As a Kenyan American, UC Santa Cruz alumna Shiku Muhire described living in the U.S. as a “cultural vacuum” that didn’t necessarily reflect her African culture. To combat this, Muhire took it upon herself to create a platform called Kuuza Here — Kuuza is KiSwahili for “sell” — so her African culture can be available online in the U.S.

Kuuza Here is an online marketplace based in Santa Cruz that sells traditional and modern African products from a variety of African vendors, from both Africa and the U.S. One vendor, Wan Fam clothing,  designs and creates modern takes on Kenyan fashion, like colorful Maasai bomber jackets using predominantly African/Kenyan materials.

Anna McGrew
Anna McGrew

The mission of the company is to be an online Pan-African marketplace, Muhire said, which seeks to promote black culture, black-owned businesses and create more opportunities for the black and African diaspora in the U.S. to interact socially and economically.

“What it really translates into at the end of the day is investing in our community, investing in millennials, investing in startups, investing in the continent in real ways,” said Muhire. “So that when you spend a dollar with us, it elongates the life of that dollar in the black community.”

Of the eight people in charge of Kuuza Here, all but one are current UC Santa Cruz students or alumni. Co-founder and CEO Muhire refers to the business as being made up of “true banana slugs.” She cites their experiences at UCSC as fundamental in their development as people and in the formation of their business strategy.

“We are organizers, we are community leaders, we are admin, we are innovative. We learned everything we know from being on this campus,” Muhire said.

Eron Lake is a current senior majoring in computer science and game design and the chief technology officer (CTO) at Kuuza Here. Kuuza Here, he said, was the perfect opportunity for him to apply his skills as a computer science student to uplift black economics.

“We had so many conversations very early on about making sure the vendors were going to be treated right, and that we were doing it not just for our personal gain but that we wanted to uplift the black community and African products and uplift Africa in general,” Lake said.

Supporting the black community is also a topic addressed on campus by several student-led organizations. The Afrikan/Black Student Alliance (A/BSA) is a UCSC student organization, which focuses on creating a safe space on campus and addressing large scale political issues for black students.

Second-year student and political/cultural chair of A/BSA, Basheera Ali-El, said the black community needs to practice the Kwanzaa principle of Kujichagulia — self determination — in their economic transactions.

To address the issue of encouraging prosperity in the black community, Ali-El said, they must look to preserve the life of black dollars. This means keeping money in the community for longer by spending more at black-American business before spending externally.

“I believe that black Americans need to be in control of intellectual property and our patents,” Ali-El said. “It’s important that we protect and preserve our possessions and our resources and keep those things close to us, and that we have pride in our culture and we protect our dollar.”

While Kuuza Here aims to promote economic stability within the black community in the U.S., they also aim to help boost communities in Africa.

CTO Eron Lake and CEO Shiku Muhire spoke of a history of black oppression in the U.S. and the more recent rhetoric of President Trump, that led to this needed self-investment.

“Our new president has a very anti-immigration, anti-foreigner, anti-everything really mentality, which is exactly the opposite of what we want,” Lake said. “We are all about trying to include and trying to educate people in other cultures and the value in [them].”

Muhire hopes President Trump will make the black community “wake up” by forcing a “serious shift in mentality and a discipline in self-sustainability.” Muhire’s goal is that by 2020 the black community will have invested more in themselves and garner greater political power.

While Kuuza Here has already grown from a student’s idea to a functioning online business, Muhire intends to keep trying to change the conversation in and about the African diaspora far into the future.

“I would like for us, long term, to become a name that’s associated with being a game changer with how we think about Pan-Africa and Pan-African products coming to this country and how businesses in our community traditionally do business online,” Muhire said.