Ethical Fashion

Yesterday  I introduced Flotea one of our textile producers .  Flotea had left me with so much to think about and I when went to sleep  that night I wondered what the next day would be like as I was due to meet Elihaika who is also a textile producer for Ethnic Supplies.

Elihaika (on the right)

Elihaika (on the right)

Elihaika set up her Textile business in 2004 and initially designed clothing for the local market. Like other textile producers in Tanzania, she wanted access to a much wider market so she joined local groups and through these she got into large exhibitions and managed to access markets in nearby countries.

Today she works with 500 other women and is the team leader of Hand Products Of Tanzania (HOT) a group made up of 35 female entrepreneurs from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Her role is to promote the work of the group and to ensure that they have access to public funding to enable them to participate in high profile events. Some of the group’s members such as Julia are semi or illiterate and rely on her for issues such as pricing



I told Elihaika about my conversation with Omari and asked about what life is like for women in Tanzania.

Elihaika: some are financially dependent some are not: where a woman has independent income she has control over it and it gives her spending power whilst those without financial independence are always asking their husbands for money and there is no guarantee that they will get it or that it will meet their needs. If a man is in charge of the money chances are arguments will arise, men don’t like it when women ask them for money and find this irritating and despise women that ask them for money constantly this in turn frustrates the woman as the woman as she doesn’t want to ask money but has no choice.

Are there Systems and processes in place to support women to become economically independent?

Elihaika: things are changing even in the rural areas, land is more accessible to women and the government is keen for women to own property. It is however up to the women to take advantage of the opportunities that have been provided. For instance family/marital property can pass to women banks have become accessible to women, micro finance is available too and if women take up these opportunities up then they can become financially independent. Women have a big role in economic development as they participate in production, create jobs and are responsible for children especially in the area of education. This (education) is important as it is the key role eradicating poverty.

With that in mind what are the challenges women in Tanzania face?


  • Access to working capital is still an issue for women without formal education.
  • For those involved in textile production market access is  a problem
  • Access to overseas markets
  • help with designing of products that are suitable for foreign markets
  • African customs and culture, still place men on pedestals, where women are meant to be subservient, there are still areas that believe in certain jobs being unsuitable for girls
  • property rights for women are still restricted in some parts even with the government legislation -girls can’t inherit  property and confined to  a life of poverty
  • exclusion from education
  • lack of control on household income and have not say how this is spent

I gave some thought to these challenges and naively or not I concluded that with a great deal of WILL and commitment almost all of them can be eliminated. It also seemed to me that women must strive for financial independence and one way that we can all help  is to give women the tools they need to develop the skills that they require to take advantage of the initiatives created by governments and donors. But how do we get around the issue of market access especially access to overseas markets?

We probably can’t do much about the culture that places men on pedestals at the expense of women in Africa but if women gain financial independence an element of that culture may fade out on its own.

I left Tanzania the next day and head to Uganda. I will be writing about my experiences there in the next post. As usual it you have a view either way, I would love to hear from you.

I recently came across the Ethical Fashion Forum and I went along to their event on 18/8/9. This event was promoted as focusing on sourcing from Africa.

As the discussion got under way I could not believe some of what I was hearing, “these people need educating” was one of the statements made by a couple of speakers there was too much of “them and us” too. We in the audience could be forgiven for thinking that we were listening to a report from a 19th century Royal Geographical Society journal. It all sounded like “poor Africans we need to do them a favour” type of situation. The facilitator on the other hand was fantastic, he drew attention to issues of respect and the fact that the West can learn from Africa.

As I listened I felt myself increasingly getting angry and when given the opportunity to speak I let my feelings known. In my view the speakers had failed to draw attention to the ingenuity of Africans, especially the sort of women that I work with, who turn rubbish and utterly useless things into fashionable items. What about the men in Kenya who make sandals from old car tyres?

The fashion accessories at Ethnic Supplies are the African women’s designs and have been very well received by women here in the West. I was upset too that some of what was being said was reinforcing the negative views about Africa.

Fashion provides an opportunity to lift many African people out of poverty as VALUE can easily be added at source unlike some of the agricultural products such as coffee but I felt that this had not been highlighted either. It was interesting to note that a buyer from a large retail outlet felt that unlike their Asian counterparts Africans have not bombarded her with emails regarding their fashion accessories.

The challenge with this is threefold, someone in the audience felt that the people she works with in Tanzania earn a better income selling locally than they would if they had to sell to a UK retailer along with the hoops one has to jump through!

The other is African artisans tend to work in much better conditions and get higher wages than their Asian counter parts this coupled with expensive import/export duties and freight costs.

The last reason is the buyers have a perceived idea that the supply end in Africa is unreliable and are almost always unwilling to explore the fact that this could be wrong or that it can changed.

Don’t get me wrong, they are challenges working in Africa and sometimes the quality leaves a lot to be desired. The way forward is to alongside the artisans, in a collaborative manner and where necessary adapt their designs to suit the Western market. After all it would be insane bringing in products for which there is no market because of poor design and or quality.

As an afterthought it would have been good to include a discussion about the materials used as well as the production process to demonstrate the GREEN and sustainable element of African fashion.

In Madagascar for instance, wild (raw) silk is collected from the forests and woven into beautiful fabrics. These fabrics are for instance used in the making of this bag which starts life as a plain basket made from palm leaves. Palm leaves have no use unless value has been added to them.

Raw Silk basket

Raw Silk basket

Wild silk shawl

Wild silk shawl

In Rwanda sisal, a cactus like plant is used in the making of these beautiful baskets, the same material is used in the making of these silver sterling earrings. The bark cloth from Uganda is very environmentally friendly as its extraction does not involve the cutting down of a tree; simply the bark is removed, and is allowed to grow back.

Rwanda peace basket

Rwanda peace basket

rwanda earing

Rwanda Sterling Silver earings

In my mind’s eye African fashion offers a real opportunity for lifting many out of poverty, is mostly kind to the environment because of the African ingenuity of turning rubbish into fashion, as well as the use of naturally occurring raw materials and offers a real chance to REBRAND the continent.

I would love to hear from anyone who has a view about the issues raised here.