Tuesday 26 March 2024

Joanna Maiden - Founder & CEO - SOKO Kenya

Joanna says that she believes that the fashion industry can be a force for good and since meeting her I believe it too, but only if it follows Joanna’s lead. What Joanna has achieved with SOKO Kenya is truly awe inspiring. Some people really are super humans and Joanna is one of them. At each step of her journey she has thought what can I do better and then put that thought into action and at the heart of it all is the empowerment of women. We all talk about it. Joanna is doing it. Please read and learn how this naturally shy inspirational woman is making leaps and bounds towards creating positive change in clothing manufacture.


D: Where did you grow up, Jo?


J: I grew up in South London and have thought quite a lot about how my life choices or my beliefs have been influenced by my childhood. I grew up in a middle class family. My dad was from a working class family without much money, so he has always been very passionate about us not having the same experience as him. From a young age, I was very aware of the financial security we had compared to the vast majority of the world. I felt a sense of figuring out what I could do to be a part of bridging that gap. I think that's where this sense of social justice or inequality and equity came from, I was really aware that we always had the money we needed and if we went on holiday to a developing country I struggled with that.

Alongside this I always loved everything about the fashion industry and was fascinated by period dramas or any films that had a really strong wardrobe. Of course living in London there was also the influence of London Fashion Week. My A level subjects were fashion, textiles and economics. I had this really bonkers economics teacher, (this was 25 years ago) who taught us outside in a hut. That's where our classroom was, it was always freezing, and she would be banging on about climate change and about the global north-south divide, and she drove, for that time, the most economical car. The maximum speed she drove was 36 miles an hour because that was the most efficient. Back then, these conversations weren't really being had, and people pigeonholed her as wacky, but actually what she instilled in me was so profound because it opened my eyes. Her teaching focused mostly on International Development and the wealth and power of the Global North in comparison to the Global South, and it totally changed my life.

Of those 3 A level subjects I chose to do fashion and textiles at university but I took her thinking with me.


D: You said your fashion inspiration was TV and movies.


J: Yes, that and charity shops, all of it. I really respected the skill behind it. It wasn't necessarily about clothes for the sake of clothes. It was everything that clothes meant culturally and the craftsmanship behind them, plus how the industry worked. It totally fascinated me. But I never really understood how social justice and the fashion world could be combined, they felt like polar opposites, especially at that time, around 2005 when there was very little dialogue about social and environmental issues in the fashion supply chain.

When I was writing my dissertation at Winchester School of Art, it was around the time Fair Trade tea, coffee and chocolate were being launched and there was marketing around fair pay for these farmers. It sparked a question ‘we're talking about tea workers, what does it look like for the fashion industry?’ Naively I presumed it was all sorted and that it will be interesting to look at how they’ve done that. At the time the only space to get information was through the Ethical Trade Initiative that was working directly with big fashion businesses, but there was nothing accessible for consumers. It was all very high level and unclear how, as a consumer, we could make better choices. I felt lost and stuck, that's when I started on my journey to find people who were asking the same questions.



D: Your dissertation and your economics teacher obviously put a completely different lens on everything. Did you study as a designer?


J: I studied fashion and textiles because I was fascinated by the fashion industry as a whole. I am a creative but more practical than design focused. When I see a garment I appreciate its beauty but I also pull it apart in my mind, thinking ‘how was it constructed?’ and ‘what were the different components used in it’s creation?’

My final collection at university, was part of Graduate Fashion Week in London, and was inspired by the idea of clothes being worn in different ways – for example, that buttons in strategic places could create completely different looks. I loved the idea of clothing feeling inspiring and creative and therefore needing fewer pieces in your wardrobe. An appreciation for garments for the skill, and knowledge thats gone into them, and the cleverness of clothing has always been part of what I've loved and tvalue about them. I believe I've always had that, which is why I loved period dramas. I remember going to the cinema and being drawn to those amazing movies, especially Elizabethan era dramas, with all the layers in the costumes and all the thought and all the detail that went into them.

I've always appreciated clothes for the vision and expertise that goes into bringing an idea to life.


D: You then worked in the industry for a few years before you before you set up SOKO Kenya. How was that for you?


J: When I finished my degree, I surrounded myself with people who were a few years ahead of me and were doing things that I felt really passionate about. Which is why when we exhibit at the Future Fabrics Expo it so nice to be amongst these wonderful women again, Cyndi (Rhodes) and Orsola (de Castro), Dylis Williams and Tamsin Blanchard, all of them, we've been around waving our flag for quite a long time now. I worked part time for a small couture brand in Baker Street and volunteered part time with Ethical Fashion Forum who at the time did collaborative projects with Cyndi and Worn Again. I was the graduate that was eager to be around and was really passionate about what was going on. By doing that, I worked on lots of great projects, like the time I supported the Ethical Fashion Forum with its training initiatives, Christopher Raeburn was one of our graduates from that. I learnt so much from working on those really diverse projects.

