Creating an Ethical Fair Trade Fashion Company
As an advisor and volunteer with Girl Up Uganda and Mazuri Designs, it was important for me to visit the sewing workshop in Kampala. I wanted to experience first-hand the differences in the way work is done in Uganda (versus the US) so I could better understand their business culture. My role as Advisor allows me to provide an outsider’s American perspective on ways to do things efficiently, and offer my thoughts on how operations could be improved moving forward, helping Mazuri make decisions that will allow it to grow into an ethical fair trade clothing and accessories company.
To give you some background on the physical space, Mazuri Designs is housed in the backroom of a two-room office space in Luzira, about 40 minutes drive from the fabric markets in the city center. Innocent is our head seamstress, with 15 years of experience in her trade. She works closely with Guy who assists with sales by building relationships with customers to bring in business. Guy is also a master sketch artist and designer with previous experience with a leading designer in fashion production. He breathes pictorial life into one’s vision.
Innocent takes Guy’s sketches and translates them into beautiful clothing you’re excited to wear. Mazuri Designs has the capacity to produce single clothing items, school uniforms, bridesmaid dresses, ties, vests, cummerbunds, fabric-based accessories, and reusable sanitary pads.
FABRIC MARKETS - A FULL SENSORY EXPERIENCE
I was in town two weeks determined to soak up as much as I could (and get some clothing made for myself!) During my first week in Kampala, I went to a large market in town with Innocent to shop for fabrics like a local. There were an overwhelming number of stalls with vendors packed tightly together with an almost dizzying amount of colors, designs and fabric types to choose from. You need to feel the fabrics to determine if they are quality or not. There are a lot of conversations going on around you and music playing in the corridor. It's easy to lose focus.
Fabric is bought in quantities of 6 yards, which is equivalent to the length of one long flowing dress or three short skirts. 6 yards, on average, can range between 40,000 and 60,000 Ugandan Shillings (approx. $12 to $18USD) There is no price negotiating, and the higher the quality the higher the price.
People were everywhere, moving through the streets and narrow hallways in the market buildings. I don’t know how Innocent knew which stalls to take me to, how she has formed her preferences on which offer quality fabrics or have the nicest shopkeepers (because it can get confusing and places start to look the same to an untrained eye), but we buzzed through the bustle like bees to a hive.
Enormous bunches of green bananas still on their branches filled sections of floor, as did a multitude of sewing machines and seamstresses lined down the halls. How does one decide whom to hire?
I wanted to understand the purchase experience to understand Mazuri, while having the pressure to choose two perfect fabrics for my own designs that would be worn in the States. The fabrics are stacked in orderly piles high on top each other against the wall and it’s difficult to pull them out to get a good look at them. Shopkeepers would happily pull them out for you to get a better look. This was fun! How would I choose? I kept saying I would know when I found it. And I did.
We also saw the shop where Mazuri buys it’s lining for bags, zippers (or zips as they call them), elastic, threads and needles.
MAZURI AS A BUSINESS
A challenge to Mazuri selling products online is choosing fabrics with colors and designs that will appeal to a western aesthetic. Being halfway across the world with a nine-hour time difference, it’s difficult to offer advice in the moment when purchases are being made. Through talking with other ethical fair trade clothing companies in similar situations, however, I’m learning ways they deal with this same concern that we may be able to use.
Because of the large amount of fabric one must buy (6 yards at a time), Innocent and the seamstresses use as much of the scraps as possible to reduce waste and increase potential profit. This recycling of materials is in alignment with one of the Fair Trade Federation’s principles, of cultivating environmental stewardship. Guy also takes some of the long scraps and turns them into men’s ties. The young women cut large circles to fasten earrings around a circular metal hoop and they also turn larger scrap pieces into wallets and bags.
Our desire with Mazuri is to be an ethical fair trade clothing and accessories company, providing above average pay, having safe working conditions, using locally sourced materials as much as possible, and being mindful of waste reduction. There is remarkably high unemployment in Uganda and a lot of poverty. We want to play a role in changing that for the women who work for us.
Mazuri is essentially a bootstrapped startup right now relying on Girl Up Uganda for orders and financial support, and early cash flow from local customers. Business is slowly building up in Kampala and we will start selling items online next year.
My observations while there included the following:
- Mazuri needs some items to make the seamstresses' work easier, for example a table for measuring and cutting fabrics on
- The importance of recruiting women who are passionate about tailoring/fashion to join our seamstress training program, so they are dedicated to the process and using the knowledge they gain whether it be for us, or to start a business on their own
- Ways to make Mazuri known in the community as being available for work
- The need to determine how to run Mazuri like a business
- If we're going to pursue being a fair trade fashion business, we should review the principles and start thinking how they can be applied to Mazuri
- That it might be helpful to find a local designer for items sold online
- The ability to see fabrics at the market at the time of purchase to help decide which would be best to purchase for online items would be useful
GET THE UGANDAN LOOK
No visit to Kampala is complete without having custom tailored clothing made to bring home as a memory of your trip. It feels magical to verbally describe what you want made, to see it drawn on paper, and then to finally wear or use what had once been just an idea in your head.
Mazuri is a safe, friendly, professional workshop that does great work, resulting in items that will please you and be unlike anything you could buy in the malls at home. Please email or call us for directions when you’re in town – we’d be happy to welcome you.