I hate the idea of this blog becoming a collection of, “I think this is cool – look at it” posts, without much opinion or analysis but unfortunately (or fortunately) this project ticks all the boxes, so I don’t know if there is much to add. I came across an article on the GOOD website last week about ProjectRepat. Set up by several enterprising Bostonians, the project looks at the business of mitumba, which is a Swahili term meaning “bundles”. Many of you are possibly unaware (as I was until recently) that excess clothing donated to charities in the U.S. is sold to bulk buyers in African countries for distribution and resale. Mitumba is a somewhat controversial concept. A lot of generous donators don’t realize where their clothes end up and many aspects of the mitumba system leave the chain of bulk buyers, brokers and retailers in precarious economic situations. For example, clothing is bought by the bale and is generally unseen in advance, so the buyer could end up with really bad quality merchandise or clothing that is unappealing to their customers. Meanwhile local artisans and producers of new clothing go unsupported – because mitumba is so cheap and trendy.
It’s funny how we often overlook the concept of fashion trends in developing countries, but local trends are a key element in shaping local society, no matter where groups of people are located. It only takes a couple of influential people to start wearing a particular style for a new trend to be born and this phenomenon can be seen across Africa, where desire for Western clothing is rife. ProjectRepat also made a documentary and in it, most people are wearing Western clothing as opposed to traditional dress. In some ways that could be seen as a sad reminder of globalization but I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing. Kenyans are opening themselves to global influences and they’re wearing American clothing with Kenyan flavour. Mixing Kenyan and North American cultures to customize something unique for the people themselves signals a new sense of identity and self-confidence.
This system has been in place since the 1980s but ProjectRepat sought to look at the mitumba phenomenon in reverse. Ross Lohr and Sean Hewens raised enough money to fund the initial project to take a trip to Nairobi and buy 500 expat T-shirts. The tees are emblazoned with humorous slogans and retro brands. The locals seem to like the colours and the graphics but the irony is lost on them. To complete the circle of recycling, ProjectRepat essentially repatriated the 500 tees to the U.S. and is selling them back to the American consumer for a profit (Buy one here). Each tee has a stamped logo explaining where the item was bought and when it returned to home soil. I love the idea that an ubiquitous item like a T-shirt can fall out of fashion and be donated to charity, travel to Africa and then (possibly years) later can find itself back in the Western wardrobe. It is recycling at its finest and creates an economic loop between the U.S. and Africa, which can only be a good thing, right?
The second instalment of this project, called No More New, has just been launched. Having witnessed the upcycling and customization of tees in Nairobi, the people at ProjectRepat were inspired to do a little upcycling themselves. A series of jersey tees, bags, skirts and scarves has been designed and will utilize more of these excess T-shirts to actively develop new products. This innovation adds value to a seemingly worthless item and invents something new using existing materials. I think the key is: the inspiration came from the Kenyans themselves. This resourcefulness and adaptability needs to be harnessed to contribute to further economic growth. We’ve seen projects before, using bottle tops or plastic, and I think this inventiveness and creativity is central to the development of African fashion businesses.
The project needs funding however, and still needs to raise about $4,000 by December 16th. A fair wage for workers in Kenya has been agreed and all profits of the sale of these garments goes to non-profit organizations in Kenya and Tanzania. Depending on how much you pledge, you will receive one of the items that is about to be created. (All info on the Kickstarter funding page)
Looks like I had something to say after all…