Then an opportunity came. We were working on a project that was connecting buyers with artisanal groups in East Africa. I was helping organise the logistics, and two of the more senior people were going. Two weeks before the trip one of them fell ill and said, look, I don't think I'm going to recover on time, what would you think about going? Part of the trip meant I would have been on my own, so she said we need a photographer to take pictures. Could your husband do that?’

So we found ourselves in Uganda and Kenya for 2 and a half weeks. At the time we had been thinking let's have an adventure somewhere before we have kids and find ourselves too settled to up sticks, so our eyes were open for something. During the trip a conversation happened, and the idea for SOKO Kenya was born. Then I came back and wrote a business plan for the idea and started talking to anyone who would listen. I started talking about it when I was 26 and we moved when I was 28, having never lived in Africa, or having any manufacturing experience. I didn't have any financial backing and wrote an application to a philanthropist called Lord Joffe. He invited me to his Manor to talk more. It was one of the most intimidating experiences of my life. He sent me away with a lot of homework.

A few weeks later he sent me an email saying, ‘You have no idea what you’re doing but you’ve worked really hard to pull this proposal together and I’m willing to take a chance on you.’ In 2009 he gave me £10,000. We told ourselves, right, seven months, let's see, let's give it a go, if it doesn't work then we can come home.’ I spent that time trying to learn as much as I could about the local economy, the logistics, the skills and the gaps in the market. By the end of the second month I had put a small capsule collection together that I felt represented the skill base and fabrics available locally. Because of my time in London and my network, I managed to get an appointment with a decision maker at ASOS. I was nervous but I showed up and they loved it. They placed an order and that's how SOKO Kenya went from being an idea to something real. ASOS gave us the opportunity to get ourselves properly set up because when the order came through we had to hit the ground running. They sent us this thick supplier manual with all their supply requirements which was what we needed to take us on a really steep learning curve and to be able to deliver, which we did.



D: You have been in Kenya for 14 years. It's amazing what you're doing. Not only have you created a business you have created, a whole community. This project Inspirational Women is women centered because I realised that most of the people working in fashion are women and what you do is absolutely brilliant because you're empowering women. Giving them an amazing way of living their lives, for their families and everybody around them. Can you tell us more about the social empowerment that lies behind everything you do at SOKO Kenya?


J: There are a lot of things to say. We have evolved over time as we've learned, and as we keep learning. It started with the thought, if we can pay a living wage, if we can provide people with enough money to not only survive but be able to really support their families, then that will make a difference. We did that, which is great, but there's much more needed and we keep evolving as we learn.


We now offer a hot meal daily, free childcare, a company doctor, private pension scheme, training in financial literacy and sexual health and rights, flexible hours for mothers with young babies.


The essence lies in us supporting women to take control of their lives by providing them with security employment, knowledge, and to have financial independence.


As a result, we've seen a lot of women leave abusive relationships, people come out of crippling debt and providing for their families.


In August 2023 we completed our first international SEDEX audit. An audit is a great baseline for compliance but for me, what we do, has never been about that compliance. I constantly ask myself what does it truly mean to be an ethical employer and to have environmental sustainability at our core? We won’t ever have the answer to that because as we grow there’ll be more to learn and do.


One recent example of our learning process and finding ways to support occurred when we considered our older employees in the factory. It struck me; statics show that for every employed person, they support seven dependents—whether they are children, siblings facing unemployment, or parents in need of medical care.

Which means that if you're supporting seven people, even if you're earning a living wage and getting additional life benefits such as medical care, you're still never going to be able to really hold on to anything more than the basics.

If someone spends a significant portion of their career with us and then retires with an unreliable state pension, that most likely means they will fall back into poverty and become someone else’s dependent. That started weighing on my conscience. I firmly believe that our employees are not only performing a function for us; we are intertwined with their entire lives, and it's our responsibility to ensure their well-being even after they've left the company. At the beginning of last year, we explored the idea of joining a private pension scheme. By the end of the year, we had established it and backdated it to the start date of each employee. This meant that 2% of their monthly salary was backdated over the period of employment and was paid into a private pension scheme alongside 4% of their monthly salary going forward. Implementing that in our organization is one of the things that I am most proud of. This is my current version of what being an ethical employer means.


