Tosheka. A Kiswahili word that simply means satisfaction, runs deep with meaning and promise for this social entrepreneurial enterprise. It’s a guarantee of fulfilling their partners and customers needs through quality, value, delivery and customer service. Started in 2011, Lucy Bigham in partnership with her husband Herman Bigham, specialise in ‘green textile’ production that is a holistic environmentally friendly endeavour that works with recycled materials, natural fibres and eco-friendly dyes. In addition to their extensive experience in commercial and community based textile production, they have a strong commitment to being an eco and ethical textile brand. This includes using fair labour practices to provide artisans with sustainable incomes, as well as using techniques that preserve culture such as traditional Kenyan weaving, knitting, and crochet techniques. We talk to Lucy Bigham, currently based in Makueni, to see how textiles can create sustainable community economic empowerment.
Why did you start Tosheka?
I had worked with non-profit organisation for the longest time. In 1987 I was in Mombasa working for a relatively big NGO known as Tototo Home Industries that was receiving all this donor money but you really couldn’t see anything tangible in terms of community impact. So I left the organisation and went to the UK to pursue an international business analysis course to supplement my initial degree in design. I needed to find another way of creating the kind of impact that NGOs should be effecting. I thought that if the community is involved in business and takes ownership of the projects while making a sustainable income, we could make a difference.
In a nutshell, what does Tosheka do?
We specialise in the production of textiles to facilitate fibre to fashion. Initially I just wanted to come back to Kenya and print on fabric for sale because I’m a textile fabric designer. Then I found out that we [Kenya] do grow cotton so our textile company buys cotton from the farmer – that’s how we engage in agro business – to get our supply locally rather than importing them. I’d say 90 percent of what we sell is locally produced cotton and now we’re adding silk to this.Is there anything that regulates the quality of cotton or silk in the country?
We started off with cotton and it is difficult to monitor. Quality starts from the farmer, however the biggest problem is that the seed the farmers are using are old and have been reused for so long that it isn’t’ that strong. So what we have done is to utilize organic fertiliser and pesticides such as neem/marubaini that actually improves the quality of our cotton. However, the cotton we use is easy to trace because we have our own out grower farmers whom we monitor for quality purposes. Once the cotton is harvested, it is taken to the ginnery to separate the seeds from the cotton. Luckily, the ginnery we use has been kind enough to gin our cotton separately. That’s one way we are able to control and trace quality.
On top of the recycled seed that leads to a weak harvest, the farmers rely on the government for the seeds and sometimes the seeds come after the rain; and this is rain-set cotton. So that is a lost situation and that’s why we got into silk.
Mulberry Silk?No, the type of the silk we’ve brought in is known as Eri. We are the first to get the commercialisation permit for Eri worms which is new in the country. It took us three years to get approval from the government due to procedures such as ethicacy trials. We are currently in the process of creating standards of operation and standard procedures on how to train the farmers, how they will rear them and how we will measure quality. That will make it easier to monitor quality and to differentiate what is Tosheka and what isn’t. We’ve developed a lot in terms of our Eri silk and in producing quality fibre. Any date on when it’ll be in the market?
This is a process. But hopefully by the end of this year we should be able to be in the market because one positive thing is that the worms reproduce very fast. Each worm, after it becomes a butterfly, lays no less than 300 eggs with each carrying a worm. We are targeting a community of 3000 people, with the monetary assistance from the African Enterprise Challenge Fund (AEFC), which we’re going to utilise to help us promote silk fibre production with the farmers. Currently we are already working with four groups, each containing 10 members, concerning silk fibre production. It’s also encouraging that the idea is being received positively and we’ve managed to raise a lot of interest from other farmers as far away as Narok and Kiambu counties. Currently based in Makueni we already have access here to 200 people who can start spinning the yarn and any other challenges we will overcome by the end of the year through the support we got from the AEFC.
But you also work with plastics and leathers?
Our overall vision is to grow the textile industry and to become sustainable producers. But before we got into cotton, we realised that there was a major issue with the disposal of plastic bags in the country. So we started making recycled bags that we mostly sell in the US. We started off with Nakumatt and now we are with other plastics industries that give us their plastic cut-offs. As for the leather, we source it from Mali to create our leather products to be sold in the US as well.Why not source from the leather industry here?
