“I didn’t set out for Africa. The place kinda picks you.
Back in the early 2000s, I became increasingly concerned over extreme poverty that I believed could be tackled through trade, not just aid. The statistics in 2005 were horrific; 1.4 billion trapped in extreme poverty. As my boys were going to school, I found myself with more time, and it dawned on me not to waste what time we have. We enjoyed a great and healthy lifestyle. We were educated. We need so little effort to make life easy.
I found out about fair trade through some key individuals. It fitted my beliefs of ‘trade, not aid’. I have a friend who buys from the Oxfam catalogue. She showed me what buying from people who made the products was like, and I found this to be a fascinating concept. Then there was a couple running Tribes and Nation, Grant and Mignonne, whom I met at a conference. They’d returned from living in Tanzania, and were big advocates for fair trade. The encounter gave me more ‘Aha’ moments, with stories of unconceivable poverty due to unfair trade.
I decided there and then that if I wanted to make a difference, I would tackle poverty through business and trade. I thought a great way to start was in the fashion industry. Everyone wears clothes, so surely, there would be a market for this. So when I followed my husband to South Africa for his work, I met up with some t-shirt suppliers from South Africa. They told me about a Kenyan producer who uses beautiful fabrics and takes care in their production. Finding a producer who knows what quality looks like is like finding gold! I took them on as my supplier, and so, One Colour as a clothing brand started. The first collection ‘Looking Beyond’ was launched in 2009.
I was a naive starter. I didn’t understand how complex and challenging the fashion industry was. Running a clothing brand is costly, and till today, I’ve been in the process of selling the remaining stock. Best intentions can often not create what you want.
However, in late 2010, something happened which opened a new path for One Colour. I was doing a Christmas market in Brisbane when a lady stopped by the stall. She saw that the scarves I sold were made in Nakaru, Kenya. The lady started telling me about Kenana Knitters that was based close by at Njoro, Kenya as well, and how they have started this wonderful enterprise to empower women through knitting soft toys.
So in 2011, I visited Kenya again to meet Patricia Nightingale, founder of the grassroots organisation since 1998. It so happened that the Kenana Knitters were looking for a new Australian distributor. What a serendipitous event! Paddy’s a great judge of character, and she picked One Colour to be her distributor. Africa had picked me!
By about 2013, I got a handle on distribution, did trade fairs, and now Australia makes up about 50% of the sales of Kenana Knitters’ products globally. The growth has been phenomenal. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.
You know about the lady I met at the Christmas market? Turns out she’s Paddy’s cousin. What a small world! Paddy is an amazing local white Kenyan. Mad keen knitter. 20 years ago, she said, ‘Let’s make something! We’ve got wool. There’s a few of us.’ And so, she started Kenana Knitters with two others. They now have around 600 women involved. 28 of them are on full-time employment managing quality, rostering, supplies, distribution, office management and of course, knitting! The remaining ladies are casual knitters who fit into the family-like environment. Many of them have children. Some even bring their babies to work. They sit on the lawn and knit.
Through Kenana Knitters, the women have been able to generate income and educate their children. The whole community has been transformed. The thing is, Kenana Knitters is fully self-sustaining. They are not a NGO, and don’t ask for donations. Kenyans run Kenana Knitters. This is their country, their society, and they know best how to transform their community. I feel I’m helping them to stay viable by creating a market opportunity to sell their products here.
I will always remember Mary who sadly died 2 years ago from HIV. Mary worked for Kenana Knitters for 5 years before her death, and all through those years, the organisation helped her with her medical treatment. When she first arrived, she was a starving mum with a sick newborn. They cared for her and her baby back to health. Mary was quiet-spoken, and always grateful. Through her employment, Mary was able to buy land and provide an inheritance for her children. Even today, everyone remembers Mary and leaves her knitting spot vacant as a respectful tribute. I featured Mary’s story a few years back on Mother’s Day, and it touched many of my readers. When I met Mary, I thanked her for allowing me to share her story, and to my astonishment, she hugged me and thanked me back. I still recall her tall, elegant figure (she was a Turkana woman), modestly dressed, such a beauty. How humble and extraordinary she was! In our society today, we applaud those who stand out but forget those who are quiet and humble. I have such immense respect for Mary as a mother. The sacrifices she made in her life for her family keeps me focused on ways I can keep bringing the Kenana Knitters products to our customers here.
The lady in the photo with me is Milka. She dances and sings while working at Kenana Knitters. Milka has an amazing energy. She suffered from terrible varicose veins and could not work, walk or dance. She was in a diabolical situation with no money for an operation, and no means to earn money. Kenana Knitters decided to fund her operation. I donated some money myself. There is a hospital nearby where specialists from the US come periodically and a vein specialist was one of them.
Milka lifts everyone’s mood whenever she’s with the knitters, and I can only imagine the amazing time that was had when she returned, fully recovered. The singing and dancing would have been phenomenal! Milka’s smile and charisma is a powerful tonic to me, too.
I feel privileged to be part of such a great group. Me, I’m a caretaker doing as much as I can, but as more people catch the vision, it will grow and keep on going.
My advice for those embarking on the business route? Always do your research. Talk to as many people as you can who have gone before you. Energy can get you a long way, but some good advice can save you a lot of trouble.
And ‘Never say Never’. Because something may change.”