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Each day TFO Canada publishes a sample of trade news on the Canadian import market along with any new, updated or changed regulations and legislations regarding international trade; countries in which TFO Canada offers services and on the export sectors which it promotes.


Kenya: Ethical Fashion Project Transforms Lives of Korogocho Women

Tuesday, September 02, 2014 > 11:21:43

(All Africa)

Muddy streets of Kenya's crowded Korogocho slums are a far cry from the fashion boutiques of Paris, Milan, New York or London.

But beneath a tin roof, workers from some of the country's poorest communities sew buttons and stitch cloth for top international designers, part of a not-for-profit "ethical fashion" project.

"Before Ethical Fashion, I couldn't educate my children," said Lucy, sitting in a circle of women, needles in hand as they deftly sew white seed beads to the surface of smooth, chocolate-coloured leather.

"But now I can educate them, and provide for them anything they need," said the mother of four, in her late 30s.

From Korogocho, accessories like the cuffs the women sew are sold in high-end international boutiques, stamped with the labels of international fashion houses like Vivienne Westwood, Fendi and Stella McCartney.

It is part of the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a project built on a model of "mutual benefit" that aims to support poor communities by linking them up with fashion houses and distributors.

Workers on the scheme -- a member of the Fair Labour Association -- would take months to earn enough to buy some of these luxury goods, which sell for hundreds of dollars on the high street.

But conditions are very far from the sweatshops that muddy some fashion brands, with the UN-backed scheme providing decent working conditions, training and -- perhaps the clearest sign of its success -- people queuing up to join looking for work.

Organisers say some 90 per cent of workers in Kenya have improved their homes, and almost 85 per cent now provide better food for their families.

EFI, a joint effort by the United Nations and World Trade Organization, has expanded from Kenya to Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Haiti, with plans for future expansion on the continent and in Asia.

The long journey these bags, clothes and accessories will make has reshaped the lives of women like Lucy.

Struggling as a teenager in this tin-shack slum in Nairobi, by the age of 16 she had turned to prostitution to survive.

With three children of her own, she also cares for her nephew, after her sister died of HIV/Aids. Starting out five years ago as a seamstress, Lucy is now a supervisor.

Last year she moved her family out of Korogocho to a nearby suburb, with lower crime rates.

"Trade, economic activities, markets can also be married with human development, with women's economic development, with poverty reduction hence offering a sustainable way to improve lives" said Arancha Gonzalez, CEO International Trade Centre, on a visit to the workshops in Nairobi.

The project's slogan is "not charity, just work."

"We call it ethical because we give a decent job, with decent working conditions, to very destitute people," Gonzalez added.

"First and foremost it gives women dignity. Workers also use environmentally-friendly, often recycled materials, and their operations are carbon neutral."

Beyond Vivienne Westwood, brands producing work through the initiative include Karen Walker, Sass & Bide, Stella Jean, United Arrows and other major international houses.

Hubs in Nairobi, Accra and Port-au-Prince receive commissions from the designers, provide training and organise the production of bags, jewellery and fabrics by locals.

"We talk about responsible fashion as if it were a segment of fashion but it is not, it's fashion. We are talking about things that you buy because they are beautiful, really gorgeous. But then they have this incredible, positive story behind them, the story of people who get a decent life out of this work, who get a new life," said Simone Cipriani, the project's technical adviser.

By linking skills like sewing and beading with top fashion houses, Ethical Fashion hopes to create products that are both beautiful and meaningful. And even though fashion may be fickle, quality endures.

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