An Adventure in Design

Global Gifts staffer Julie Edwards recently returned from a 3 week journey to Kenya where she worked with artisans from Imani Workshops to develop a new product line.  Below she relays her adventure.

For creative types here in the US, either hobbyists or professional or in between, the creative process is limited in scope only to the individual’s imagination.  The kind of things we think of as barriers are free time, maybe the amount of free space in our house, perhaps finding the supplies from an affordable source.  You might go to Michaels, Lowe’s, or shop online for literally anything you want no matter how odd or unusual your idea may be.  The freedom to have or do almost anything you desire in this country is often taken for granted and unrecognized as a privilege.  Being a maker in Kenya is, well, let’s say, different.  The process of acquiring materials for making products is, to say the least, an adventure. It can be frustrating, surprising, and when something works out, positively exciting.  I would like to give you a taste of the adventure.

For starters, I have not, will not, and don’t ever foresee a time when I would drive a car in Kenya.  There are more cars on the road than any major city in the US.  You know its rush hour based on whether or not the cars are moving.  Traffic lights are rare and mere suggestions, as are traffic lanes, and right of way is not a concept associated with driving.  Oh, and if you are a pedestrian, It is on you not to get hit by a car, truck, motorbike, matatu, etc.  So you have a driver take you everywhere.  Our driver picks us up and somehow navigates through the twisted mangled mess and gets you to your destination.  A trip to run errands here in the US that would take a couple of hours can be a couple of days in Nairobi.

Snaps.  Oh snaps.  What a simple request.  Apparently, snaps are not used in making clothing often. If you want snaps and quite a few other materials we need to make the products at Imani, you have to travel to Nairobi from Eldoret, about a five hour drive that takes a couple of hours longer in a bus or minivan, called a matatu.  So to restate it, every time the workshop gets an order, they have to journey for a day to Nairobi, spend a day or two navigating to the different stores, and then spend another day returning to Eldoret.  For me, trying to source new supplies for new products is very precious time away from the workshop. 

Snaps are just the beginning. One of the major challenges to designing products to be made in Kenya is materials procurement.  Reliable consistent sources are an absolute requirement to be able to make reliable consistent products, which is also a requirement to make a product line that is successful in the US.  Most shops have what we would consider to be a very limited selection and they don’t replace sold merchandise with the same merchandise.  For example, I can visit a fabric store in Kenya and buy a two meter piece of fabric.  The fabric may be the best thing since sliced bread, great color, pattern, and easy to work with and the next time I go back they don’t have it anymore.  They choose what is available and expect their customers to choose from what is available.  

This trip was a learning curve for procurement.  One day early in the stay, I thought we had hit the mother lode.  When shopping at a supplier that carried upholstery weight fabrics, we stumbled upon a collection of really great fabrics.  Fantastic color combinations, very hip over scaled ikat pattern, able to be reordered when needed, it was very possibly the key element to a very successful line of handbags and purses.  We bought up several meters of the different variations that would work well and took them to Eldoret to the workshop.

Everything is humming along.  Hummmmm, Hummmm, until… one day. Just a few short days before I was due to get on a plane back to the US with all of the prototypes needed to launch a new collection, we all gathered to have a meeting to get an updated status on the progress of the samples. As we reviewed each item in progress, we came to the bags that were being made out of this fantastic game changing fabric, when Antonitita very softly whispered, “We can’t sew it.  It is too thick.” My heart sank and all of the plans just blew up.  You see, the sewing machines they have are treadle machines and cannot sew certain fabrics.  This particular fabric was a little too slick and thick and working it through the machine was difficult.  Back to the drawing board.  So much effort, and progress, down the tubes. 

Well, we worked on changing out the fabrics and constructing new samples to bring to the US and it all worked out.  This story is just one example of the challenges and unexpected issues to work through in a developing country when creating new products.  The hard work and eagerness of the Imani artisans made it all possible.  One thing I know, is if I can design products for production in Kenya, I can do it anywhere.   Oh yeah, don’t get me started on glazes.

Here are just a few of the new products.


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