Herman and Lucy Bigham are the brains behind Tosheka Textiles, a social enterprise, with extensive experience in commercial and community based textile production. They had a chat with Lucy Robi.
Well, my wife is a textile designer. She grew up when textiles were being produced en masse in Kenya. She saw the industry die. At one point Kenya had at more than 50 cotton mills and they have dwindled to three. Our interest has always been to regenerate the domestic textile industry and create employment.
How did you start?
Lucy has a master’s in International Business and I have an extensive business background. Initially, my wife had a not-for-profit organisation in the US called Marafiki Arts. She would come to Kenya every year together with some of her partners and spend a month training women on textile skills in Wote. We chose Wote since there was a ginnery there and because the region has a history of growing cotton.
Give us a run through the journey
Initially it was a not-for-profit outfit but we decided to turn it into a socio-impact business. When we started, we had already done certain levels of trading with the community. To bring it to a business level and for it to be self-sustaining, we decided to continue working with the community. This same model has been used in India and is obviously successful as India is the top producer of cotton in the world.
What was the first thing you remember making?
We started with recycled fibre and the only available things were plastic bags. We decided to make textile out of them and trained the community how to make crotched bags. They were an instant hit and we sold to local supermarkets and international companies.
What else do you make?
We make everything out of textiles. From rugs, bags, carpets to mats.
How is the Kenyan textile industry as compared to other African countries?
We conducted a lot of research and most textile companies are small like us and are supported by the local communities. Most textile companies have suffered because they haven’t been supported even though they employ very many people. They have never managed to develop to global level. In India, the government is involved in the industry to ensure that they are supported. Getting quality seeds is also a problem.
Have you experienced any growth?
There has been some growth. Nothing has changed in terms of support.
Do you sell the textiles you make to our local designers? How has the response been?
Yes. There are designers. The response has been very good. However, because of little support from the government,our quality of cotton isn’t as good as it should be.