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I Think My Tailor Hates Me

My Bad Experience With A Kenyan Fundi

Chances are you have heard a bad tailor story but i am willing to wager that a bad tailor story has happened to you. You know the routine, the one that starts with a leap of faith in your neighborhood fundi, followed by a gathering courage kinda like the way your mom would gather her leso before she knocked some sense into you -probably for going to that neighborhood fundi in the first place! But you are a good citizen willing to support a small business (and honestly those Chinese imports do nothing for the curvy African woman) so off you go handing over your hard earned, beautifully printed cloth to a merciless butcher.

After negotiating the delivery date and price, you leave the tailor’s with a sense of foreboding. This is because going to the tailor is risky business. One day they produce some phenomenal work and the next it’s just terrible. It’s as if they are two different people working on your clothes. And when it’s time to delivery, you are met with an indifferent response of “..kujia kesho aki nimekuwa busy..”

So why don’t we ever learn? Better yet, why don’t they ever change?

This reputation has followed tailors like stink follows poop. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to generalize here but a majority of us have been burned one too many times for it not to be an issue. Worse yet, these tailors are seldom held responsible. On top of losing your fabric and time, you incur double financial loss- once for the money spent on the fabric itself and another for the money you pay them to ruin your fabric!

As much as we like to complain about them, tailors are an essential part of the Kenyan society. They fix our tears and cater to our curvaceous bodies, an undertaking that ready-made clothes fall short on. It is time to address this issue once and for all. I would like small business such as these to continue striving but for that to happen, we need to address the elephant in the room.

Most tailors are stretched really thin by accepting orders they know they can’t fulfill on time. Perhaps its the fear of missing out on a paying customer or underestimating the amount of labor that would go into some of the creations they are contracted to make. Either way, this fear is misguided in that once the customer is dissatisfied with their work, chances of them returning are very slim- thus losing out on future income from such a customer. A tailor would be better served being honest in their ability to deliver a product. If anything, your clients would respect your honesty and would better manage their expectations.

We have a long and arduous journey ahead of us in repairing this reputation and improving the standards of tailored products in Kenya. This undertaking will only be successful if tailors participate in the conversation and accept responsibility. For solutions that last stakeholders need to work together and listen to each other. This is why we created this blog to be a safe space for discussion. In the end, we would like to see a positive impact in the tailoring and fashion community in East Africa.

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Hemp In Kenya: Isn’t It About Time We Ditched Cotton?

A fast growing, hardy, herbaceous plant, hemp is known as the miracle plant. Not to be confused with its psychoactive cousin the cannabis plant, the hemp plant has many uses ranging from industrial to medicinal. This blog will be concentrating on the industrial significance of hemp, specifically in the textile industry.

For many years, the Kenyan government has been trying to revive the country’s textile industry. This effort has seen very little returns on investment mainly because of the stiff competition coming from imported fabrics and secondhand clothing. Furthermore, the country’s cotton industry is struggling due to poor yields and lower quality cotton (compared to Egypt). The cultivation of cotton requires for a lot of variables to be “just right”.

Hemp Leaf: JonRichfield 

Compared to cotton, hemp is the low maintenance “dame wa mtaani” or “the girl next door” -very unassuming but once you get to know her, you realize she is a diamond in the rough. Whereas cotton is the slay queen whose pretty exterior crumbles upon closer inspection.

While Kenya touts itself as an environmentally conscious country, the government still has colonial era laws that inhibit the conservation efforts that would be brought about by hemp. With its many uses, hemp will reduce the need of logging of trees for paper and fuel as well as sequester Carbon from the atmosphere. Hemp grows in most places and doesn’t require harmful pesticides or herbicides and does not leech too much nutrients from the soil. It requires half the amount of water to produce the same amount of cotton as would hemp. But most importantly textile made from hemp is stronger, more absorbent and better insulating than cotton.

As a fabric, hemp provides all the warmth and softness of a natural textile but with a superior durability seldom found in other materials. Hemp is extremely versatile and can be used for countless products such as clothing, accessories, shoes, and even furniture. Apparel made from hemp will likely last longer and withstand harsh conditions.

So why would the government continue to spend tax money on projects that are doomed to fail. With the climate change threat looming, cotton growing is only going to get more precarious. Why are we holding so strongly to colonial laws that are inhibiting our industrialization goals? We can have the debate on cannabis on another day but it is clear that for Kenya to realize its industrialization and development goals, policy changes need to happen. Legalize hemp to save the textile industry in Kenya!

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Why The Kenyan Ban on Secondhand Clothing Failed

Kenya imports approximately 100,000 metric tons of secondhand clothes a year, providing the government revenues from customs duties and creating tens of thousands of jobs. It also offers quality clothes to Kenyans, many of whom live on less than $5 a day. So naturally, no one was surprised when the proposed ban on the importation of these goods was met with roaring opposition from the Kenyan public, vendors and even the government of the United States of America. US has claimed this proposed ban violates the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which aims to expand American trade and investment on the continent.

