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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Panchachuli – Interview

Panchachuli is a women’s weavers co-op founded in 2005 and based in India. They make beautiful fabrics and pashminas using natural fibres and traditional techniques. I first came across Panchachuli at the Eco Luxe exhibit during London fashion Week in 2010 and later heard Mary King, UK agent, speak at the Ethical Fashion Forum Source Expo. Panchachuli provides opportunities for training and employment for marginalised women, currently working with nearly 800 women in 32 villages. They have a waiting list of girls hoping to start training and the enterprise has enabled schools and a hospital to be developed. Mary answered my questions below.

1. What does your role for Panchachuli in the UK involve on a day to day basis?
In the U.K. I liaise with designers and retail outlets to sell the items which I import from India. Admin takes up a considerable amount of time as well as meeting customers.

2. In what way does the Panchachuli women’s weavers’ co-op help the women involved in the enterprise?
It has empowered the women totally in a remote and economically backward region of India. Before the co-operative these women would not have been employed in this way. It also provides health care, eight schools and a hospital for the entire community so benefitting not only the women but their families as well.

3. What do you think these workers in Almora would be doing if Panchachuli had not been established?
They would be leading extremely difficult lives. A recent World Bank study concluded that Panchachuli should be used as a model for socio-economic change. The problems range from alcoholic husbands, single parent families, and other social issues. Today a Panchachuli woman stands for an independent wage earner.

4. Where do the raw fibres come from for Panchachuli products?
Lambs wool from New Zealand. Cashmere from Mongolia. Local products are Oak Silk, Himalayan Nettle and Sheep wool.

5. What is the biggest challenge Panchachuli has faced as an enterprise?
Persuading the local population to accept the changes in lifestyle and training the women to export standard.

6. What does the future hold for Panchachuli?
More expansion. It is hoped to train a further 500-1,000 women across the area.

7. How are the products and the enterprise as a whole marketed to consumers?
All labels are beautifully hand painted and name the weaver and village. In the U.K. the business is “ethical luxury” and works with The Ethical Fashion Forum so it adheres to ethical guidelines and banking.

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What is a Social Enterprise?

Having a bit more time on my hands to pursue other areas of research, I have zoomed in on the work of social enterprises within fashion and textiles. I will soon be featuring some interviews on my blog with representatives from both UK and overseas social enterprises so I thought it best to provide an introduction before the interviews get under way.

So what is a social enterprise? I have to admit, I had barely heard of the concept before I started volunteering for social enterprise whomadeyourpants? in 2009. According to the Social Enterprise Coalition “Social enterprises are businesses trading for social and environmental purposes. Many commercial businesses would consider themselves to have social objectives, but social enterprises are distinctive because their social and/or environmental purpose is absolutely central to what they do – their profits are reinvested to sustain and further their mission for positive change”

Social enterprise can be traced a long way back, but it only really came into mainstream society in the 1990s. Social enterprises don’t want to be thought of as a charity, they make their money by selling a product or service. In ‘What comes first: your business message or your social mission?’ Chris Smith emphasises the need for having a high quality service or product because you cannot do social good without having a viable business behind you. This made me think of my interviews with Continental Clothing for my University research. Continental Clothing created the world’s first Carbon Reduction Label for a t-shirt and were always keen to highlight the importance of having a fashionable, good quality product in parallel to considering the ethical impact.

Many UK based social enterprises are providing a service. Perhaps this is an easier model to adopt, or maybe it just makes sense because social enterprises often help those from a disadvantaged background, and what better way than providing jobs, experience and a greater sense of community for those involved. The recent budget provided extra resources for entrepreneurs such as tax breaks and less red tape. Grants and extra assistance have been available for many social enterprises for a number of years, much of that help coming from UnLtd. The challenge is ensuring self sufficiency once those grants run out, and that involves really engaging the public towards the cause.

I find the idea of social enterprises within fashion and textiles particularly fascinating. An industry often thought of as exploitative and wasteful being used for a positive impact. Of course this is the direction that fashion needs to be going if we are to move towards a more sustainable future. These enterprises often use the native skills of workers in developing countries. Indeed my own MPhil survey found that fair trade fashion has connotations of sourcing items from countries such as India, Peru, and Bangladesh. Places renowned for embroidered textiles, hand weaving and such. Anyway, this is a continuing research project for me. I’ve come across some wonderful enterprises at ethical fashion events but if you know of any more or can help my research in any way, please let me know.

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