By Devika Jyothi
“We at Tosheka produce recycled plastic bags, while also trying out organic cotton and eri silk production. This visit has opened up immense possibilities to make our dream project – eri silk handloom textiles – come true,” says Lucy Lau Bigham, a community leader and co-founder of Tosheka Textiles, Kenya.
Ms. Lucy Bigham was part of the Kenyan delegation that participated in the exposure visit to India recently organized by the International Trade Centre (ITC) through its Supporting Indian Trade and Investment for Africa (SITA) project. The visit aimed to inform the participants on the policies, available technologies and good practices in the Indian handloom sector, for an appropriate replication in Kenya. The visit specifically included coverage of the entire value chain for eri silk production – a segment that is gaining attention in Kenya, and one that Tosheka is currently diversifying into.
SITA caught up with Ms. Lucy Bigham to know more about her organisation, her entrepreneurial journey, her aspirations and plans for the future. . .
SITA: Let’s start with the journey so far. . .
Lucy: Having completed my B.A in Design, I started working with Toto Home Industries, where I got the opportunity to get involved with the community. However, my entrepreneurial spirit had me pursue further business education in the United Kingdom (Masters in International Business Analysis) and the United States (Professional Leadership Course in Printing).
Subsequently I started a job creation centre, set up Marafiki Arts and pursued an exchange programme with United States-based partners for capacity building, with funding from donors including USAID and Kenya Gatsby Trust to train and empower underprivileged youth to make commercially viable textile and craft products.
In 2011, Tosheka Textiles Limited was registered in Kenya. My husband Herman Bigham, who was then based in Philadelphia, is the other founder of the company. We resettled in Kenya in 2015 to contribute more to the community.
SITA: More about your organisation, lines of business
Lucy: A social entrepreneurial business, Tosheka focuses on creating jobs and empowering the economically disadvantaged in Kenya to produce green fashionable textiles, recycled plastic bags and other products using natural and recycled fibres and environmentally friendly techniques.
‘Tosheka’ means satisfaction or fulfilling – we work towards fulfilling the needs of the community, while also seeking ways to fulfil the needs of our customers.
We have established collaboration with Nakumatt Stores, the largest retailer in East Africa, for Nakumatt to conduct a recycling program to collect plastic bags and purchase the handcrafted, durable and fashionable handbags as well as household goods that Toshiba’s producers make from the recycled plastic bags. Currently, we employ over one hundred producers in Kenya.
While recycled plastic bags are the mainstay of the business, that keep the community activity going, we have diversified into organic cotton and eri – from farming to weaving. While cotton farming has been less successful, eri is promising.
The eri silk worms feed on castor plant leaves instead of the mulberry leaves. Castor plant is a dry-land crop that grows naturally in Kenya. Farmers in semi-arid regions can now rear this variety of worms. This presents potential employment for the farmers, who have been hit by the poor prices for cotton, not to mention other risks of farming cotton, a rain-fed crop.
The eri silkworms produce silk just like their mulberry counterparts even though eri silk doesn’t need a special machine for weaving.
SITA: About the association with SITA and the impact
Lucy: It was essentially through the government. We have been working with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) for eri silkworm rearing and were invited to meetings. This is our first major activity with SITA.
SITA: How fulfilling was this exposure visit?
Lucy: Very much. Every day brought out new learning opportunities and experiences to reflect and act upon. I am a bit overwhelmed by the possibilities that lie ahead as we look towards building our capacity in handloom and hand-woven fabrics and textiles.
SITA: Plans for the future?
Lucy: I am as big a dreamer as I am a doer. My aspiration, of course is to be branded as the leading producer of eri-silk and sustainable textiles in Kenya.
There is so much to do as we seek to establish the business and the market. We need to create a franchise model for grainage and seed production management, as well as equip farmers for eri-silkworm rearing. Presently nearly 40 farmers are engaged, and we should be expanding that to 100 in a year.
We have three looms that are imported from the US. We also import yarn to promote home-based weaving among young people, while dyeing and printing are done in-house at Tosheka to ensure quality.
We would like to procure more looms and spinning machines that can be set up in households so that spinners and weavers can be deployed on a larger scale, providing employment for youth. We presently employ 200 spinners and have the potential to work with 3000 households.
However, while we plan for bigger things, sometimes small changes such as an improvement in the design can bring about a sea change in profitability. Indian designers and weavers have demonstrated great skill in blending traditional with contemporary fashion. We have a lot to learn and adopt.
SITA: Plans for export?
Lucy: Not immediately – we will mainly focus on the domestic market as we build our capacity.
SITA: Expectations from SITA, how can SITA contribute to the plans?
Lucy: Two things: first, to mediate in the procurement of looms and other equipment from India for eri silk production.
And second, to facilitate the training of two Tosheka employees on eri silk production in India, and 15 young weavers in Kenya.