As of 2019, Kenya is yet to enact the said ban and it seems the Mitumba get to live another day. One might ask why the government would want to ban something that seems to be popular and beneficial to the majority of the people? It is a matter of nation building. In the 1980s, the influx of the cheaper and fashionable secondhand clothing spelt doom for the local textile industry. They just couldn’t compete with the exotic look the new imports provided and soon enough, one by one, the textile mills closed shop. And with that the cotton farms as well.

Although the intentions were good, the ban wouldn’t have solved the problem, only created a new one. Without a viable alternative to fill the supply gap caused by the sudden vacuum created by the ban, all these efforts would have failed anyway. The absence of Mitumba would just mean that other imports would increase since we don’t have the capacity within to meet the demand.

Kupsie is working on a product will organically reduce the demand for secondhand clothes by introducing competition to the market. By increasing the number of trained and skilled tailors, the effect will hopefully be the reduction of cost and time of producing tailored clothes. This will make it cheaper for the common Kenyan to acquire new, durable, stylish, locally made clothes and encourage fair competition between tailors and secondhand clothes. We will also still be in compliance with AGOA since the ban will not be implemented.

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The Swahili Society USA Gala 2019| Fashion Show

This year’s Swahili Society USA Gala Dinner held on Nov 2, showcased two designers’ original work.

This year’s Swahili Society USA Gala Dinner held on Nov 2, showcased two designers’ original work. The first showcase was by Ashubira Designs, whose designer is a young collage senior from Bowie State University, Maryland USA. The second was designs by Mama Mitindo- Ms Asya of Texas, USA.

Held at the Lanham Maryland Best Western Hotel, the 2019 Swahili Society USA Gala Dinner was the second annual meeting of Swahili speakers in the USA. The day kicked off with a delicious spread of Swahili inspired breakfast foods in and three panel discussion sessions in the afternoon, concluding with a most delicious dinner and entertainment session in the evening.

To say people were “dressed to the nine” is an understatement. In addition to the western dress that would typically grace an event such as this, the true stars of the show were the African print attires that made a debut at the gala. From the hosts to the attendees, there were designs that were simply to die for.With respect to their privacy, I will not post any pictures of the guests (I will definitely get their permission next year!) but please enjoy the video of the fashion show.

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Tailors In Kenya Might Be Making a Comeback, But How Can We Make Them The Mainstay?

Tailor : commons.wikimedia.org

According to the Business Daily article Tailors stitch a come back in Kenya tailor popularity is making a return. Below is a summary of the article

Summary

  • Many shoppers shifted their attention to small business malls popularly known as ‘‘exhibition’’ which stocked huge consignments of cheap imported clothes from China and a host of other countries such as Turkey.
  • Others took to portals to shop for clothes with the blind hope they would fit them.
  • Some shoppers also thronged open — air markets for mitumba from Europe and the US. In 2017 alone, Kenya imported about 135,868 tonnes of used clothes worth Sh13.06 billion, according the Economic Survey 2018.
  • things are changing gradually as more buyers discover that the foreign wear swamping the market do not work for them.
  • Some buyers of the imported ready-to-wear clothes are also confronted with the horror of trying to find a perfect fit because the garments were designed for completely different body shapes to theirs.

So, why they are making a comeback?

One might ask, “what changed?”

  • Like in most other African countries, many women in Kenya are curvy. Most find the small-sized imported Chinese and European garments ill-fitting and unflattering to the African physique. This is an issue shared by both men and women
  • International superstars like Beyoncé and fashion houses like Louis Vuitton are recognizing the beauty and vibrancy of African fabrics and fashion, resulting in renewed appreciation by younger Africans. Where previously donning clothes with African prints would be seen as uncool, now it’s all the rage. If Beyoncé is doing it, it must be cool, right?
  • More acceptable to wear Afrocentric office wear in Kenya now, slowly moving away from the colonial standards of dress. As more people embrace the African aesthetic, it is more common to find professionals in African prints, especially in the Metropolitan cities such as Nairobi and Johannesburg.

Challenges

As one would have expected, this come back presents its own challenges.

  • A new tailored dress for example costs a minimum Sh3,000 — way more expensive compared to second- hand imports that may cost a few hundreds of shillings. This is largely attributable to lack of raw material locally and a lack of skilled labor.
  • Fabric remains expensive in Kenya, with consumers relying on costly imports mainly from China and the wider Asian market, and from European wax fabrics.
  • About 93 per cent of cotton used locally is imported to meet Kenya’s quantity and quality demands, this creates supply chain issues whose costs trickles down to the consumer.

