By Nzuki Waita, National Coordinator, SITA ITC
Tucked neatly away in between the ever winding hills of Makueni county in the south eastern corner of Kenya, is the bustling Wote. Wote is the Kiswahili word for “all”, a popular cliché during the colonial days for a once dusty shopping centre in the middle of nowhere. Today, Wote is a bustling commercial hub served by tarmac roads and electricity from the national grid. It has banks, malls and academic institutions all competing for dominance under the azure skies that hardly hold rain bearing clouds.
It is against this backdrop that we meet a group of middle-aged women trainers belonging to the Wote Community Development Association. They are busy demonstrating how to spin eri-silk yarn to an engaged group of members from the Kanyadhiang Women’s Cooperative visiting from Homa Bay County in western Kenya. All this is happening under the watchful eye of Teresa Njue, the entrepreneurial, no nonsense project manager at Tosheka Textiles.
Tosheka Textiles is a social enterprise focusing on commercial and community based textile production. Established by Kenyan textile designer and business woman Lucy Lau Bigham along with her business partner and husband Herman Bigham, the goal of Tosheka Textiles is to become a global leader in the production of eco-friendly, natural textile fabrics for the global market.
Over the past three years, Tosheka Textiles has pioneered the development of the entire Eri silk value chain in Kenya – from the rearing of the Eri silk worms to the designing of Eri silk textile products and garments. Tosheka has collaborated with farmers, spinners, weavers, designers, local research institutions, standard bodies, training institutions and other support institutions to test the entire production process and is now aiming to reach the stage of commercial production of Eri silk fabric. Currently, Tosheka Textiles works with 10 small groups of 10-15 women belonging to the Wote Community Development Association, involved in different steps across the Eri value chain, including Eri culture and spinning.
Tosheka Textiles is one of the largest employers in the handloom value chain in Kenya and a key partner to foster innovation. Consequently, involving Tosheka Textiles in SITA’s handloom activities is vital. During a recent SITA sponsored handloom exposure visit to India, discussions between Tosheka Textiles, the Chairlady of the Kanyadhiang Women’s Cooperative in Western Kenya, support institutions and SITA emerged. Tosheka Textiles proposed to work with the cooperative to initially involve them in the Eri spinning process. This would involve training 12 carefully selected members of the Kanyadhiang Women’s Cooperative in Wote as an initial step, giving them the necessary skills to spin Eri silk yarn for Tosheka Textiles thus providing additional income generation for the group.
The 12 women were trained for a period of one week. However, being naturally quick learners, most of them were spinning Eri silk comfortably by the third day. The trainers from the Wote Community Development Association were impressed at the speed that their visitors from Homa Bay were able to grasp the intricacies of Eri silk spinning
Eri silk is usually spun from open-ended cocoons. It is often termed “peace silk” as it is processed without killing the pupae inside. It is also known as “poor man’s silk” as it is not so exorbitantly priced as other types of silk. Eri silk is also durable and strong and has a typical texture; hence, it is widely used in home furnishing like curtains, bed covers, cushion covers, wall hangings, quilts, etc. Its woolly feel adds to the comfort.
With this training, the women from the Kanyadhiang Women’s Cooperative got a glimpse of the huge opportunities that this activity could potentially offer to them in the mid-term.
A serious discussion on the way forward followed the week-long training with project manager, Teresa Njue, laying down Tosheka’s expectations of the women’s group in terms of supplying quality silk yarn when they returned to Homa Bay. At the end of the training the women from Kanyadhiang Women’s Cooperative received satisfactory completion certificates from the SITA National Coordinator. As they danced to receive their certificates, it dawned on most of them that something transformational was about to happen to the future of their group in terms of income generation.
The handloom sub-sector is an important component of the SITA textile sector strategy developed in 2016. It aims at putting money directly in the pockets of talented artisans and showing SITA’s allegiance to resilient women who are forging their own future in Kenya.