D: Its holistic, the whole person, the whole life.


J: Exactly. Someone once said to me, ever listening, ever learning, ever evolving. That’s what I want us to be.


D: Since starting SOKO Kenya, you've moved twice. You started small and have been building and growing as you go.


J: Yes, we are in our third location now. The most recent move was four years ago. It was a brave move for us. We had outgrown our space which was in a very remote area and there was no way to expand there. My management team and I spent about six months mulling over the idea of moving. We found a new place 100 miles away and did a lot of research around what the living wage would be at this new location, what schools were available, what the cost of housing was and whether there was any housing available. Then we started a consultation with the team, because for me if we move and no one comes, then we are nothing. We told them that there was no question that was off the cards, ask us anything. And everyone, except for one, moved with us, this was incredible for us. We moved with 48 people and we're now 150. It's funny, because we when we moved, we had no idea how we would fill this enormous space, with high rent and all that comes with that and now it’s full, and it’s been fantastic for us, it’s that brave next step, which was very considered but also a risk.


It’s a nice bright modern facility. When we were looking we kept seeing places with no green space and were very overly industrial. Our previous factory (which we still have, more on that later) was built as an eco-building made of mud so we wanted to bring the spirit of it with us. We finally found a space that has a massive garden and wherever you are in the factory you still feel connected to the outdoors and can see trees and grass. It felt like home.


The space needed significant renovation. We installed additional windows, added water tanks to collect rainwater, and integrated solar panels.


D: Tell us about your clients, do you have any input on the fabrics they choose to use?


J: Some brands we work with have specific preferences for their suppliers, and we support them with that. For others, we offer assistance as required. There are so many different views on the right thing to do. In Kenya the government are trying to support the rebirth of the cotton industry which is one area that we're supporting and creating local jobs. It's not organic, which isn't ideal, but it is supporting Kenya and it's up the road so the footprint stays small. We're encouraging brands to be conscious about sourcing, whether that means local or sustainable fabric options from the international mills we work with. We also offer hand embroidery and crochet from a group of nun artisans.


D: Crochet Nuns...


J: There are 150 of them, they started the group 30 years ago, it's amazing. We are also growing our database and our fabric library to be in a position to offer brands sustainable options. If they are looking for cotton, can it be an organic cotton, for example? So it's a real mix.




D: Earlier you spoke about the financial education you give your staff but also on that front you have set up, an Academy and a Charity can you tell us about those?


J: We learnt that we needed to do more than provide a living wage to those who had the skills to get a job. This is why we created the Stitching Academy which is a four-month course providing young people with the skills required to open up new employment opportunities and business skills.  It operates out of our former eco factory and is under the umbrella of our charity. The students tend to be from very poor families. Many have had very limited access to education, so the training courses, are not only about how to use a machine, they are also about life skills, about what having a job means, because for the majority of them, formal employment has never been modelled. It's really about setting people up and supporting them and hopefully changing the trajectory of their life by having an employable skill.

We've had approximately 500 people complete the programme, and now they are dispersed throughout the country, working in factories or having started their own businesses. Not all of these ventures involve clothing production or repair; some have started cyber cafes, using the additional skills gained through the course, such as computer literacy, money management, business acumen, and entrepreneurship.


The other project under our charity is called Kujuwa Initiative, Kujuwa means knowledge in Kiswahili. We take cotton offcut fabric from the factory and make reusable sanitary pads, which have been approved by the quality standard in Kenya. We design them in a way that if they are in your bag, you don't know what it is, and it's a beautiful product.

The Kujuwa Initiative started because we were offering training to middle aged women in the community and started to receive feedback that they wished they had gained this knowledge before ‘life had carried them away’ and that they felt their life of struggle and poverty could have been different if they had received this support and knowledge when they were younger. As a team, we started researching and learnt that at the age of puberty girls school attendance and grades drop substantially and the transition from primary to secondary is very low. We started to look at how we could support that to change, which was also part of the bigger picture of everything we do, which is supporting women to have the same opportunities as men and to have all the other support they need. We work in schools, offering an after-school club once a week throughout the school year. Each girl receives a kit containing pads, underwear, and soap. The club serves as a safe space where they can freely ask questions. Our curriculum covers everything from puberty to sex, to decision making skills, relationships, confidence, all of those things. As part of the project, we also work with boys. They also receive a kit containing underwear and soap, and we discuss puberty with them, helping them understand both their own bodies and those of girls, fostering respect. We also work with teachers and parents because it's essential for the community around the girls to be supportive.