I think the question here is the quality… again the issue in Kenya is the training. In terms of getting a finished product, we don’t have the skillset for the production of goods that are competitive globally. In terms of cloth I’m in control because I’m a fabric designer. You can get good fibre a weave good fabric but when you give it to the tailor, there’s a high chance that they could ruin it. We’ve been approached by top designers who want us to produce their clothes for them, especially with our affordable labour in Africa, but it has been difficult to find the right kind of design skills to carry it through.In your opinion, why is that?
Perhaps the issue is that we [players in the textile industry] aren’t keen and don’t pay attention to detail… but it isn’t because we cannot do it. My opinion is that the industry needs a lot of improvements in production efficiency and management. Workers take too long to produce subpar goods. And so we picked Mali as there were skilled-people there who were doing much better leather than what we were finding here.
Why green textiles?
Textile production is a very polluting industry or process. Why we go green is we have a passion for what we’re doing and we take our own health very seriously. We want to economically empower the community without them having to part with the same money for health purposes. Cotton is affected by 350 species of insects so you would require a very heavy spray so we have to wear gloves, goggles and ensure that waste is disposed in the right regions. We may even use a commercial dye but the processes we use when handling it has the safety of the workers and all the consumers in mind. We also use natural dyes and traditional dyes as much as possible.
The empowerment angle seems to be a keen point of interest for you
There’s something about working with people who are labelled ‘disadvantaged’. Society tends to think that it’s only interaction with them is one-sided when they are helping them. But they forget that many of the people we call poor aren’t poor. That, in fact, we can learn a lot from them too by working with them. There is a richness in the fulfilment you get from just making a change in the community. Many of our successes have come from a collective thinking, which is a perfect think tank. In fact one of the things I’m really looking forward to is taking the collective culture and engaging with local designers because I think there are so many people who have great ideas and need the support of textiles.How do you bring together traditional and contemporary skills?
It’s important to us to source as much as we can from within. In terms of tradition, history repeats itself. If you think about the kiondo, the weaving process is traditional but then if we are going to produce it for people today, we have to make it in such a way that it is appealing to them. The women here in Wote, Makueni who weave the kiondos have taught us the sources of natural dyes. Then from there we worked with a French chemist who was able to tell us that this colour will react with different fabrics. One dye may react with sisal in a certain way but if you put it on fabric or cotton it’s going to run so you’re going to have to add X metal that will help it bond better to the fabric.Challenges you’ve faced so far?
We’ve been doing textiles for over 10 years and we’re very ambitious and engrossed in creating the fibre that the textile side of the business slowed down. So we had to regroup and remember to get back to the textile as well as work marketing and building our online presence. We have survived through word of mouth but we realise if we had had a stronger marketing campaign we’d be selling even better. When a company is individually owned you tend to focus on your strengths and you tend to overlook your weaknesses.
In terms of working with the government, we have made some breakthroughs and people have started to notice what we’re doing is important. Sadly, they don’t support ideas. Here you have to go and do it first for people to actually believe it is a viable project. And so you end up spending 10 years on something that could have taken two years if you had gotten that support in the beginning.Then there’s a lot of bureaucracy. Before anything is done, there’s too many stages in the hierarchy of decision making that slows down the process of development. It took us 3 years to get our worms here. That was really unnecessary… to get our commercialisation permits for something that can create income for 3000 households. While there are people in the Ministry of Industrialisation who are thinking positively and how to develop the industry but they won’t get the support because the rest of the staff aren’t motivated enough to work.
Another challenge is that SMEs are competing against large corporations. I think SMEs have to work together to push for policies that are beneficial for us and that protect us from foreign competitors that enter the market and monopolise with their cheaper products and prices. They may argue that the corporations bring in employment opportunities but it shouldn’t be at the expense of killing home grown business. Fair enough, bring in the foreign companies but there has to be policies in place that ensure they have to purchase from us. That they can’t bring any fibre unless they bought x percent from the local market.The eco-friendly fashion movement, complete with their three fashion lines: The leather “Safi Tosheka Collection”, the natural fibres “Woven Love Collection” and the recycled treasures “Soko Bags”, will soon be joined by the silk “Heri Tosheka” line. A labour of love for the environment and sustainable community developments, Tosheka textiles proves that it is possible to make a difference through fashion. That through collaboration and government support, we could achieve a vibrant textile industry.