Kiteghe Village is about 40 kilometres from Mombasa and near Mt Kasigau. It is where The African Shirt Company workshop is located.
Using manual sewing machines, two local women produce colourful kanga shirts that have found their way into wardrobes in the UK and Ireland.
“We have only just sent our first batch to London and are working on the next order which will be available online in Kenya and hopefully in retail outlets countrywide in future,” says Ms Lindi Campbell Clause, the founder of the company.
It is a longtime dream for the two friends, Ms Clause and Joan Hughes —the other founder. The two friends who both studied design at university share a passion for conservation and fashion.
Ms Clause grew up in Kenya and went to study in Dublin. She returned last year to work as a designer and conservationist and is based in Voi where she runs the SOKO Factory as a relief manager. Ms Hughes lives in London where she works as an accessories’ designer.
The African Shirt Company started production in July 2012.
“The brainwave hit us after Joan visited me in Kenya a few years ago. She returned home from the trip with two key things on her mind— the first was memory of the hardships local people, particularly women, face following severe drought and the second was the colourful patterns of the African kangas,” says Ms Clause. The latter inspired their business idea.
The friends went on to train the two local women working at the factory and they hope to employ more people and expand to surrounding villages with the growth of the project.
Ms Clause says she has always had an interest in printed fabrics especially those inspired by earthy and vibrant African colours and patterns.
“These are simple ideas and wonderful fabrics. People need more colour in their lives,” she adds.
As the company name suggests, it only produces African shirts, combining the rich culture of the kanga with modern Western fashion.
“The difference compared to most (eco -fashion) brands is that we are making “cool” products that are also sustainable,” says Ms Clause.
The idea behind eco-fashion is to produce garments and accessories in a way that is environmentally friendly and economical.
Ms Hughes, however, says clothes’ production cannot be 100 per cent eco-friendly but that the industry can spread awareness by using non-toxic dyes or cotton grown without chemicals or artificial fertilisers.
On environmental protection, The African Shirt Company is also thinking of other products to make from leftover fabrics to reduce waste.
But African-made kangas are difficult to source, says Ms Clause. “We are using kangas from Mombasa, but most of these are made and printed in India. It is hard to find Kenyan-made and printed material. When you do, it’s usually of poor quality or not 100 per cent cotton,” she says.
Tanzania and Uganda also produce kangas which they are trying to source but the best quality cotton comes from India.
The kanga dates back to 19th century East Africa; Swahili women were intrigued by the cotton shawls worn by the Portuguese who controlled the Zanzibar coastline and started buying them in bundles to stitch into dresses.
Once sown together it was said that the patterns reminded the women of the colourful guinea fowl, hence the name kanga which is a direct translation of guinea fowl in Kiswahili. Soon the cloth traders picked up on the trend and were ordering rolls of printed material.
The African Shirt Company, however, plans to include different African fabrics sourced from across the continent.
It is a delicate balancing act between eco-beliefs and staying fashionable in the ever changing fashion world.
“Our aim is to make simple products. The shapes rarely change,” adds Ms Clause.
She, however, acknowledges that the fashion industry will never be 100 per cent sustainable—consumers still want change all the time but the products and companies out there can be “more sustainable” in its approach to business and manufacturing to improve the industry that has been abused and accused for many years.