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SOKO Kenya: Developing Sustainable Sanitary Pads and Promoting Social Injustice through Education

SOKO Kenya: Developing Sustainable Sanitary Pads and Promoting Social Injustice through Education

SOKO Kenya: Developing Sustainable Sanitary Pads and Promoting Social Injustice through Education

According to World Bank, consumers globally are increasingly demanding ‘green products’. Among the premium and niche market segments, green manufacturing is the fastest-growing. Green manufacturing involves both the manufacturing of green products using renewable energy systems and clean technology equipment and the greening of manufacturing processes i.e. reducing pollution and waste by minimizing resource use, recycling and reusing waste, and reducing emissions. Not only does green production command a price premium (as much as two to four times that of conventional products), it is also less sensitive to short seasonal production cycles, which generally force factories to focus primarily on low-margin and high-volume production.

There are companies such as SOKO Kenya that promote green manufacturing by making reusable sanitary pads from off-cut fabrics. We had the opportunity to speak to Joanna Maiden, the Founder of SOKO Kenya. Joanna takes us through her journey and how she blended her passion for fashion and interest in supporting social justice to empower women in Taita Taveta and Kilifi County  

Give us a background of SOKO Kenya

I grew up in the UK and apart from pursuing a fashion degree, I was always interested in the fashion industry. I was also interested in how I could support social injustice. I was also passionate about poverty reduction and how I could support women. 14 years ago, after completing my fashion degree, I started working in London. At this time there was little exposure to the story behind our clothes and very little connection to the working conditions of those who made our clothes. I had a work opportunity that meant my husband and I got to visit Kenya for three weeks. This was where the idea for SOKO Kenya was born. 12 years ago, I started SOKO Kenya with four people and now, we have more than 100 employees.

Why did you select the name SOKO Kenya?

I loved the thought of creating a marketplace of trade; a place where people come together.

Tell us more about the SOKO Community Trust

The SOKO community trust is a charity that we started seven years ago. The main project is the Stitching Academy, a sewing training school that trains people on how to use industrial sewing machines and provides life skills to prepare people for formal employment.

We also have a separate social Enterprise called the Kujuwa initiative. The initiative involves making washable sanitary pads using offcut fabrics from our factory then donating them to school girls in our community.

We also provide training on sexual reproductive health and rights to both girls and boys, teachers and parents. The main aim of this initiative is to support girls to remain in school and to expose the stigma and embarrassment around a girl’s monthly period. For a girl to be supported the community around her needs to be on board. The knowledge plus the pads provide the confidence and protection that a girl needs to stay in school without any concerns.

Tell me about the stitching academy

The Stitching Academy is a sewing training school that provides young people with a 4-month training course in the use of industrial sewing machines and life skills. The course provides students with all the skills they need to gain a job in a clothing factory in Kenya. They also learn the basic pattern cutting skills so that if they wanted to start their own businesses, they could do that. We also provide financial literacy, group savings and loans, sexual reproductive health and rights courses and computer lessons.

How are the girls educated on how to use sanitary pads?

We provide the girls and boys with weekly after-school clubs for a school year. It is very interactive since it’s about role play and learning through talking together in groups rather than traditional learning. Through the clubs, the young people will learn about puberty and their changing bodies. For the girls, we take them through our Kujuwa Kit which includes two washable sanitary pads, two pairs of underwear and soap and how to use, wash and store their pads.

We also do an annual residential camp for 60 girls and 60 boys. The 120 young people will have been identified as peer leaders during our weekly club and during the camp, we encourage them to think about how to be leaders in that community, how to support their friends and how to make informed choices based on the value that they have created for themselves.

How long can you use the pad and can you talk about the environmental impact of sanitary products?

Our pads last up to three years. If a young girl moves from disposable pads to our Kujuwa pads she will avoid 360 disposable pads entering landfill. Disposable pads if buried in the ground can outlive us as the plastics take so long to break down. For every month any of us chooses to use a reusable sanitary product we are avoiding waste entering landfill.

Do you think at some point you will start selling the pads to the rest of the world since now you just donate them to the community?

We have not gone down that road yet because launching any new product involves a lot of work in terms of marketing, logistics and sales. It may be something we consider in the future – watch this space!

What kind of challenges have you encountered with doing manufacturing in Kenya?

I have been on a steep learning curve with understanding everything. The clothing factory is set up as an EPZ, therefore, it took us time to understand the requirements of being a compliant EPZ business. One area I’m so grateful for is the community of support I have received from all different industries when we’ve had a challenge or have been trying to learn something new.

What are some of the challenges that you have encountered because you set up in Kenya?

The fashion industry is notoriously fast and requires everything immediately.

Other manufacturing countries such as India or China have all components of the garment (fabric, trims etc) within a few hours but as Kenya has a limited variety of fabrics and trim our lead time for clients can be much longer.

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What is your opinion of the impact that fast fashion has on the world?

Fast fashion is in the spotlight for so many reasons. Namely, from the environmental perspective of mass manufacture of clothing that, after only a few wears, end up in landfill and secondly from the social perspective of the working conditions of those in the supply chain.

It does feel like an exciting time for the industry with a light being shone on the shadows whilst lots of innovation coming through such as the growth of the rental market and huge strides being made in the circular economy and environmentally friendly fabrics.

How has COVID affected your business?

The impact of the pandemic will only really become clear for us in the long term when we see the trickle-down impact coming through in the decisions made by our current and potential future clients based on the global economy.

We are enormously grateful that we haven’t at any point had to close the factory and other than some delays to receiving international imports we have been able to continue as normal.

Can you briefly explain your sustainability model?

We moved into our new larger factory space two years ago. When we took on the lease it was a basic godown. We added rainwater catchment tanks which means all our water usage in the factory comes from rainwater. We also added solar panels to cover 25% of our power requirement.

As I mentioned previously, all our offcut fabric is used to make our sanitary pads or go to our Stitching Academy for training.

SOKO Kenya was founded on the belief that it was possible to grow a successful clothing factory built on supporting the livelihoods of its employees. Our employees are paid a living wage, we provide daily tea and lunch, a pre-school for our employee’s children, we have a company doctor that anyone can access, we provide regular training in a range of skills both professional and life skills to support the whole person.

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