When women are empowered, society benefits
Mayamiko is a UK registered charity but has its roots in Malawi. Founded in 2008, it works to help people lift themselves out of poverty through skills training, education and fair trade practices. One way, Mayamiko achieves its goal is through the charity’s commitment to empowering women. This includes the Mayamiko Cotton project, which supports groups of women and vulnerable individuals in Malawi, by creating jobs for them, as producers of ethical fashion products for international labels within the fashion industry. As Mayamiko gets ready for Inspired – a collaboration with Slaves of the Extraordinary to raise funds to help build a sustainable skills and production centre in Lilongwe, Malawi – Paola Masperi, chair of Mayamiko Trust tells explains why empowering women through sustainable skills is vital to community and nation building.
Paola Masperi: Our vision is to support community development. Research and experience shows that when women are empowered and productive, the benefits are felt not only by themselves and their immediate family, but the community as a whole also gains something. Yet, women are often among the most disadvantaged because of their numerous responsibilities. This is why we focus on working with women in a way that is compatible with their many commitments. Women joining our training programmes may be absolute beginners or may already have experience. Part of our training is teaching about quality control, but also how to run a production unit – so costing, sampling, supply chain issues and everything else. This can be complicated as the level of literacy is often very low, so people develop at a very different pace. We wanted to turn around the concept that fashion from African countries could not be edgy and forward and high quality for a modern international audience. So we are currently focussing on providing skills training to our beneficiaries in sewing, tailoring, pattern making, cutting but also costing, preparing quotes, the sampling process and small business skills. We have also offered grants to buy sewing machines for our graduates who want to start their own business. I believe the Late Hon Kate Kainja, who was MP and Minister for Women and Child Development, says it best with these words: “During my life as an educator in secondary and university I have done several studies on girls education and they all seem to point to the fact that investing in girls education makes more economic sense now and later in future. Further, in my work as a member of parliament I have come to realise that just a little help to women goes a long way in improving household nutrition, economic status and welfare. I want to agree that if we can provide both, education/training as well as employment it would also bring in self-confidence in women. Therefore, the idea of a Cotton Lab or Factory appeals to me. Indeed education is the way out of poverty but socio-economic empowerment is even a faster way out of poverty. I agree with you that we have to try to carry out this project.”
Belinda: When did Mayamiko start working in Malawi?
Paola Masperi: We started Mayamiko working in Malawi in 2008, but it was definitely not the easiest choice for us. Some of the neighbouring countries like Zambia and Tanzania have much more developed textile industries. In Malawi, one factory that supplies the whole market and the quality isn’t always great. Sourcing is one of our key challenges. We source mainly locally but in today’s global markets it is very hard to trace back the origin of every fabric we use. We try to talk to local traders and trace back as far as we can. Some prints are recognisable as traditional styles, but still it’s hard to tell. Also you never know how much availability there will be for any given print, so we rely on very understanding customers who are happy to work with similar prints. We work with a cooperative of market traders that help us with sourcing and we are talking to a local expert just returning from Kenya to look at alternative options. We sometimes need to take the view that, since the fabrics available reach the local market anyway, that is often the lowest impact way of sourcing. Our accessories are all made by local artisans with reclaimed materials, such as reclaimed wood for buttons and hoops. Good quality zips and elastic are difficult to find – traders often buy end of range bulk quantities from the UK or even from China. The trade with China has grown exponentially in the last 3-to-5 years. I spoke to many Malawian traders during my last visit and they regularly travel to China and bring back containers full of class C products, this means they are low quality cheap goods. This will make tracing back origins even trickier. But it’s a common theme across much of Africa.
Belinda: Why use fashion to bring awareness to the work the organisation is doing?
Paola Masperi: Our trainees and graduates are learning to produce for exciting international labels, some of them will be showcased at our Inspired night. It was a natural combination.
Belinda: How many designers are going to be showcasing their work on the evening and why did Mayamiko select these particular designers?
Paola Masperi: We have Mia by Mia Nisbet, who produces in Malawi and is sampling with Mayamiko, Kenema who is also starting to sample in Malawi with us. Lauren Solomon has created her entire collection with fabrics I brought back from my last trip toMalawi. You will also be able to see Bestow Elan, Fashion Compassion, Inala and Asos Africa, all ethical labels that we love and respect.
Paola Masperi: We have worked for two years with an initiative in Mangochi, by the lake. Our graduates got a recognised certificate and applied for a grant to fund the purchase of sewing machines so that they could start their independent business. Mayamiko funded the machines through microfinance and we are watching with excitement the progress of our graduates. We are now training new groups of HIV positive women outsideLilongwe, they are also sampling and producing for some international labels.
Belinda: Describe the impact sustainable skills, is having on those who have and are taking part in your projects?
Paola Masperi: Sustainable skills offer our trainees and graduates, the chance of earning a sustainable livelihood, not dependent on hand outs and charitable donations. Skills they can take away with them wherever they wish to go and that will open doors for them and give them options for a better life.
Belinda: Is Mayamiko committed to the values of ethical fashion?
Paola Masperi: Ethical fashion means many things. As part of the long term vision, Mayamiko is working to establish sustainable sewing, tailoring and fashion training schools. The objective is to create orders for our trainees and graduates to make fashion for the export market, and fetch better prices for their materials and products. In the long run, Mayamiko wishes to rely on its sustainable income to grow the community projects. Mayamiko use ethical labour standards and locally sourced fabrics and materials. As part of the training programs, Mayamiko provides meals, bicycles, child care and training to TEVETA standards (Technical, Entrepreneurial, Vocational and Training Authority) for trainees and graduates. Mayamiko also offers small business loans and grants to graduates who wish to start their own business or join up to set up a cooperative. Mayamiko’s vision is to build a creative, sustainable and environmentally friendly structure, a home that can grow organically and is in tune with the environment and the people, particularly considering the ladies needs and those of their young children. This would include a vegetable garden and orchard, solar power, an outside kitchen, a baking oven, a washing area for fabrics with water recycling as well as a crèche, classrooms, labs, store rooms, workshops and potentially a home for boarding students. Mayamiko works towards the World Fair Trade Organisation 10 Standards of Fair Trade.
Belinda: What are your hopes for your forthcoming event in London?
Paola Masperi: We want everyone to walk away with the knowledge that however small, change is possible and it affects people’s lives in a very real way. We hope our guests will be inspired to support us, be it with their skills, time or money. We hope to raise enough funds to enable us to build better training and production facilities so we can continue our work and be better partners for our designers. And we hope everyone will have an amazing time!
For more information, go to: Mayamiko