Sian Wells is the founder of Kitenge, an ethical clothing brand which empowers tailors and improves their livelihoods in Tanzania. Sian recently shared the story behind Kitenge with Ayiba.
What’s the story behind Kitenge?
I studied Fashion and Textile Management, graduating in 2011, and managed to secure work in the fashion industry in London and New York. Whilst working there I witnessed some unethical practices which were having a negative impact on the lives of factory workers living in the Far East.
I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable continuing my work and made the decision to quit my job. I then volunteered with a youth charity in Tanzania. I lived with a local family during my 3 month stay in Tanzania and they taught me a lot about Tanzanian culture, local traditions, values and the language. I enjoyed travelling with the family to the market at weekends on the local ‘dala-dala’ bus. I soon came to love the brightly coloured African wax print fabrics which they call ‘kitenge’ in Swahili.
On completion of my volunteer work I returned to the UK but was soon back in Tanzania six months later to set up Kitenge’s supply chain and the first clothing collection was born! I began trading at local market stalls in the UK, which then progressed into music festivals before I launched the online site: Kitenge Store. In 2016, I decided to go full-time with Kitenge and I haven’t looked back!
What positive impact is Kitenge having?
Over 30% of Tanzania’s population is living below the poverty line, which makes it one of the poorest countries in Africa. Our aim is to support and empower tailors to start and grow their own businesses. We do this by supporting their skilled craftsmanship and paying a fair price per item produced. Producing clothes for Kitenge has resulted in reducing local unemployment, providing the chance for tailors to train and improve their skills, alongside investing in new equipment and premises.
Every raw material is locally sourced in Tanzania because we want to keep money transfer in the local economy which supports local business and goes some way to helping combat the decline in the African textile industry. In addition, when producing the garments all the fabric offcuts are collected from the workshop floor and recycled instead of just throwing them away.
In the future, our long-term aim is to open a school for tailoring, helping to develop skills within the local community and the future prospects of young Tanzanians.
How does Kitenge empower Tanzanian tailors?
The best way to address this question is with the example of Abdallah, Kitenge’s main tailor. Abdallah had worked for many years in a small workshop. Every time I visited his small workshop my heart sank. Abdallah has exceptional talent and experience as a tailor, but had to give most of the money he earned to the owner of the workshop.
I helped Abdallah to purchase a new overlocker machine so that he could work from home on Kitenge’s next order. Only a few months later Abdallah opened a new workshop opposite his home from the profits he made making our orders. He even had the money to invest in eight new sewing machines and hired and trained two other tailors, expanding his business operation.
Abdallah has increased his income and can now provide for his family. When I first visited Abdallah’s new workshop I couldn’t believe the impact Kitenge had made to his livelihood and I hope it’s only the beginning.