SUSTAINABLE FASHION IN WEST AFRICA BRINGS ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Lake Volta, one of the beautiful landscapes in Ghana

Lake Volta, one of the beautiful landscapes in Ghana

Albuquerque to Aburi

Good day to everyone from Ghana, West Africa! Or as we say here, “akwaaba” – welcome. Welcome to this blog about sustainable fashion, women’s empowerment, environmental consciousness, and economic development in this developing nation. My given name is Sara, but I also go by my Ghanaian day name, Abena – “born on Tuesday.” Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.A. is my hometown, but I now live in Ghana’s Eastern Region in the small town of Aburi, which is about a 30-minute drive outside the capital city, Accra. We’re high up in the hills where the air is clearer and cooler – a surprisingly temperate climate for equatorial Africa.

The view of Aburi town from where I live

The view of Aburi town from where I live

So you’re probably wondering what this New Mexico woman is doing in Ghana and how it all ties in with the Trusted Clothes website….

Here’s a little story to set the stage. In 2011, I visited Ghana for the first time. I love traveling, but I’d never visited anywhere as exotic as Ghana. I’d been involved with African drumming and dance for some years, taking lessons from a Ghanaian teacher who loved to share his culture with his students. In one of those “small world” stories, I met a fellow at a party hosted by a friend in Albuquerque who just happened to be from Ghana – and who had known my drumming and dance instructor 25 years before when he was just a child! Long story short, this fellow and I hit it off and six months or so later I found myself in a plane headed for Africa to spend a couple weeks touring Ghana with him.

I had no idea what to expect – or how deeply I would be affected by all I saw and experienced.

Prior to the trip, I’d collected a couple of large suitcases full of used clothing to give away in the villages. In one small village we visited, we met a woman who was pregnant and close to giving birth. She looked exhausted and had an anguished look on her face. Speaking the local language, my partner discovered that this was her first child and she had nothing for the baby – no clothing and nothing to put baby things in. We gave her the old suitcase I’d bought at a yard sale for $3 and the baby clothes I’d brought. As she accepted this gift, tears of gratitude welled up in her eyes and soon she and I were both crying and hugging each other. Just some old, discarded things to me meant the world to her.

 

Precious village children

Precious village children

Families in rural villages are grateful for handouts from tourists – it is not a sustainable way to live though.

Batiks for Life

But something about the whole interaction bothered me. I couldn’t get past the feeling that all I’d done was provide a hand out that would only help her situation for a short time – what would happen when the baby outgrew those clothes and the suitcase fell apart? This feeling nagged at me for the rest of the trip and I think it was then that a seed was planted to find a way of giving a “hand up, not a hand out.”

I returned home with a new outlook on life. I’d witnessed some of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen, alongside the most heartbreaking poverty. Polio victims with useless legs propelling themselves through the choking traffic of Accra on skateboards, begging coins from people in Mercedes. Stretches of warm sand beside the thundering Atlantic waves, littered with plastic bags and other trash. This land of dichotomies had etched itself in my mind.

Many women in Ghana eek out a living as “hawkers” – walking amongst traffic to sell small items

Many women in Ghana eek out a living as “hawkers” – walking amongst heavy traffic to sell small items

It was three years before I was able to return to Ghana.

In the months that preceded my travel date I realized that I didn’t want to merely visit once every few years. I wanted to form some sort of business that would allow me to travel to Ghana frequently. I’d fallen in love with Ghana’s traditional batik fabric and had a vague notion of wanting to use it somehow. One day the idea came to me to make medical scrubs using batik! Kind of a crazy idea, but I decided to run with it. By the time I left for Ghana in October 2014, I had a set of patterns and had located a NGO community employment program that was interested in doing the manufacturing. The NGO had a mission to support street girls and other underprivileged women in learning the sewing trade so that they could support themselves and their children. A hand up for women in need – it seemed the perfect partnership. A month later, I had prototypes in-hand and a passion for my plans as I returned to Albuquerque.

Quilt made of patches of batik that I bought on the beach - it inspired my love for this beautiful fabric

Let me pause for a moment to let you all know that I’m not a businesswoman by profession. I’m a licensed mental health counselor. I loved my work with Albuquerque’s homeless and indigent population – work I’d been doing for 15 years. But my workplace was downsizing and being laid off provided me with the opportunity I wanted – to return to Ghana full-time to focus on developing my business, Batiks for Life. 2015 would see me in Ghana for 8 of the 12 months – 8 of the most challenging yet fulfilling months of my life!

Some of the challenge revolved around the structure of the business. It became clear, literally one day after arriving in late February, that partnering with the NGO was not going to work in the long run. They were experiencing some major challenges of their own and by the end of 2015 had decided to close their community employment program altogether. During the first part of 2015, a Ghanaian friend (now business partner) and I started talking about developing a sewing cooperative with the overarching goal of “profit with a purpose” – the cooperative would manufacture sewn items (including Batiks for Life scrubs), and a small start-up sewn product businesses could benefit from my hard-won knowledge of complying with regulations, locating raw materials, and shipping to foreign countries. The staff would earn a livable wage and be included in the development of the cooperative. After a few months back home in Albuquerque aimed at marketing Batiks for Life products, I returned to Ghana to launch the cooperative along with my business partner.

One of the tailors sewing the first run of Batiks for Life inventory in early 2015

One of the tailors sewing the first run of Batiks for Life inventory in early 2015

That was just a few months ago as of this writing – now at the start of a new year, we’re tying up a few loose threads (pardon the pun) and preparing to register the cooperative as a business in Ghana. We have a third partner as well – someone as passionate about giving under-served women a hand up by training them as seamstresses, and putting Ghana on the map as a top-notch location for fair trade oriented garment manufacturing.

Batiks for Life will be undergoing some changes too. It’s become quite clear that people who don’t wear scrubs want to have beautiful Ghanaian batik items too! So we’re adding a number of accessory items like handbags and some casual wear. A website re-design is in the works as well! I’ll be saying more about all this in future blogs.

Our scrubs have earned high praise from our customers for being beautiful, well-made, and comfortable. Besides the five batik patterns we have in our Albuquerque inventory (shipped out quickly to anywhere in the world) we’re also venturing into custom batik designs and scrubs for health care professional staff. Our batik artistes can do just about anything with batik! We’re seeking out wholesale outlets for our scrubs, scrubs caps, and stethoscope covers as well.

Batiks for Life scrubs are one of a kind – uniquely beautiful, comfortable, and durable Scrubs On A Mission!

Batiks for Life scrubs are one of a kind – uniquely beautiful, comfortable, and durable Scrubs On A Mission!

2016 is going to be a busy year! I appreciate you following this blog – I’ll be exploring issues around sustainable fashion, protecting the environment, empowering women, and economic development in Ghana as we continue. Thank you for your readership!

-Sara

This is a post from our latest contributor, Sara.

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Sara Corry

About the Author

Sara Corry, aka Abena Sara lives in the Eastern Region of Ghana, West Africa, close to the capital city, Accra. Tropical Africa is feeling like home now after nearly 30 years as a desert dweller! When not involved in business development, she can be found with camera in hand trying to photograph the beautiful native bird life. She writes a blog about daily life in Ghana, and is a contributor to a website devoted to wildlife conservation in Africa. She has a passion for travel and would jump on a plane to almost anywhere at a moment’s notice!

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