Elizabeth Wanjiru’s face lights up when she describes her workplace. It’s an airy, freshly painted building in Waithaka, outside Nairobi, which buzzes with the sound of women pedalling at their sewing machines as they piece together the lining for the latest Vivenne Westwood bag.
“Really, I really enjoy it,” she beams. “When you come, you meet lots of friends. I am happy. It’s enjoyable.”
The Waithaka workshop is part of Kenya’s transformation into an “ethical fashion” hub and part of a growing debate over whether the growing global demand for ethically-made clothing can generate economic opportunities for ordinary Kenyans.
Kenya is already familiar with textile manufacturing on an industrial scale. Estimates suggest that mass production of clothing for export has created 60,000 direct jobs and 200,000 indirect ones in the country over the past decade. According to the last available statistics from 2007, clothing and textiles are Kenya’s third most important export, bringing in more than KShs6 billion in revenue.
But the industry has faced criticism for its poor work conditions as most large-scale clothing manufacturers are characterised by low pay, sexual harassment, poor compensation for overtime work, and weak labour rights.
Italian fashion maverick Simone Cipriani wants to change all that. In 2008, with support from the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, he founded the United Fashion initiative and chose Kenya as its launching pad.
Using fashion to fight poverty
“United Fashion is about real fashion produced in a responsible way,” explains Cipriani. “My way of being responsible is to involve people in a dignified way, to provide work and a way out of poverty. My intention was not simply to sell existing local products in the market, which is competitive and complex, - but to merge talents from the fashion world with skills and materials available locally.”
The result is a programme that draws on simple skills like sewing or tailoring, as well as traditional Kenyan crafts like beading, to provide Western designers with unique items and give locals well-paying jobs in safe work environments.
Currently, the scheme employs about 1,000 Kenyans in marginalised communities around the country although the workforce can swell to around 7,000 when a large order is placed from abroad.
The organisation’s clientele include high profile luxury designers such as Vivenne Westwood and Stella McCartney, who are in the market for artisanal, hand-crafted items rather than mass-produced goods.
That, according to United Fashion’s Product Development Adviser Jeremy Brown, carves out a niche for Kenya as a provider of quality items. While Kenya cannot yet compete with manufacturing behemoths like China, hand-crafted products can be sold at a mark up to Western consumers interested in ethically-made items.
“You can sell it at a premium; it’s a real luxury product because every single thing is made by hand. “The fashion houses will try and sell that story,” he says.
And the luxury market, research shows, is less prone to the fluctuations in the global economy. While Kenya’s large scale textile industry suffered from a sharp decrease in business as a result global economic downturn, US consulting firm Bain and Company’s latest report on high-end goods finds that the luxury market is “defying initial concerns over Eurozone turmoil and fears of a cool down in emerging markets.” Sales are anticipated to exceed €200 billion (about KShs21 trillion) in 2012.
At the height of global recession in 2009, United Fashion estimated the total value of its exports at $2 million.
Rajiv Arora, the executive director of the African Cotton & Textile Industries Federation, believes Kenyan manufacturers currently focus too heavily on mass production and are missing the opportunities presented by the international fashion market.
Partnerships with the fashion sector, he argues, could lead to broader economic development.
“I can say for the past few years that we have been working with the fashion industry I think (the cotton and textile industry) has been well-supported by those companies. They have been recognised as a key factor in developing markets,” says Arora.
United Fashion touts its initiative as more than just money-makers. Work place standards are guided by the Fair Labour Association, and employees are educated about their labour rights and empowered to pursue their own business projects.
“What we try and show the communities is that there are other things you can do,” explains Jeremy Brown, who is based in United Fashion’s Nairobi office.