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Malawi enterprise

The Guardian newspaper’s recent trip to Kasungu in Malawi has thrown the spotlight on ethical fashion company Khama Design. The social enterprise is working with local women in one of Africa’s poorest regions, where the majority of the population live on less than $1 a day. From tailoring to fashion production workshops, Khama Design is providing employment for community women, with the goal of financial independence alongside family and community responsibilities.

The project was pioneered by British accessories designer Elaine Burke. Having worked for both high-street and designer brands, Burke became part of a fair trade label in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. The brand worked with local craftspeople, producing garments for large European retailers in a fair, sustainable manner. Inspired by production quality and effect on the local economy, Burke approached Micro-Enterprise Africa, a charity that fights to help impoverished individuals in Malawi through training and small business loans.

Although the main concern of Micro-Enterprise Africa is agricultural projects, they share the same aims and principles as Khama Design. It’s about drawing on and raising existing skills, enhancing productivity in the area and empowering individuals with sustainable trade. By building training centres and plowing profits back into the community, the projects become self-sufficient and the high standard of artisan skills are regenerated.

The benefits of this unique enterprise are manifold. Khama Design incorporates a women’s stitching project already in existence in Malawi, and all of the materials are sourced locally. Processes also utilise waste materials from tobacco production, the main export of Malawi. Women can fit work for the project around their family lives, choosing to work from home or in the training centres. Fair wages, long-term bonds and autonomy are at the heart of Khuma Design.

The Guardian’s photographic gallery aims to raise awareness of this social enterprise in the wake of National Women’s Day, celebrated this year on March 8th. Operating in a developing country means that the business has to be highly adaptable to adverse conditions and to change. Water is precious and the electricity often out for hours, even days. Manual, foot powered sewing machines are used to prevent loss of production.

Despite such a testing environment, Khama Design is flourishing. During the London Olympics, Khama collaborated with illustrator Tobatron to design and make alternative merchandise. The bags were a great success, using Malawi cotton and inspired by traditional Malawi prints. The range sold out entirely and samples are on display in the Victoria and Albert’s permanent collection which is an outstanding achievement for a community group as humble as Khama and testimony to both charities.

photo credit: Swathi_Sridharan