SOKO Kenya Interview

SOKO is a production unit based in Kenya, founded by Jo Maiden originally from London. They produce high quality garments for the international fashion industry and run as a social enterprise, improving the quality of life for the local workers through employment, training and improved social services. I’ve been following their progress since the end of 2009 and was lucky enough to speak to Jo this week. SOKO supplies the ASOS Africa collection and Jessica Ogden for ASOS collection which you can find in the Green Room.

Emma: You worked for ethical fashion forum before starting SOKO, what did you do before that, how did you get into the ethical fashion arena?
Jo: I did a fashion degree, and through that started to think about where clothes came from. Fairtrade coffee and things like that were starting to come on to the scene but people weren’t really thinking about it from a clothing perspective. So I started to look into it, I wrote my dissertation on fashion and ethics and what was available for the customer. After finishing my degree I moved back to London. Ethical Fashion Forum was just forming then, so I started to go to things that they were a part of, and just teach myself what was going on. At the time I was working for a small couture designer as her assistant and just trying to find my feet. I got more involved in the Ethical Fashion Forum as they grew and I freelanced for them for three years part time as well as doing other projects part time.

E: So what lead you to start up the enterprise in Kenya?
Jo: My husband and I wanted to move somewhere out of London and we ended up in Nairobi, I was running some workshops with Tamsin, who’s the founder of Ethical Fashion Forum. While I was there I met a lady who invited me down to Diani which is where SOKO is based and she had four tailors that she employed to make her clothes. She runs Lalesso, her own fashion brand and was also managing production. She said she didn’t want to do the production anymore, but there wasn’t anything around and she didn’t want to go to a massive factory. So she was looking for someone that she could outsource to, so that’s when the idea of starting SOKO came up. We moved here in Feb 2009 and she gave me her four tailors and I set up SOKO. She was my first customer and I still produce for her and then because of my connections with the fashion industry in the UK, the collaboration with ASOS began.

E: The ASOS Africa collection, is that designed by the ASOS team and manufactured by you?
Jo: Yes exactly, I’m involved in helping with some of the sourcing of fabrics, I try to source as much as possible locally, but yes it’s all designed in house by them.

E: Where do you get most of the fabrics from? Do you try to use environmentally friendly fabrics?
Jo: It’s for the client’s specification, and most clients deliver fabric to me. Every time I work with ASOS we try to source locally if we can. We haven’t to date been able to use any environmentally friendly fabrics. We would love to of course, but it’s about doing one step at a time and it has to be commercial in terms of price, so we haven’t yet been in a position to do that. But for the last ASOS Africa collection we used hand woven fabric using Kenyan cotton which wasn’t organic but it’s a really good step.

E: How many workers do you have at the unit there, and where do you find the workers from?
Jo: There are 28 of us altogether and they are all local. People just show up really, or when a small workshop closed down locally we’ve employed their workers.

E: Did a lot of them already have the skills that were required?
Jo: All of my tailors could sew, but their standards weren’t as we required, so that’s what I’ve worked with them on. Nobody that has worked for me has ever worked in a big factory before, because there are big clothing manufacturers here but they are run in a very different way and no one here has worked there before, which actually may have helped. We just train as we’ve gone along.

E: What’s your connection to the Ukunda Youth Polytechnic?
Jo: We are partnered with the polytechnic and our workshops are based inside the polytechnic grounds. We sponsor all the orphan students that study here. We help them pay their school fees, we also take on tailoring graduates from the polytechnic and train them up and then employ them. We also try to promote what the polytechnic does.

E: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced since starting SOKO?
Jo: As with any business it’s starting out. I didn’t have any experience of doing this before. One thing was finding the right people, people have come and gone, and it feels as if now I’ve got a really strong team and a good set of managers. So that’s one thing and the other thing is getting the systems in place. So if you imagine that no one who works here has ever been into a clothes shop where there is a rack of say, one style of dress, in three different colours, size 6 to 16 and they are all exactly the same, other than the size – the labels are in the same place, the care labels are the same, they’re perfect. So having never seen that before and not being able to imagine what walking into Topshop for example looks like, then to try and help them understand why the quality and consistency is so important has been difficult. With ASOS, I got an 80 page manual with all their different requirements.

E: What are your expansion plans and plans for the future?
Jo: We’re in a very small space at the moment which isn’t big enough so we’re looking for a new workshop, whether we renovate an old space or buy some land and build, or rent somewhere, we’re looking into that. At the moment we’ve got a small crèche which is under a tent, so we need a proper space for the babies and all of those sorts of things.

E: Have you had donations and extra funding that hasn’t come through sales?
Jo: Yes, when I first started I got a donation from Joffe Charitable Trust which is a small charity run by Lord Joffe and I got a donation for £10 000 which was to kick start us and from then I’ve had donations from individuals who support and believe in our work. Initially I was trying to raise a lot of money to properly start up with which I didn’t get but I’m actually grateful for that because its meant that we’ve grown organically.

See a video of SOKO Kenya here

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