SOKO: Learning lessons on how to add value to the East African apparel sector

It’s February, and in the fashion world that means that glitzy, glamorous fashionistas will soon be grabbing their Mulberry handbags and tottering on stilletos off to London Fashion Week, the catwalk trade show that started out nearly 30 years ago showcasing established and emerging designers alongside those of New York, Milan and Paris.

 A woman makes clothes for SOKO, a Kenyan textiles supplier that combines fashion manufacturing with bettering local livelihoods.

This year, London Fashion Week will coincide with the Source Awards, an accolade recently launched by the Ethical Fashion Forum, an online community for ethical fashion businesses. The Ethical Fashion Forum is set to transform fashion by making it easier for fashion businesses and the developing world to mainstream social and environmental best practices through their supply chains and transform livelihoods for workers in Africa.

The aim is to take compliance codes (such as those developed by the Ethical Trade Initiative which regulates practices around working conditions, living wages, etc) and go one step further. The Source Awards recognise the adoption of ethical innovations in say, recycling or the use of organic cotton, into something beneficial for managing a businesses’ bottom line in an environmentally and socially-conscious way. For example, Mantisworld, a global business based in Tanzania which produces 600,000 units a year for international markets, guarantees the organic status of its textiles from the harvesting of raw cotton to the dispatch of the finished garments. ECOMACO from Japan, uses eco-materials (natural materials such as inedible corn and sugar cane, cotton, bamboo and Japanese paper) and local traditional sewing methods to make garments that retail at a cost in line with other designer products.

This IIED briefing paper, Knowledge networks: Adding value to the East African apparel sector, looks at SOKO, which was this year’s winner of the Africa Award, to learn some lessons about how to integrate with global networks, develop local capacity and grow a viable business. Set up in 2009 and based in Ukunda, Kenya, SOKO is a clothing workshop that creates employment and training to some of Kenya’s poorest people. SOKO also produces clothes for one of the biggest online fashion companies in the world, ASOS, for their ASOS Africa and The Green Room collections. While harsh high street trading conditions saw off HMV and Comet stores, ASOS is one of the few UK retailers that saw strong sales in 2012.

Not only does SOKO make clothes and provide employment, it is also growing day by day – growing from 4 tailors to a team of 25 since it started out – and supplying international markets. Watch this video to find out more about SOKO.

How does it do it?

This paper found that SOKO managed this impressive feat in a few ways. It mobilised its ‘friends’ network to get itself started. SOKO’s founder, Joanna Maiden activated her professional and personal networks to get resources, information and support on various things; such as starting out, registering the business, finding a suitable location, sourcing the right components and hiring a team of Kenyan machinists. Joanna’s network is a web of people and institutions, formal ones, such as industry experts, business support organisations and international trade institutions as well as informal ones, such as friends, family, community leaders and university networks.

The research also found another key feature for success: the ‘ethical agent’. Ei8ht, an intermediary and project management organisation skilled in managing the supplier-buyer relationship for fashion, absorbed some of the pressure inherent in these types of relationships and provided key technical expertise in managing the supply chain for ASOS.

Finally, the research also found that Joanna herself has been the ultimate driver of the success of the business. Joanna is a ‘social entrepreneur’ and has the personality traits and character required to keep the business model developing. Her background in PR, marketing and fashion gave her the wealth of connections needed and the innate knowledge and understanding of what is needed to make a good fashion business. Being market-led and consumer-orientated is the true backbone of any successful fashion company.

Why is this important?

Working in Africa has received a lot of attention recently. A World Bank blog recently asked: has Africa outgrown aid? It suggested that “...aid will be increasingly about transferring knowledge rather than money ... know-how and skills will be the name of the game”.

What does this mean for apparel? Well, for SOKO, this meant understanding the importance of using professional and personal networks for starting up a business and for building up in-house ‘knowledge’ in core competencies and skills, especially in inculcating a good understanding of what is fashionable, how to produce a fashion product, and how think like a fashion buyer.

Where does this take us? Is it possible to replicate SOKO’s model of networks and ethical agents elsewhere? Can we engage investment to actively create both the technical and commercial competences required?

Let me know your thoughts.

Read Knowledge networks: Adding value to the East African apparel sector

This paper is part of our Linking World series which aims to identify how organisations and networks can participate in formal markets by looking at successful innovations that link small-scale with large-scale markets and enterprises. The first paper in this series, looks at innovations in business models for delivering affordable and sustainable modern energy services to the poor.

Anoushka Boodhna is a value chain practitioner living in Kenya working with a social enterprise that supports smallholder horticulture farmers. Originally from the UK, Anoushka’s ‘past life’ was with an international fashion brand managing franchise partners in the Middle East. Since 2008, she has been working with smallholder producers and microenterprises in Africa and Latin America.

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