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Inside Nairobi’s eco

Aug 13, 2023Aug 13, 2023

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By Amma Aburam

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For decades, Kenya has nurtured sustainable tourism, striking a delicate balance between supporting local communities and visitors alike, while conserving a remarkably diverse wildlife. Now it’s hoping to do the same with sustainable fashion.

The link between wildlife and fashion is writ large through spaces like Wildlife Works, a clothing manufacturer located in the Rukinga Wildlife Sanctuary. Another clothing manufacturer, Soko Kenya, which has partnered with Asos on the Asos Made in Kenya collection, has dressed Michelle Obama. Local brands including LilaBare and Katush are also showing the potential of made-in-Africa labels.

Kenya’s clothing market is not without its issues — it’s among the top five importers of used clothes in the world and faces so-called “waste colonialism” from the Global North. However, there is plenty of promise too as community leaders across the city of Nairobi work to shift mindsets about what the future of sustainability in fashion and design might look like locally.

Labels such as Maisha celebrate local craftsmanship through upcycling, while communities support the practice of sharing secondhand clothes. “Our clothes swaps are social spaces where participants can bond over a shared interest in conscious consumerism, music, fashion, sustainability and art,” says Mutete Bahkita, founder of 25Sw4p, a clothes-swapping facilitator and platform.

Kenya is one of the leading apparel exporters in Sub-Saharan Africa, supported by a government that proactively backs the textile industry through policies such as Buy Kenya, Build Kenya. Here are four projects shaping the future of sustainable fashion in the country.

LilaBare founder Ria Ana Sejpal cites a saying familiar to Kenyans. “We don't inherit our land from our ancestors — we borrow it from our children,” she says. Her brand is a fusion of her Kenyan and Indian heritage. “I’m inspired by Swahili architecture and how it comes back in materials and carvings, while the rituals and ceremonies practised in my Indian roots inform the experiential parts of my work,” she explains.

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Using locally crafted regenerative fabrics, natural dyes and upcycling, LilaBare sells compostable pieces that can be brought back in-store for a lifetime of free repairs. Sejpal has a strategy that engages local customers: “Here, we never compete on price, we only compete on value. Outside of the product we gather community through immersive experiences where people can try dyeing and have conversations that dive into making techniques while enjoying Masala tea and Indian sweets. There is a new layer to the brand that cultivates deep connections with our local audience.”

Small sustainable and ethical brands such as LilaBare often struggle because of the dominance of big textile and apparel exporters. Sejpal’s response is to emphasise product traceability, from farm to finish. She’s an optimist, despite these challenges. “I believe Kenya is perfectly positioned to be the regenerative textile and apparel hub of the world,” she says. “We just haven’t got to a place where we’re tapping into it.”

Regenerative Fashion Collective Exchange (ReFace), which staged a landmark forum in June bringing together multiple players (including government, NGOs, industry associations, farmers and educational institutions) in the Kenyan value chain, is a non-profit founded by Lisa Kibutu. She’s a cultural entrepreneur passionate about Swahili heritage and sustainable innovation in fashion. “ReFace has developed a series of tailored initiatives that not only improve the fashion supply chain in Kenya but also foster a more ethical, sustainable, and globally competitive industry,” she explains.

Its inclusive approach is gaining support across the value chain. “Before ReFace, there wasn’t a single entity that represented the apparel and textile sector as a whole,” says Kibutu.

Initiatives touch on many sectors to improve the local fashion supply chain. In education, ReFace provides workshops and training for farmers and fibre processors on modern techniques and ethical practices. It also works with educational institutions to offer climate change courses and certifications to women and young people.

On the technology front, ReFace is helping to introduce AI and blockchain to improve inventory management, trend forecasting and traceability, while developing digital platforms to connect everyone from farmers to textile manufacturers. In research, it funds work that identifies innovative materials and production techniques and shares those insights with key stakeholders.

Anyango Mpinga is a designer, social entrepreneur and cultural innovator with an intense love for her work. “As an African textile and fashion designer focused on sustainability, the core of my work centres around celebrating vibrant Kenyan culture and traditions while promoting eco-conscious practices,” she says.

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As a 2022 Honorée of The Conscious Fashion Campaign, an initiative of the Fashion Impact Fund (US), she turned heads with a 3D collection titled The Pupil, created in collaboration with artist Yifan Pu. “Digital design using tools like virtual sampling and 3D modelling can streamline design and product development, enabling faster iteration and personalised customisation,” she says. Her 3D designs have been featured on platforms such as Drest, the styling app, and in the Colors of Africa Art project for Google Arts.

Mpinga is always experimenting. One project involved creating sustainable textiles from invasive plant species found in Kenya, such as the water hyacinth. Ultimately, the harvesting of the plant was too challenging, despite government investment in high-tech machinery, which proved too unwieldy to be practical. “This was a lesson on the limitations of technology alone in solving environmental issues,” she reflects. “Sustained commitment, proper maintenance, and community involvement appear vital for any solution to successfully tackle innovation in the community.”

Mpinga also believes that solutions to a wasteful fashion industry are to be found within Kenyan culture itself, which has a rich and long-cherished appreciation of the value of resources, people and heritage.

Africa Collect Textiles (ACT) is a Nairobi-based initiative that tackles the issue of waste colonialism, the term for the practice of dumping unwanted low-value clothing (and much else besides) from the Global North in other countries, often in Africa. It’s a small initiative with big intent: to date, it’s collected approximately 78,000kg of textiles and created 60 local jobs in Nairobi.

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ACT has developed a used clothing collection network in Kenya including 38 drop-off points, with 14 in Lagos, Nigeria, too. It developed small-scale but high-impact projects, such as upcycling old SGA security guard uniforms and using funds from the initiative to support education, food, medical care, and shelter for local children. It’s partnered with local brands such as LilaBare to find innovative ways to transform textile waste.

Overproduction is an international problem, says Elmar Stroomer, founder of ACT. “People say that second-hand clothing generates jobs but nobody has really calculated or researched what the world would look like without over-production,” she points out.

In 2022, Chinese fast fashion brand Shein partnered with Ghana-based non-profit the Or Foundation to create an EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) fund dedicating $50 million over five years to bolster the Or Foundation’s community-based projects in Accra. “It’s ironic how an ultra-fast fashion brand was the first to give funds directly to the communities it impacts negatively,” notes Stroomer. “In an ideal world, the brands that claim to be the most sustainable should have done this first.”

ACT is proud to close the loop in its own way: “We are flipping the materials back into products sold in the UK, Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland,” says Stroomer. “We’re selling the waste back to the Global North in the form of quality pieces and generating funds for Kenya.”

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LilaBare: Clothing as land heritageReFace: Creating a regenerative fashion eco-systemAnyango Mpinga: Innovation to celebrate cultureAfrica Collect Textiles: Slowly closing the loopMore on this topic: