economic empowerment

A day working for Vivienne Westwood


The Go Down Arts Centre was one of the first places I fell in love with in Nairobi. It’s an awesome arts hub down the long, dusty road leading from my part of town to the city centre. I walk past every day and it stands out among the industrial garages and the London Gin Distillery (?!). There are rows of studios rented out at low cost to upcoming artists, a free, monthly mini-festival for upcoming bands and … most surprisingly… a workshop that makes handbags for designers ranging from Stella McCartney to Vivienne Westwood!

The first day I found Ethical Fashion Africa a friendly office assistant gave us a tour showing us the genuinely pleasant sewing workshop and, best of all, the stockroom; a room lined with shelves displaying the name of the designer and samples of all the glorious beaded, screen printed, tasselled, sequinned and patch-worked bags. Semi-jokingly I asked if I could have a go making one…

Cut to 8am this Saturday and Anna and I turn up bright and early to help the screen printing team deal with a Vivienne Westwood order. Rather amazingly, we were told that coming to “have a go” at the busiest time of the year would be absolutely perfect. I can’t quite imagine a UK business saying that to a random visitor!

IMG_3592Our lovely tutors were Moses and Elizabeth, who patiently let us sloop the paint round the screens, trying to make sure it was as even as possible. Our work received grades from “oh dear” to “it’s wow!” so I wouldn’t say we were naturals but we certainly managed to pass the quality control inspection procedure.

Moses and Elizabeth have worked with Ethical Fashion Africa for two and four years respectively and both love it. As did I. The place is an amazing example of a social enterprise generating good employment for over 100 people; although that many “colleagues” made grabbing a mandazi at 10am tea break difficult in the rush!

Unfortunately, no chance for us to buy any of our handiwork as the bags produced can only be bought overseas at, I imagine, unspeakable prices. But it gives a vague thrill to think someone might be carrying around something I smeared some paint on in a unique little corner of Nairobi.


The Ethical Fashion Africa website is down but here is the Vivienne Westwood link:

And apparently you can pick up “our” work on Asos these days too:


Where it all started

One of the things everyone tells you about when you first get to Kenya is M-Pesa. It’s a banking system that runs through your mobile phone without the need for an actual account with a bank or a smart phone. So that old Nokia you had, your first ever mobile, you can use that to pay the tab in a bar, pay the taxi driver, or transfer to your friend who lent you some money last week. It’s impressive and incredibly handy. And makes you wonder why we don’t have anything quite so handy at home…

Innovation is a hot topic in Kenya. I’ve never met so many entrepreneurial people with bright ideas. So watching this TED talk really rang home for me. As the speaker says, innovation isn’t happening in the countries where we spend a lot of time on Facebook or watching TV…it’s happening where there are big problems that need real solutions:

R Kelly and Kenyan copyright law

One thing I never thought I would find myself doing in Kenya was attending a workshop on intellectual property law with a group of aspiring musicians and artists…but that is the joy of VSO. You never know what’s coming next!

I’d been invited by Kibera YMCA to attend a workshop on Sunday, and knowing how hard the Branch Manager works I wanted to support him even though I wasn’t quite so keen on giving up my weekend. When I turned up the hall was packed with participants – a good sign!

The session was being run by an American NGO called Peacetones. Peacetones  approaches the topic of economic empowerment with the belief that being an artist can allow you to earn a living – but you really better know the law and your rights and responsibilities if you’re going to have a chance to succeed financially in the industry. I have to admit I was a bit sceptical however that a day of talking about copyright law was going to hold the group’s attention…

But how wrong I was! As the two pro-bono lawyers, fresh off the plane from LA and clearly surprised at the setting they found themselves in, introduced the group to concepts of licensing, CMOs (Collective Management Organisations), and the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works 1886, something happened. 

Questions started being asked. And lots of them.

“If I take a sample from an R Kelly song and use it in my song, am I doing something illegal?”

“If I am working with a producer and they change the style of my song from rap to reggae, are they doing something wrong?”

“If I use R Kelly’s name in my song, am I doing something wrong?”

Aside from a surprising preponderance with R Kelly, these musicians cared deeply about the topic, saw it’s relevance to their work and wanted to learn as much as possible from the legal eagles. It was brilliant and frequently amusing to observe.

To find out more about Peacetones visit:

Under the hot sun

A few weeks ago one of the youth members from the Shauri Moyo branch of YMCA asked if he could take me on a trip to see a project he was involved in. I’m always keen to get out of the office and actually see what is happening in the real world so I said yes quick as anything! And I’m not just justifying when I say it makes fundraising a LOT easier when you can write genuinely about the challenges your project is trying tackle from seeing something for yourself.

I wasn’t 100% sure what the visit was going to entail but as we set off at a quick pace I learned we were going to Kamukunji Jua Kali – one of the largest metal work and artisan quarters in East Africa. I have to admit I still had no real idea what to expect!

My guide was Quinton, a confident and assertive young man who I had seen speak impressively and passionately at the youth committees at the YMCA. I knew he organised a group of young people who sold art and craft products as a collective. And as we walked I learned that before all this he had worked at the Jua Kali himself.

Quinton explained to me the structures and unions that had been put in place to protect these informal sector workers and explained his particular focus was on helping the young people among them. He explained to me the particular health issues facing the labourers including the impact the noise had on his own hearing and the long years it took to recover. So when we actually arrived there I was gobsmacked. The Jua Kali is yet another labyrinthine quarter of the city I had no idea existed, covered by tin roofs protecting thousands upon thousands of (almost exclusively male) labourers making every metal object you could imagine. The noise was deafening as the workers pound metal into whatever shape they desired of it.

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The public face of the Jua Kali is a long line of shops selling the products made in the depths within. Pots, pans, jikos (a charcoal cooking stove), suitcases, wheelbarrows, spades, knives, you name it. I’d gone past these shops many times on the bus home but I had never guessed where the products were actually made. I have to admit neither had I given it much thought but, I suppose, rather naively I had presumed perhaps some factory in China produced them…as would have been the case if these were shops in the UK…

As for the name “Jua Kali”, that means “hot sun”. Which is what, until only about 20 years ago, these men toiled under before President Moi drove past one day and decreed that the metal roofs should be put up to provide a modicum of shelter for what is undeniably an incredibly tough job.