Sian Wells is a former ICS volunteer, who now runs her own social enterprise. How do you set up a sustainable business across two continents? She tells her story.
Before my voluntary placement in Tanzania I was working in the fashion industry in London. During this time I unfortunately witnessed some unethical practices working with factories in the Far East, which were having a negative impact on garment workers’ lives and were often ignored.
At the same time, on April 24th 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,138 people and injuring many more. I felt that enough was enough and the industry needed to change.
I took the brave decision to leave my job and wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue working in the fashion industry or not, so I decided to take some time out to reflect and do something worthwhile with my time. That’s when I decided to volunteer for Restless Development in Tanzania.
Before I left I had a conversation with a neighbour who also happened to be a women’s business coach. She asked me if I had ever considered starting my own business, which planted a seed in the back of my mind.
In Tanzania we delivered career workshops at colleges and universities to help support and improve job prospects for young people. We were overwhelmed by the amount of interest from the students and their motivation to learn from us.
Around 160 students attended our first workshop and we even convinced the principal of the college to include career guidance and support in their own curriculum! The experience made me realise the importance of entrepreneurship as a way for young people to create employment opportunities, earn a decent income and escape poverty.
I was very fortunate to live with a local host family who treated me as one of their own daughters from the moment I stepped through the front door. At the weekends I often travelled to the market with them by ‘dala-dala’ (local bus).
I quickly fell in love with the bold and vibrant African wax print fabrics and the concept of taking them to your local tailor to make beautiful, bespoke outfits! This gave me the idea of making the clothing more accessible to western markets whilst doing good for the people I had met in the local community.
As soon I as returned to the UK, after completing my voluntary work, I immediately started to carry out research. I travelled to London visiting: markets, shops, events and exhibitions to better understand the current market. Six months later I returned to Tanzania to set up Kitenge’s supply chain, using the connections I had made, and the first collection was born!
I started selling the African print clothing at local markets, fairs and events to test the idea and listen to vital feedback from customers. This experience taught me a great deal and crucially who my target customer was. I used the feedback to continuously improve the products and to ensure high quality standards exceeded expectations.
All our raw materials, from the buttons to the swing tickets, are locally sourced in Tanzania so we support many small businesses, the African textile industry and the local economy. Once our clothing is made we recycle all the offcuts by making smaller items ensuring nothing is wasted, which is more sustainable, and also gives more work to women.
Our work does not stop here! As well as empowering as many tailors as possible to start up and grow their own businesses we also plan to open a tailoring school for young people in Tanzania. Upon graduation, we will support and encourage our students to start their own businesses or help them to find suitable employment within the African textile industry.
In May 2016, our main tailor Abdallah was able to open his own workshop for the first time using the profits he made from our orders. I was delighted for him as he truly deserved to be running his own business. I could also not believe how little time it took for us to create social impact. All we had to do was give Abdallah an opportunity, which he took with both hands. All his hard work, commitment and dedication had paid off!
Kitenge’s social mission is to empower tailors to improve their livelihoods by supporting their fine craftsmanship. This includes supporting them to start their own business, moving to larger premises, investing in new machinery and equipment and hiring and training new staff to help reduce local unemployment.
Further benefits for the tailors have included increased income, better job security, financial independence, spending quality time with their families, being able to provide for their families more easily and purchasing land so they can build a family home of their own.
Looking back now, it’s amazing to think how volunteering for Restless Development in Tanzania was the start of so much for me. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity they gave me. If you’re thinking about volunteering, I have a couple of words of advice for you – DO IT!