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    Ethical Fashion: Quality control in Africa Community Projects

     

     
     
    International Trade Forum - Issue 3/2010

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    In East Africa, an ITC Ethical Fashion project is demonstrating that international quality and standards can be met, even in the most remote and impoverished communities.

    Created for Italy's largest retail chain, Coop, Africa Community Projects (ACP) was set up in 2008 by ITC's Ethical Fashion Programme. With ITC working as an intermediary, the project connects thousands of marginalized artisans to international markets through partnerships with high-end fashion houses and distributors.

    ACP's first order for Coop, the Africa Community Bags, was a series of simple hand-crafted cotton tote bags made by disadvantaged communities in East Africa. The bags were embellished in nine different styles using the skills of the local artisans: crochet flowers, Masai beads, bone buttons and recycled materials.

    When Coop received their first order of 300,000 bags from ACP, they were surprised at the extremely low non-conformity rate of only 2%, which is low in comparison to industry standards. 'That's less than what our factories in China deliver,' said Francesca Gatteschi, Head Buyer of Unicoop Firenze (Italy). The low non-conformity rate was the result of strict quality control systems put in place by the ACP.

    To operate effectively, the programme developed the 'Hub' - a large workshop located in Nairobi's industrial area that also serves as a product development centre, storage space and regional headquarters for ACP projects.

    Every order dispatched from the Hub in Africa to Europe was meticulously measured with quality control integrated holistically into the entire production process. Some production lines in Kenya and Uganda were required to pass six stages of quality control. The positive results of this demonstrate that an effective quality control system can be adapted anywhere, even in impoverished rural areas, to deliver goods that meet strict international standards.

    Needless to say, ensuring that 300,000 white cotton totes 100% made in Africa match the standards required for distribution in mainstream Italian outlets had its challenges. For a start, keeping the goods clean between the muddy rainy season and the dusty dry season was a priority, especially as the bags were transported from place to place in true African style - on the back of buses, trucks and bikes. It was ensured through separated storage rooms and an efficient cleaning rota. But the real key to this successful model was the involvement of the artisans themselves who integrated quality checks all along the supply chain.

    Artisans involved in the ACP each have the responsibility for the quality of goods that pass through their station. At the Hub, quality control staff check all the materials upon delivery, work spaces are cleaned twice daily and the conformity of individual products are verified as they go through the different units (screen-printing, tailoring and ironing), before undergoing a final check for packing and shipping.

    'Many of the artisans were not used to operating in this way. But we stuck to this principle and it is what made it possible to deliver good work,' said Judy Adhiambo Okumu, Quality Control Manager at the Ethical Fashion Hub in Nairobi.

    In addition, workers are paid according to the standards and guidelines set by the Fair Labor Association. ITC's Ethical Fashion Programme also set up a diligent quality control department of 40 full-time staff to support the Africa Community Bags project. 'We screened every single piece at several times at different stages. We were incredibly strict in filtering defective bags and rejected anything that was not 100% to the specifications,' said Mrs Okumu. 'It got people who work with us to understand what a job well done means and know that to be part of this industry requires accuracy and professionalism.'

    For more information about the Africa Community Bags project, visit www.africacommunityprojects.org.