Shuhuda: Joan Aoko of Byaoko

Shuhuda: Joan Aoko of Byaoko

My name is Joan Aoko, a full time crochet designer. I’m the founder of Byaoko (pronounced as By Aoko) a crochet brand that designs swimwear and bridal dresses. In addition, I’m also the founder of House of Yarns which sells imported yarn and craft supplies. I spend most of my time crocheting and exploring yarns.

The name Aoko is from the Luo ethnic community. It means born outside the house. My mum actually gave birth to me on her way to the hospital just along the road, hence the name Aoko.

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Shuhuda: Joan Aoko of Byaoko

First Off…

I’m 28 years old. A wife, a laid back lady who is passionate about crocheting, serving God, entrepreneurship, traveling and reaching out to the community.

I learned the basics of crochet at the age of 9 from my late mum. She was really talented in creating doilies, which I found amazing!! However, I picked the art in 2015 during my last year in campus where I was studying International Relations and Diplomacy. It was a hobby and source of income to keep me going.

After completing my studies, I worked with an NGO and the County Government. Still, my heart was yearning to build my brand and create employment. I felt the need to craft unique bikinis for women who appreciate arts and unique fashion. I decided to resign and focus on building my brand which turned into a serious business in 2016. For me entrepreneurship is something I intend to pursue for long as I live.

I Said Yes To My Dress.

I’m the number one fan of my brand. I had it in mind that if I ever got married, I would crochet my wedding gown. I wanted something unique and out of the ordinary. Similarly, I also wanted to introduce crochet gowns in the market and I thought the best way to do it is actually to make one and show people that it’s really possible. It took me 2 months to carefully craft it.

I had to make sure the materials were of high quality to match up with the amount of time I would invest in making it. Therefore, I settled on yarn from Turkey. I got married to my best friend in October 2019 and wore what I was passionate about. Crocheting my wedding dress, which was dear to my heart, has to be my favourite crafting memory. It also warms my heart when clients call to thank me for a job well done in crafting their pieces.

Inspiration.

To begin with, I draw inspiration from different places. Firstly, my fashion style inspires me to create pieces. Secondly, I draw my inspiration from nature while mixing colors, from the internet especially Pinterest and from different artists. Moreover, my husband encourages me to keep on going even when I feel like I have had enough. Fellow crocheters also motivate me to become better at what I do. I firmly believe that every talent given by God should be put into practice or He will take it back and give it to another lol.

Good Things To Come.

I was excited about launching my yarn store but the pandemic derailed everything. There’s been a gap in finding high quality yarn in Kenya. I intend to introduce to the market a special brand of yarn that I’ve been working on. In addition, I’ll have all sorts of craft supplies to help fellow crocheters scale up. I hope my fellow crafters will support me in this journey.

We Rise By Lifting Others.

Byaoko has currently employed 3 women on a full-time basis.  They knew the basics of crocheting but I had to train them on how I love my crochet items to be produced; quality is everything for our brand. Despite experiencing low sales due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, we are keeping busy by coming up with new designs. In addition to this, I started a YouTube Channel where I offer crochet tutorials on some of the Byaoko designs.

You Don’t Have To Struggle In Silence.

I’m also involved in creating mental health awareness, and communicating development through art.

In December 2019, I seriously suffered from mental illness. I was diagnosed with severe depression, anxiety disorder and panic attacks. I felt like my world was crumbling down and there was no way out of it.  Furthermore, I lost interest in everything since the panic attacks couldn’t let me function normally. I saw a psychiatrist and I was on drugs for some months. Besides prayers, God’s grace and medication, crochet also played a big role in my healing process. The repetition of stitches and focusing on them calmed my nerves. That’s when it became clear to me that art can be used as a therapy to mental illness.

After getting better I decided to create awareness on mental health. I realized many people suffer in silence without even understanding what they are going through. Through a crochet club I run called Crochet Club Kenya, I organized our first event on mental health wellness where we shared our struggles; it was such a powerful meet up. The event also had a professional on board so those who needed counseling were connected with them for help.

Info:
In Africa mental issues are attributed to either witchcraft or spiritual problem. Government statistics indicate that at least one in every four {1:4} Kenyans suffers from a mental illness at one point in their lives. This is about 11.5 million people . Unfortunately, Kenya has only 88 psychiatrists, 427 psychiatrist nurses who are trained to handle mental illness, about 10 medical social workers and a few mental psychologists and counselors who are competent to handle mental issues. Budgetary allocation for mental health is only 0.5% of health budget thus leaving the mental equation completely overstretched.

Source: University of Nairobi Research.

Crochet Club Kenya. Formed by Joan Aoko to address how art can be used as a form of mental health practice.

On Culture & Discrimination.

There’s some sort of religious and cultural expectations set making us sensitive in whatever we do. This makes me shy away from marketing some of my products, like bikinis, to fellow church members.

To Put It Bluntly.

Most African crafters are underrated and unappreciated. In my experience, not many Africans appreciate my art and are ready to pay the prices I have set for my products. This is hinders the development of art in Africa. Selling abroad is equally frustrating due to hefty shipping prices.

Joan Aoko is very active on her Instagram @byaoko. You can follow her to see her latest work and keep up to date with new releases. She also has a YouTube Channel where she shares crochet tutorials.

Shuhuda: Joan Aoko of Byaoko

Disclaimer: All photos provided for the purposes of graphics & illustrations for this article, are from Joan Aoko of Byaoko.

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