D: It gives everyone a greater understanding.


J: Exactly, and the parents will share feedback that they feel they have many more tools to support them to parent a teenager and to support a girl through puberty. The stats of girls exchanging sex for period products is horrendous. There's a lot of sad stuff. Our aim is to create a safe space. As a team we’ve been so encouraged to see improvements in school attendance and the gained confidence of the girls. We also partner with other charities and organisations who had previously been donating disposable pads and are now donating ours. A reusable pad not only reduces waste but also reduces the need for monthly disposable pad donations.

We also partner with businesses to support women in the workplace and provide sensitisation for mid management, and senior management on how to support women in the workplace through menstruation. 



D: I wanted to ask what drives you, but I can see what drives you. You are an amazing woman. Lets look to the future, how do you see the future?


J: How do I see the future? I have spent the vast majority of our time in Kenya busy doing our thing, on the ground. My passion is really what we've been doing, and I've kept myself hidden a bit. I'm naturally a bit shy and am also very aware that I am a white woman from England a country that colonised Kenya, setting up a business for Africans. I felt I couldn't celebrate what we do because of the complications around that. I've done a lot of work around it and feel passionate about getting out there and talking proudly about what we do and what is possible. I started SOKO Kenya 14 years ago and still we’re fairly unique in what we do. The sustainable fashion industry focus has been on fabrics. There's a sense that it's come a long way, and it has in terms of fabrics, but hasn't in terms of people. We’re seeking out opportunities to increase our visibility, showcase our work and connect with more brands. Brands often take the spotlight, with manufacturers simply facilitating their vision. We hope to reshape that, where the people who make the product are also celebrated.


D: If brands were working with people like you and your team, the transparency index would look very different than it does now. Also the work you are doing is so important to change that and is very much part of the sustainability story and as you said it's the people who aren't talked about as much as they should be. The vast majority of manufacturers dont look after people and the vast majority of manufacturing is populated by women.


J: I was part of a conference in Kenya around gender manufacturing and yes the vast majority of people in garment manufacturing are women and they are all at the bottom of the pyramid. When you go to a factory, the women are on the machines. In the roles senior to garment workers, there are very few women, the vast majority of the management team are male. That's another big shift that needs to happen. We employ 80% women across the organization with 80% of women in management roles.


D: My mum, grandmother and aunts worked in Linen Mills in Ireland and that power imbalance was true back then. Obviously, very little has changed for women in all that time.



D: What's it like for you shifting between Kenya and London? How do you manage the business from London? Do you need to come regularly to see brands here or is it a more diverse market?


J: I only come over, generally once a year in the school holidays and then we spend the rest of the year in Kenya. I always expect coming back to be easy because it's home. Now I'm aware how hugely different it is, and how that's a bit of a shock to the system. In Kenya we live quite rurally and its quite sleepy where there's one shop with two options of washing up liquid. When we come back there’s efficiency and things like home delivery and convenience. When I first come back it feels exciting, but then I quickly realise that it really is a massive shock to the system.


I am loving the brands that we're working with at the moment, I feel they are so aligned in values with us, and it really feels like we're building partnerships rather than a supplier, client, brand relationship. I'm so excited about more of those and do feel that there are many more brands out there aligned to our values. It's always awesome for us as a team to see the clothes we have made, out in the world and feeling that connection.

Early in our journey Michelle Obama wore some pieces made by us. At the time we were tiny, there were probably 20 of us and the team said oh is a proper factory, making the same clothes as us?’ When I said no, they are our clothes’ it took a while for that to really soak in, and I think for some of my team it is still one of our proudest moments. That journey of the clothes, to end up in her hands made us all feel very proud. A group of rural people on a mission being connected to the White House.


D: Your story should be the story of all fashion.



Web                SOKO Kenya

                       Kujuwa Initative 


Instagram       Joanna Maiden

                       SOKO Kenya

                       Kujuwa Initative 


LinkedIn        Joanna Maiden

                      SOKO Kenya

                      Kujuwa Kenya




1 comment:

Panty Buns said...

Fab interview, and great background information - I loved reading this.
Joanna Maiden is clearly a very well educated, intelligent, caring and talented designer!
Joanna Maiden's fashion designs look very attractive, pretty, and comfortable to wear!
Amongst my favourite looks from amongst the fashion designs of hers shown above, I am loving:
The rainbow of coloured alternating panels horizontal and vertical striped fabric patterned and tailored to fashion the dress in the first image and 5th (set of three) images, and;
The pretty pink (and pastel yellow) patterned dress with square-necked flouncy ruffle collar!


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