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    ITC and African Fashion to the Max

     

     
     
    International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2009 
     

    Photo by Jeremy Brown Maasai beadworkers in Nairobi
    Click here to see the slide show
     

    As international designers race to find new inspiration and unique product sources for next season's line of ethical fashion items, they increasingly look towards Africa, its designers and its communities.

    In 2008, ITC approached leaders in the fashion community and distributors in Italy and in the United Kingdom to test the potential market for bags and accessories produced in Africa. The aim was to build a direct connection with a major fashion house.

    Creative Director of Max&Co. (Max Mara Group), Luisa Laudi, decided to use some of the samples of materials presented to develop a small collection of bags and scarves. After a few weeks the first samples for the collection were received: bags, belts and bracelets worked in crochet using cotton yarn from Nairobi.

    Further samples were required from Uganda and Kenya, involving field missions to select the communities to produce them. Product development through an ethical fashion team was instigated in order to select the final groups of micro manufacturers. A group of 250 single women (most of them are HIV positive) living on the outskirts of Dagoretti (Kenya) was chosen, together with a group of informal producers (the Bidii Shoemakers, who also work in beading) from Korogocho, near Nairobi. The project also included The Crochet Sisters (a sisterhood of about 100 people providing work for orphans and refugee women from Zimbabwe), a group of 150 bone beadmakers in Kibera (the largest slum in Kenya and in Africa) and a group of tie-dye manufacturers in Kwawangari.

    The groups were required to sign on to terms of reference to guarantee the delivery standards required by distributors. Product samples and costings provided a level of confidence to Max&Co. who then participated in a final meeting to assess the quality of materials, leading to the production schedule and the overall programme launch.

    A business hub was established in Nairobi to provide the technical assistance needed on a day-to-day basis by the communities. This hub was set up in collaboration with a local company that works with many communities, but which is also experienced with established business networks. Unlike predecessor projects, this involved no United Nations agency, no new organizational structure, no investment in fixed assets. The mission of the hub was totally aligned to that of the project.

    The structure is being formalized into a trust with the support of the Government of Kenya who are looking to involve even more communities. The Government is investing in the project by providing larger premises for the trust, as well as other forms of in-kind support.

    The Manifatture del Nord (part of Max Mara Group) Director of Production, Claudio Moggi, visited Kenya as part of the process to supply technical advice on some key elements. The hub in collaboration with Max&Co. and ITC worked to solve one of major obstacles related to credit availability. Materials needed to be bought in advance and people in communities were paid on a daily basis.

    The financial challenge was solved by the Max Mara Group providing an advance of 70 per cent, with the final balance of 30 per cent to be paid upon delivery and quality inspection. Quality control was achieved beyond the required level - products had a rate of non-conformity of less than 2 per cent.

    Creative Director of Max&Co., Luisa Laudi, commented that the outcome in terms of quality, achieved by informal community groups based in slums, surpassed that of many formal business structures based in other parts of the world.

    But what was the real impact on communities? There was an acknowledged economic impact - the margins paid on fashion items allowed for daily wages that were much higher than those recommended by Fairtrade (250 Kenyan shillings ($3) a day). Workers earned 400 to 800 Kenyan shillings per day. Some of the people involved had the opportunity to invest in the business (Bidii Shoemakers) to develop it further. Others decided to invest in sanitation and improvement of their physical infrastructure or to pay school fees and health insurance for their children.

    From a market point of view, the collection went to the shops and sold well. Max&Co. decided to use it to inaugurate their new flagship store in Berlin, an event widely covered by local media. The story of Max&Co. had such appeal that it was covered by TIME and Vanity Fair as well as in a number of Italian newspapers and magazines.

    The second collection for Max&Co. is now under development. Once again, it is based on fashion accessories. Once again, it is an opportunity that has evolved within and out of communities in Africa and will help to improve the livelihoods of disadvantaged people. The aim now is to involve more people and more communities.