out a new coffee shop, or grabbing a casual lunch at a new restaurant in town. Sometimes we will get out for a hike to a new trail, go to the movies or go see something new in Singapore. We make it a point to do it, even if it’s for 30 minutes.
Favourite date night restaurants?
So many to choose from in Singapore, and given the events of the last year we have had the chance to expand the list a bit! But a few of ours would be:
Koma – fancy Japanese food with good vegetarian options.
Atlas – known for its Gin, but also great little menu that is well executed.
Tiffin Room at the Raffles Hotel – go to the Courtyard for pre-dinner drinks.
Brasserie Gavroche – cute little French place in Tras Street.
National Kitchen by Violet Oon – great Peranakan food in a beautiful setting.
Cicheti/No Menu – home style Italian food.
Jim Thompson – that mango salad!!
Thevar – contemporary Indian food done really well.
Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.
I think there are the obvious ones about sleeping when the baby sleeps, having lots of onesies (yes babies poo A LOT!), making sure you eat well etc. But one thing that I didn’t expect is that, amongst all the chaos, you have this beautiful time bonding as a new family unit. I found myself leaning on my husband in ways I never expected, and it turned out to be an amazing time for us to connect – so try to find the humour in those 3am feeding sessions, as you will look back and you might even miss them a little bit once the sleep routine is established!
As a mama I wish I were better at… Self Reflection – I feel that I spend so much time maniacally focused on “what next”, maybe I would be well served by sometimes taking a step back, understanding what’s working and what’s not, what I have achieved and where I want to get to.
I wish I had more time for… my good friends. I am fortunate to have spent time in various parts of the world and built some really good friendships over the years. I do find it a challenge staying connected with my close friends, particularly when they are in different time zones, but COVID has necessitated increased usage of video calls which, in this case, I am grateful for!
I always feel saner after… A workout or going for a long walk in the trails (ideally listening to a good podcast).
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about…My father in Kenya and wondering when I will see him again. Also, much to my husband’s dismay, I have the most vivid ideas on new designs that come to me in the dark hours, which will often be followed by a few hours of sketching!
My favourite moment of the day is… at around 6.30am, where I have finished my workout and morning routine, and am ready to hit the day.
Thank you for a lovely chat and some great tips Rakhee. And a huge thank you to Irina Nilsson Photography for the gorgeous-as-ever photos of Rakhee and her daughters!