Thursday 4 March 2021



Three Kenyan designers have been chosen to participate in an international programme that will assist them in increasing their global market presence, expanding their supply chain and scaling up their production.

The three - Hamaji, Suave, and Katush by Katungulu Mwendwa - will participate in the “Accelerator” programme of the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a Geneva-based flagship venture of the International Trade Centre, itself a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.  

The designers will be supported in sourcing new products and developing their production team as well, the EFI said. It added that all three “share a commitment to sustainability”, using “reclaimed and organic fabrics to create their collections” and drawing inspiration from their country and upbringing in Kenya.

This is the EFI’s second Fashion Accelerator programme, following the launch in 2019 to provide selected designers with mentoring and brand development from the EFI team and industry experts.

Funding comes from the European Union via the Brussels-based African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP), of which Kenya is a member.

“I feel hugely honoured and extremely excited … to have this opportunity to expand my knowledge and be mentored in the development of my brand in a sustainable approach with international and local expertise in Kenya,” stated designer Louise Sommerlatte of Hamaji, one of the three selected ventures.

Sommerlatte created the brand in 2017, aiming to preserve “ancient textile traditions and nomadic craftsmanship whilst empowering local small-scale artisans in Africa”, according to the EFI. Hamaji means “nomad” in coastal Swahili, and the brand bills itself as “Made for the Wanderer”.

Meanwhile, leisure lifestyle concern Katush by Katungulu Mwendwa said that their selection was like “an answer to a prayer” and came as “a strong statement of encouragement”.

Founded in Nairobi, the brand comprises casual and semi-formal wear, and it experiments with “modern techniques, innovative fabrics and traditional methods”.

Creator Katungulu, who studied fashion in the United Kingdom, notes that she is influenced by her upbringing and surroundings, and she recalls being introduced early into the artisanal crafts world through her late grandmother, who ran a curio shop.

The brand says it has focused on “working with community groups within the region to make contemporary interpretations of traditional aesthetics.”

The founder of Suave, Mohammed Awale, said he was “overjoyed” and “looking forward to learning from the vast EFI network."

Awale established the brand in 2013, inspired by trips to Gikomba Market, the largest open-air market in East Africa. There, the story goes, he dug through piles of discarded denim outfits, finding source material for most of the bags the company would make.

“What started as a tiny operation with two staff members slowly blossomed into a fully-fledged brand that is attempting to end the cycle of unwanted garments ending up in landfills,” the company says.

It adds that some 100,000 tonnes of used clothing enter Kenya every year, mostly from the United States. Generally, after consumers and dollar stores take their pick from clothing donated to charities, the rest is exported to Africa.

“This is where we come in,” the brand states. “Over the years, we have established contacts with numerous vendors who notify us whenever they have an excess of items that haven’t been purchased in a while. These clothes would normally end up in a landfill, but they can still fulfil a purpose when they’re repurposed and given a new lease of life.”

That new “lease of life” is as trendy, colourful bags that range from backpacks to totes.

As the accelerator programme continues, the mentoring of the selected designers is being done remotely because of the Covid-19 pandemic, said an EFI spokesperson.

“We have planned masterclasses with leading industry experts on Zoom, and the EFI Accelerator team regularly meet the designers also over Zoom or phone to provide all the other support implied in the programme,” the spokesperson told SWAN via email.

She added that later in the year, the EFI hoped to organize an internship in a production facility in East Africa.

Simone Cipriani, founder and head of the EFI, said that through education and mentoring, the organization was seeking to “equalise the playing field, giving exposure to the incredible talent that exists on the continent.”

Cipriani added that the EFI Accelerator programme focuses on the specific needs of African fashion brands, with a business development approach that prepares its beneficiaries to become investment ready. The aim is to provide support to “accelerate their business in the global marketplace,” he said.

For the 2021 - 2022 round, the Accelerator Programme is inviting emerging brands based in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Kenya, Mali and Uganda to join their "mission".

For an article about the beginnings of the EFI, see:

Photos provided curtesy of the brands. Top to bottom: Hamaji, Katush by Katungulu Mwendwa, and Suave.