Image of Josephine, courtesy of SOKO
Nestled amongst the red earth and elephant corridors of Kenya’s stunning Rukinga Wildlife Sanctuary, is SOKO – a business producing beautiful garments you may have seen on ASOS.com. Set up in 2009 by Joanna Maiden, SOKO provides fashion designers access to a competitively priced production unit firmly grounded in ethical employment principles.
Joanna’s goal was to prove that it is possible to run a self-sustaining manufacturing business without sacrificing social and environmental responsibility. Born of a staunch belief that fashion has the power to make a positive contribution to society, SOKO is true sustainability in action – a business model balancing people, planet and profit.
I first met Joanna when SOKO was what you might call a “mtoto” (baby). Back then in 2009, it consisted of a team of four people working from a rented workshop in Ukunda, Mombasa. In 2012, following a game-changing partnership with the online clothing giant, they moved to a purpose built eco-factory where ASOS's fair-trade clothing label Made In Kenya is produced today.
SOKO now employs 50 Kenyans, and offers the full CMT (cut, make, trim) services to designers, including labelling, packing and facilitation of import/export logistics. Since 2009, the business has supported 72 people (60 of whom are women) through CMT training and certification.
Oh, and those original 4 staff members? They are now managers in the business running teams of 5 to 20 people each. SOKO is built on community and at every level employees within the factory feel an ownership over the success and growth of the business.
Between running SOKO, game drives, trips home to London, time with her talented husband and raising their gorgeous little ones, Jo (somehow) managed to find time to answer a few questions to give ESH readers a look into SOKO life. Karibu and enjoy!
Tell me a little bit about how the partnership with ASOS came about.
A fashion buyer friend, Claire Hamer, came to visit me a month after I arrived in Kenya. During her visit we put together a small capsule collection using fabric sourced locally. Claire had just started working at ASOS.com and after her visit was spreading the word about what I was trying to set up in Kenya.
On my first trip back to the UK after spending 6 months in Kenya she managed to get me a meeting with the Buying Director and Womenswear Design Director of ASOS.com to pitch the concept of SOKO and show the collection we had put together as an example of what was possible.
They loved the concept and their design team immediately started work on designing the ASOS Africa (now ASOS Made in Kenya) collection. A month later they placed an order of 4,500 units which was totally beyond our capabilities - we were renting a small shed, there was a team of me and 4 tailors and we had never done anything like this before.
It was the perfect opportunity to throw ourselves into the deep end and make it happen - which we did. The collection received an amazing amount of press and sold out within a week. That was really the kickstart of SOKO's journey.
What’s included in the training programme you offer to employees and how do you select the trainees?
In 2014 we set up the SOKO Community Trust. The Trust runs a number of community projects one of which is the Stitching Academy. The Stitching Academy is a sewing training facility that trains 40 people per year in the use of industrial sewing machines. We open the doors for interviews every 3 months and people have to show a basic understanding of how a foot-pedal sewing machine works to get on the course.
The aim of the training programme is that by the end of the course graduates have the skills needed to start their own business or get a job in any clothing manufacturing factory in the country. Each graduate leaves with a portfolio of their work and a certificate. We try to employ as many of the graduates in the factory as possible but we now have 72 graduates so the opportunity is not available to everyone.
In light of this six months ago we set up a Stitching Academy Hub. The Hub is a sewing machine facility which offers the use of industrial sewing machinery to graduates of the Academy. The aim of the Hub is to provide facilities to practice the skills learnt during the Academy course, to work on income generating activities and to prepare themselves for employment.
Can you take us through a typical work day for a SOKO employee?
The factory opens at 7.30am and the cleaning team do a sweep around. The work day starts at 8am. Our staff break for chai (tea) and bread at 10.30am for 15 minutes, and for lunch between 1 and 2pm. Home-time is 5pm.
Our production team works in cells of 4 people. Each cell works together on one style from start to finish. We group cells with people of varying skill levels and each team member works on a different part of the garment. We have set up this system because it encourages people to take ownership over the garments that they’re working on and it promotes peer-to-peer learning.
Your staff members have access to a kindergarten for their children - how significant is this for your employees?
For women this can be the difference between working or not working. It gives mothers independence to go to work and make money for themselves rather than being dependent on their husbands.
What are a couple of your personal values that have shaped your business?
I am a problem solver and pretty resilient (AKA stubborn!) this has carried me through as I’ve dealt with roadblocks and struggles along the way.
What keeps you optimistic in the world of fashion?
I keep optimistic because I see the positive impact that a secure, well paid job has made in my employees lives. I do see positive change in the fashion industry - albeit slow.