I am glad to see tailors get the much needed appreciation. However, much still needs to be done to ensure that they are not set up to fail, just like the previous times. There need to be readily available and affordable training, machinery and labor to help them scale in order to fulfill the rise in demands for their services. Now that they have made a comeback, let’s find solutions to make them the mainstay.

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Is it Kwaheri for Mitumba in East Africa?

Is this the boon the fabric industry has been waiting for? Should Kitenge tailors, designers and creatives rejoice?

The second hand clothing business is a major employer in the informal sector of East Africa. Over 62% of middle and lower income urban Kenyans buy mitumba, this is according to an Ipsos survey conducted in 2013. I would however put the numbers much higher and the economic brackets even wider. Since the early 1980’s second hand clothing proliferation has creeped up and down the economic ladder and permeated through the classes. For most Kenyans, it’s the only way to look good on a tight budget. While on the other hand it provides a good source of income for the vendors – mostly tax free, and some people reportedly earning up to KSh. 500,000 per month.

East Africa’s proposed ban on the importation of used clothing has its advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious advantage is that the local textile industry might get a boost from the reduced competition as a result of the regulation of the mitumba sector. The hope is that the absence of mitumba would generate demand for local textiles and products. However a complete ban would eventually cause further decline due to the absence of a free market that drives innovation and change.

The best solution would be to tax the mitumba industry accordingly and look for ways to push domestic demand for locally produced textile goods. There is a growing need for more employment opportunities for the thousands of students graduating from high school and colleges each year to a society with high unemployment rates. Simply banning the import of second hand goods and clothing without providing a viable alternative is like painting over a large crack in the wall and declaring it fixed. The governments of East Africa would encounter less opposition to the ban if they included the people in finding lasting solutions.

Designers of African fashion might see the ban as a good thing. Ultimately, there would be less competition for customers and demand for their products might increase- at least that would be the assumption. However, the ban would only help those who are ready to evolve with the times. There needs to be a big enough “shift” in the system that will send ripples down the web. A shift big enough that would change the way people consume fashion in Kenya.

You can’t expect clients to come to you simply because their choices are limited. Designers and tailors have to be the movers of the industry if they are ever to break out of the mold. Change has to come from within and that means moving out of the comfort zone. If we should choose to seize it, there lies an opportunity to completely change the industry.

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How a Fundi Saved My Wedding

In July of 2017 I had my Kenyan traditional wedding. I planned it with help from a wedding planner, which made things a little easier. However, this is blog not about that. This is about the unsung heroes that are the neighborhood tailors, locally known as fundis!

To catch you up, we had gotten all the groomsmen, grooms, and father of the groom’s clothes custom made by a very talented designer from Kenya. I had never met the guy but he came highly recommended and I must say, his embroidery work was good! We had to take measurements while in the USA and send them over Whatsapp for the designer to work his magic. The first impression was good, the clothes were on time and the quality of work was remarkable.

Between the miscommunications and our inability to take measurements correctly, I would say we were ill equipped to take on the task and of course, the clothes didn’t fit quite right – we didn’t find this out until the morning of the wedding. The only person who was actually measured by the designer was my brother, so his outfit was a perfect fit. You can imagine the panic that ensued. We were in a really remote area of the North Coast of Kenya. The designer of my dress was still on her way over and she wouldn’t be bringing her machine to the wedding, obviously!

My fast thinking planner asked the staff if they knew any fundis in the area. After a few phone calls and price negotiations, the men’s outfits were off to be adjusted. I had cast all caution to the wind at this point. The choice was impossible, do I make the men march down the aisle with super tight linen clothes that would definitely give in to the pressures of the day, or take a chance with an untested tailor not to completely ruin the clothes all together.

Thank goodness it paid off! The clothes came back and they fit…better. The allowance made by the original designer had been just enough to give the illusion of a good fit for the men. We were able to get married, again, without any further wardrobe mishaps. So here’s to the fundis, the unsung heroes! Always there for you in a wardrobe emergency. Most neighborhoods have one, every neighborhood needs one.

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The Journey Begins

I want to shake up the status quo because “usual” has been done and still nothing is better. I am talking about the clothing industry in Kenya, and East Africa in general. So this is my attempt at going against norm.  There are so many challenges, issues and opportunities for growth in the fashion industry and I am going to be exploring them all!

I seek to understand the complex issues that plague the local textile and fashion industry as well as explore the opportunities and challenges, and how the current policies affect the fashion industry. As i continue on this journey, I will also be sharing a few tips and tricks on how to grow and maintain your fashion business.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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How To Price Products For Your Tailoring Business

Tips For African Fashion Entrepreneurs

Know your market

Look around and see what people are paying for similar goods and what your competitors are charging. This is a risky method since you are not considering your costs when applying this.

Work out your cost.

