Understanding Mayamiko Designs the ethical fashion brand from Malawi

This week the Mayamiko Designs  house that uses local seamstresses and artisans has been on spotlight thisweek after Meghan Merkel, the Duchess of Sussex wore a wrap dress made by ethical Malawian design. Which also uses 100 percent Malawi cotton.  Founder Paola Masperi was interviewed by  Kassia Binkowski of thegoodtrade,com.

Masperi (Kneeling R) with seamstresses she works with in Lilongwe

Q

You have built a successful and beautiful line of clothing, accessories, and house wares. What was the inspiration behind Mayamiko?

A

: I started Mayamiko in 2008 as a charitable project, with the long term view of turning it into a sustainable business for everyone involved. I had been doing work in Malawi (and other developing countries) since 2005 and I could see so much potential that could be unlocked. Providing education and skills creates a way out of poverty that is sustainable and not dependent on aid. Many studies have shown that women’s education has a ripple effect not only on the women themselves and their families but also on the communities they live in. Couple that with an interest in fashion, the availability of wonderful fabrics and the many artisanal techniques that seemed to be slowly getting lost, that’s how the idea came about!

“Providing education and skills creates a way out of poverty that is sustainable and not dependent on aid. ”

At the very heart of it all there is a desire to help change people’s lives by giving them choices. Choices come in the form of education, skills training, access to finance and many other options that we often take for granted.

Tailoring and sewing has always been a pretty widespread skill but often at very basic level in Malawi. A

Q: There are talented artisans all over the world. In your effort to combine traditional fabrics with modern designs, why did you choose to work in Malawi?

A

: When I first had the idea for this business I had been working with Malawi for several years. At that point the country was pretty close to my heart because of its incredible beauty, warmth and potential, but also because of all the countries I had been to, Malawi seemed to need the holistic approach more than most. This is why it felt like such a natural starting point.

But you are right and we are now trying to see if the same or a similar model which has been successful in Malawi could be replicated elsewhere. We get many requests to mentor similar programmes in other African countries, and I feel very proud and blessed that we can share our journey. Beyond Africa, we’ve had our eye on the gorgeous batik, lace and handloom from Sri Lanka and are always looking to partner with projects of a similar ethos.

Q

Mayamiko builds relationships and invests in social and economic growth in order to bring fair trade and environmentally sustainable solutions to the fashion industry. Tell us about the relationship between the Mayamiko fashion brand and Mayamiko Trust.

A

: One would not exist without the other – it is a symbiotic relationship.

Mayamiko is based on the outskirts of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Our workshop (the Fashion Lab as we like to call it) and training centre is a couple of kilometres down a dirty road in the middle of the local community. We run a charitable training centre where we provide tailoring and sewing training, as well as embroidery and other artisanal skills to disadvantaged women from the local community. We also provide financial education and entrepreneurship training, so our ‘graduates’ are equipped with the right tools to succeed.

Often, on top of our syllabus-based course, we host experienced artisans who come and teach specific skills. Sometimes a trainee may be a beginner at tailoring, but may have other great skills. For example, recently one of our new trainees showed us some beautiful up-cycled flip-flops made of old tyres, scrap leather and local beads. She is now teaching the other ladies how to make them. So you never know where the creative input might come from! At the end of their training, our graduates can apply for a grant to get a sewing machine and start their own business activity, or some may want to stay and work with us next door in the fashion lab on Mayamiko. It is very much a mutual arrangement, as everyone’s circumstances are different.

Mayamiko the label places orders for products and collections from the lab, which are paid at a fair price. This ensures that the employees of the lab receive good salaries and all the protection and benefits they need in terms of financial, job and health security. The label also donates part of its profits to the charity directly, allowing for new programmes and activities to be developed. So customers’ choices really have a great influence on our ability to do what we do – without them there would be no sustainability and we would be back to depending on donations and aid which is exactly what we set out to avoid in the first place.

Q

The market today is flooded with well-meaning labels – from organic to fair trade to direct trade. What does fair trade mean and why should a consumer care? What impact do your customers have when they purchase a Mayamiko product?

A

: Another big question! I think the fashion industry is so complex and the vertical supply chain touches so many points, people, and places that it is very hard to wrap your head around it all. When I started I wanted to do it all – follow from grower to sewer to seller to wearer – but in reality the world is a complex place and the global trade corridors and supply chains mean this is very hard to achieve.

Meghan Markle dress is from ethical fashion brand Mayamiko (Image: GETTY)

So while I keep my eye on the end goal and keep lobbying and influencing for a holistic change to various aspects of the system, I have to work within the current situation – otherwise I could be waiting a lifetime! So my choice has been to influence and improve where I can, and be very honest about it all. By setting up a social enterprise in Malawi we ensure our team is well paid and protected, we contribute to the tax system, we are committed to buying local. This last commitment is especially difficult because it means we have limited options available in terms of fabrics and trimmings, but we value that the local community is benefiting from every step of our garment making process.

Also our zero waste policy is very important to me. I can see in our small factory how much cutting room waste is produced, and with some creativity all of that can be turned into beautiful products for someone to love and cherish. Same with items which may have not sold as well as we had hoped. Instead of flooding the local second hand market, we upcycle and transform. There’s great joy in new beginnings!

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