Women sewing their way out of poverty

3 July 2013
ITC News
Connecting microproducers with the international fashion industry to build self-respect and better lives

Hand-woven textiles and natural dyes from Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso, two of the poorest countries on Earth, are finding their way into the global fashion industry through the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI). The initiative has only recently expanded into West Africa, linking microproducers with fashion buyers in Europe.

The EFI works to improve the livelihoods of micro-entrepreneurs and marginalized community groups in East Africa, West Africa and Haiti by connecting them with large fashion houses and providing assistance for the creation of handcrafted treasures that consumers crave. Some of the world’s top fashion designers, such as Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Ilaria Venturini Fendi and Sass & Bide, support the initiative, which at its peak involved more than 7,000 artisans, most of them women.

The EFI began as a pilot project in 2007 in Kenya and Uganda. While Kenya is industrially advanced, more than half of the population lives below the poverty line. The ‘informal sector' – which includes people who are excluded from the mainstream economy and usually do not have access to banking or savings facilities – is estimated to account for more than one-third of Kenya’s gross domestic product.

Since the project began, the EFI has been assisting artisans to gain a formal income and access to banking services, allowing those on limited resources to both plan and save. The Initiative’s major African hub is in the centre of Nairobi, a city of more than 3 million people where the contrast between the rich and the poor is stark. The Nairobi hub and a facility in Gilgil, in the Rift Valley, provide safe workplaces where women from diverse backgrounds are encouraged to collaborate.

In Kenya, women involved in the EFI produce accessories, mostly bags, as well as jewellery and shoes. A single bag might include up to ten different craft techniques, using the skills of as many community groups as possible.

In Burkina Faso, where most of the population is engaged in near-subsistence levels of agriculture, the Initiative has established a growing regional hub in Ouagadougou, the country’s capital, which also serves the EFI beneficiaries in Mali. Both countries are renowned for traditional craft techniques and their expertise in processing, dyeing and weaving cotton into beautiful fabrics that command high prices on international markets and are a great source of pride to the people who make them.

Fashion designers and others in the fashion industry are sourcing these fabrics through the EFI in West Africa. The project has already made an impact on the international fashion world with a weekender bag – made with fabric woven in Burkina Faso – that featured in Vivienne Westwood’s London fashion show in February 2013.

In Ghana, where almost 30% of the population survives on less than US$ 1.25 a day, there is a deep respect for handicraft traditions, along with a taste for fashion and growing manufacturing know-how. There the EFI is working with up-and-coming design talent to assist them in establishing their brands and build their businesses, providing work for a wide range of people, from seamstresses to accountants. The EFI, which is funded by Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), as well as Germany, Norway and Japan, uses fashion as a vehicle out of poverty, connecting marginalized communities, organized into business cooperatives, to international value chains in the fashion industry.

It also satisfies the increasing desire of many in the fashion world to work with artisans who are paid a decent wage, have fair working conditions, and use materials that are ethically produced and sourced. The initiative empowers women, allowing them to earn a regular income, improve the circumstances of their families and their communities, grow in confidence, and gain respect.

African fashion on the catwalk in Rome

Up and coming fashion designers are set to showcase a collection from Africa produced under ITC’s Ethical Fashion Initiative at the biannual Rome Fashion Week in July 2013. The event is held and organized by AltaRomAltaModa and features designers from around the world. The African fashion collection is co-managed by the EFI and will include collections designed by Italy’s rising star designer Stella Jean, and the Swiss fashion duo PortenierRoth, and with hand-woven textiles from Burkina Faso and Mali. It will also feature designs by Ghanaian labels Kiki and Christie Brown.

Stella Jean

Stella Jean is a Rome-born emerging fashion designer with Caribbean roots who presented her first collection in July 2011 and won the ‘Who is on Next’ contest, sponsored by Vogue Italia and AltaRoma. Stella Jean, a former model, combines African prints with modern elements to mirror her Italian and Haitian heritage. Her collections are ‘reflections of life that draw inspiration from the multifaceted experience’. Stella Jean supports the Fashion-Able Haiti initiative, which is dedicated to creating sustainable jobs in Haiti by setting up manufacturing production sites for the American market.


Sabine Portenier and Evelyne Roth are two Swiss designers who launched their label in 2007. Their design concept is unique: they do not have seasonal collections, but instead create a collection for each year with a different emphasis on each season. The two designers have a passion for combining fashion and contemporary art in their presentations, for which they also have won several prizes.

Kiki Clothing

Kiki Clothing is a Ghanaian-based children’s and ladies' wear and footwear brand founded by Titi Ademola, a Ghanaian-Nigerian fashion designer. Kiki Clothing collections encompass bright colours, African prints and casual styles. Titi Ademola’s ideas for her collections come primarily from her Ghanaian/Nigerian heritage and everyday life, in addition to other cultures. All of the products are manufactured in Ghana – with textiles from Mali and Ghana – with the aim of enabling African countries to profit from fashion.

Christie Brown

Christie Brown is a luxury women’s wear brand based in Ghana. It was founded by Aisha Obuobi in 2008 and named after her grandmother, who was the initial inspiration for Aisha Obuobi’s fashion career. In 2009, Aisha Obuobi won the ‘Emerging Designer of the Year Award’ at Arise Fashion Week in South Africa, and she was the only Ghanaian designer showcasing at Paris Fashion Week. By using modern styles and African prints for her collections, Aisha Obuobi hopes to provide a true taste of Africa for stylish, modern women.