At the very least you want your earnings to be more than what it cost you to produce the goods in the first place. This includes your labor, cost of electricity, cost of fabric(if you are the one providing it. Might be different if customer is bringing their own). 

This method will also require you to know your business well. Good record keeping is your friend. Determine the average number of orders you get per month. If you get 100 individual orders in a year, this gives you an average of about 8 orders a month

Determine your fixed cost for the month. E.g. cost to rent shop, salaries, etc. For example, if your fixed costs total up to 10,000 and you have 8 average monthly orders . Then the fixed cost of one good produced  will be 10,000/8. This gives you the base of your pricing model.

Determine the variable cost to produce the product. For example if extra embroidery work was done, consider adding cost of thread, needles, electricity and labor.

Add these figures together and that will give you the break-even amount. This the amount that your business will need to stay afloat  (not necessarily making a profit) However one has to be careful not to stay in this status for too long.

Cost- plus pricing model

This method adds a mark-up to your break-even amount.So if your competitors are pricing their goods at Ksh. 5,000 and it cost you Ksh. 3000 to produce a similar good, you can price it similarly (a 2,000 markup )to be competitive.

Additionally you can mark up the breakeven point by a percentage that you deem acceptable. Eg if you think making 15% on your breakeven price is sustainable for your business. You can add that 15% to the frice. 3000+ (15%of 3,000)= the price of the good.

Consider your growth goals when using this method. Make sure you allow for money to grow your business.

Consider payment terms.

If the product you are making can be paid for over a duration for time e.g wedding dress. You can agree on payment terms with your customer. You can give incentive for the client to pay early by discounting or charge them more for the convenience of paying over a duration of time.

Other factors:

Remember to consider factors such as VAT or seasonal demand changes and act accordingly. Your prices should change to reflect the demand for your products as well as improvements on quality or high volume seasons of the year.

Keep Vigilant:

Lastly, it is important to keep yourself informed of the trends, your costs and your comeptitors. Prices never stay the same for too long. Make sure you talk with your customers to keep your prices competitive. Shift your prices with changing markets and most importantly, keep data! You will learn a lot more over the duration of time in terms of patterns and trends.

Don’t be afraid to test out new prices, how else would you know your customers are ready to pay more for your products? Especially if you are the best tailor in town? Be smart, be strategic, be brave.

Sustainable Fashion is the Future, Are We Ready?

This decade has seen the steady rise of fast fashion. Thanks to the internet and more efficient modes of transportation, it is much easier to order and deliver things across the globe. This demand for convenience and the ready availability of trendy clothes for cheap has had some negative impacts on the environment. Simply put, we have become wasteful in our consumption of fashion.

If you walk into any of the fashion boutiques and expos, you will be spoilt for choice. A pair of jeans from china, a pretty top from India, all under one roof. These are just a sample of what is in the market currently. Majority of Kenyans shop for clothes at secondhand kiosks, clothes which are discarded or donated from the USA or Europe end up here. But this is just a fraction of the enormous amount of clothes discarded as trash.

Because fast fashion is made from cheap material and labor, this means that they don’t last very long. If you are lucky you might get a year’s worth of wear out of them and then you are forced to discard. Mostly made up of synthetic fibers and blends, these clothes have little to no chance of decomposing in the landfill. We have to face the bitter truth that our fashion choices are killing the planet!

There is hope yet. There have been efforts to use sustainable methods to produce clothes and fabric. Some of them are quite unique like the use of fish skin to substitute for leather. We all can play a small part in curbing Climate Change and reducing the waste in our landfills.

Newton Owino (R), an industrial chemist, hangs tanned fish pelts with the help of an employee after a soak in a softening formula concorted from extracts, “naturally derived from indigenous plant species”, he says, at his mini-tannery in the Mamboleo suburb, at the lakeside town of Kisumu, in western Kenya, on June 11, 2018. Owino derives the ingredients in the chemicals he uses for tanning and the processing of the skin of fresh water fish from the Lake Victoria known as Nile Perch, from which he then fashions a range of products including leather jackets, bags, shoes, wallets, caps, purses, sandals and belts. / AFP PHOTO / TONY KARUMBA

By buying clothes made from sustainable sources, using them for longer, reusing or re-purposing them, and investing in timeless pieces instead of fashion fads will greatly help with conservation efforts. Additionally, there has to be concerted by the government and the private sector to make sure the country is ready for the change in trend. The signs are there if you look hard enough. Big brands such as Forever 21 are struggling to keep their customers. The change in demographic is also a big indicator of where the trends are heading. Millennials and Gen-Zs are more likely to care about sourcing and sustainability of the clothing they are buying. So, wouldn’t it be prudent of all of us to stay ahead of the wave rather than react to the aftermath?

Let’s establish a supply chain before the flow of secondhand clothes and cheap imports starts to dwindle. The future will thank us.