Running any business has its ups and downs and small businesses are no exception. There have been many times over the last 12 years when I have wanted to pack it all in as one issue after another threatens to overwhelm me. But one of the highlights of my year, and one of the reasons I keep going, are the regular design and buying trips I undertake with the team to visit our suppliers. I have been in love with Africa for as long as I can remember; its landscape, its people, culture, traditions and craftwork. It inspired me to set up Aspiga and every year I come back at least twice during the year, if I can, to see our trusted suppliers and learn more about these incredible people and their lives.
In Aspiga I have sought to bring together the values that I hold dear and which were shown to me by my parents. They were always involved in their community and believed in supporting lives and giving back. We were encouraged to do the same and I began to understand the huge pleasure we derive as humans from helping others who are less fortunate in certain ways than ourselves. For Aspiga, this means fighting poverty through fair trade, working sustainably wherever we can and giving back to the community through charitable initiatives. When I come to Africa, it is primarily to catch up with our suppliers and develop the next season’s collection but it is always so much more than that. By talking to the communities in which we work, we always learn more about their lives, the challenges they face and how they overcome them. It never fails to inspire me. Seeing them making our products by hand is also a treat. So different from the fast paced disposable fashion ethos that has dominated the business for so long. It is so uplifting to see how content and happy so many of them are, when in many ways they have so little - a real lesson for us all!
Our first stop is to visit the wonderful children at Restart Africa, a children’s home just outside of GilGil that we support through the donation of clothes and the sale of our sandals and jewellery made by the Santana Women’s Group.
For the last 3 years I have collected toys, clothes and books from my friends and taken them out with me in suitcases for the children. In total, I have now taken out 12 very full cases. It was lovely to hear this time from Luke, the centre’s manager, that they haven’t had to buy the children any clothes for the last 2 years as a result of these donations, enabling them to spend that money on food for the children.
I was here in August last year when I spent a week as a volunteer, reading with the children, playing with them and taking them on a day trip. My childhood friend Sara, who is an artist, came along with her daughter and ran some art classes for the children which they really enjoyed.
They are extraordinary examples of the courage and resilience of the human spirit. Some of their stories are unimaginable but they are joyful, happy and full of hope.
We then head down to the coast to visit our sandal and belt supplier and La Karoma, one of our Masai jewellery suppliers. It’s always a pleasure to work with him on new jewellery ideas as the colours used in the beadwork are so beautiful; they lift any outfit and more importantly your spirit!
Visiting our belt supplier and his team is always my biggest high, as he is one of the happiest, most honest, funniest and nicest men I have ever met. This follows through to his staff who are always so friendly and welcoming to us and always so grateful and appreciative for the work we give them. Leaving them is always sad, and receiving messages from them when I get home saying "I miss you" brings a tear to my eye.
I wish they, and their positivity, were in my life every day. He is certainly one of those rare gems in life, that make this planet a better place and I am so grateful that I found him 8 years ago when we started working together.
Next on the schedule this time was a visit to a new supplier. We are working to help fight poverty through trade and for Aspiga, this means working with small suppliers who offer their employees fair wages, employ only those of an appropriate age, provide good working conditions and treat their employees with respect.
We are really excited about working with this supplier. He employs local beach boys with no prospects and trains them up, giving them a good salary. He has started making sandals with recycled leather on the uppers and rubber from old tyres for the soles. They are comfortable and fun and we have ordered some for this summer. Talking with him about sustainability and the problem of plastic waste, I decided that from the proceeds of each pair of sandals sold, I would fund a small local project. He is going to help us find children from the same village to pay for a basket of plastic to be collected on the beach. I had a sleepless night because I am so excited about this venture and had so many plans running through my head! I really hope the collection will take off and we will get large enough orders to help him employ these local men whilst also giving our customers an option of sustainable footwear this summer.
I really believe that by taking small steps to help some of the bigger problems we face is how change starts to happen. There is a ripple effect where others are inspired to do the same and things can start to shift. I feel very fortunate to work in such beautiful places with such inspiring people and it would be a lie to say that I don’t love my morning run on the beach, the daily commute and browsing the local markets that help to inspire our collections.
Africa teaches me, humbles me and encourages me to live the values that I believe in. The result is the production of beautiful collections for our customers and helping to shape lives, what’s not to love?!