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SWEATIZEN: The UK Brand Promoting Sustainability and Wildlife Conservation in Tanzania

SWEATIZEN: The UK Brand Promoting Sustainability and Wildlife Conservation in Tanzania

This new generation has adapted the athleisure look as part of their lifestyle, they have made putting on a T-shirt and sweat pants be very trendy.

Finding the best sustainable active wear brands might have been a struggle in the past, but now more and more brands are prioritizing being ethical and eco-friendly. Whether you exclusively use clean, earth-friendly items or recently vowed to shop more sustainably in 2021, there is an endless reservoir of sustainable workout clothes at your disposal.

There are brands like SWEATIZEN who promote Wildlife conservation while having sustainability sit at the heart of its business and company culture. We had the opportunity to speak to the passionate Mustansir Amijee, founder SWEATIZEN as he takes us through his journey.

What inspired you to start an athleisure wear brand?

I am born and raised in Tanzania, Africa, which is one of the biggest manufacturers of organic cotton in the continent. There are about over 30,000 farmers who produce cotton but are still experiencing low-standards of living; as such, I became inspired to make an impact in Tanzania across diverse sectors including the garments, the raw materials and the sourcing process. Apart from that I was also leveraging my strong interest in the Tinga Tinga art and trying to promote local artists.

Therefore, I took the opportunity of combining sustainability, impact of small farmers, and the process of sourcing garments from Tanzania while leveraging the artists who produce very beautiful designs of local nature and wildlife. These efforts are with the aim of promoting wildlife conservation. As such, I saw that opportunity of combining all these elements into one platform.

We actually changed the brand slightly; we are going into more essentials such as your sweatshirt, hoodie, crop T-shirt, socks and that is the way we position it. We are an athleisure brand but we have done a recent retaking of the brand to say it is the impactful essentials.

The whole purpose was to drive impact in Tanzania and placing it on the map based on sustainable fashion perspective that includes interesting art from local artists and conservation issues of wildlife and nature in Tanzania and Africa.

Initially, I did not know anything about fashion. I am just an entrepreneur who wanted to make an impact in Tanzania. Therefore, I started with a blank paper and asked myself how I could create a business model that is impactful but also sustainable, especially since all the team members who we have been working with are women.

Why did you decide to source your cotton fabric from Tanzania?

I want to mention that not everything in our collection is from Tanzania although we look forward to producing hoodies and sweatshirts in Tanzania; right now we only do T-shirts.

Particularly, we work with partners who manufacture some garments and they work with other partners who then source from smaller farmers. The main reason is around the impact on small farmers and allowing them to grow and transition into organic cotton since it pays 15% more than conventional cotton.

There is also the fact that organic cotton is better for their health and has less impact on the environment in terms of the carbon and chemicals and fertilizers emission.

 The whole transition of organic cotton in Tanzania is driven by NGOs and organizations who work with farmers to help them into transitioning to organic farming. That assistance helps them become better farmers when dealing with fruits and vegetables. It is a great holistic impact of how do we sort of drive impact for smaller farmers how do we make them more sustainable and farming is the engine of Africa. 40% of Africa’s economy is driven by Agriculture, 60 to 70% of Africa’s population live in rural areas are smaller farmers so if you want to make an impact in Tanzania or Africa you have to think how you will improve the lives of the farmers. I like the garments from athleisure brand since it has a pull from a smaller farmer’s perspective in Tanzania.

The second goal is trying to convert raw cotton into a finished product in Tanzania. Most of the cotton is exported in raw form for processing in India or Asia; therefore, all value leaves the country. I firmly believe the more we can drive Tanzanian and sourcing actively from Africa the more you drive the conversion of raw cotton to ginning, cutting and sewing. Furthermore, all these processes largely empower women.

Therefore, if you can drive putting Africa on the map from a sourcing perspective, you not only help the farmers but are also helping the supply chain. If we can make that 90% of raw cotton to 10% that drives a strong job creation and women empowerment across the industry.

So that is why I really love the option of increasing the sourcing options since if we can drive more scale and more people buy our products, there are more opportunities. The goal is to also source finished apparel from Tanzania

Do you see a time when SWEATIZEN will be able to get a finished product from Tanzania?

We are actually getting a finished T-shirt and crop tee from Tanzania made of organic cotton. We have the black rhino t-shirt that is made and printed in Tanzania.  

Rhino T-shirt

It is a premium product, so we want to drive the opportunity of not just doing T-shirts but the whole supply chain. Tanzania is one of the few countries in Africa that does have the whole supply chain but it is very small and limited. Most of the raw cotton is exported to China and India and the only 10% is converted into products like T-shirts that you buy. Our vision is that the more we grow our brand we want the Tanzanian textile industry to also grow and convert that 10% into 100%.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered producing a finished product in Tanzania?

The challenges of producing a finished product is that we only have a few products from our portfolio from Tanzania, we would love to have more such as the mustard sweatshirt. Unfortunately, the cotton is from India but it is made from Bangladesh; I would love for this to also be made in Tanzania.

The second challenge is that in order to make a custom made product, the minimum order quantity is high. This is a challenge for startups since we are trying to grow the brand we and we cannot to buy a lot of pieces upfront.

The third challenge is that there has been a disruption in supply distraction due to COVID-19.  It is thus very difficult to order stuff from Tanzania and get it shipped into the UK, especially in small quantities. Therefore, we have to depend on partners and third parties in the UK who have the product. There is also a lot of COVID-19 challenges not just in Tanzania but also here in the UK.

When did you first start working with the African artists?

The first time was when I set up a frozen yoghurt business in Daresalaam 8 years ago. I wanted someone to come and paint and do some African art designs in my parlor which was called Coco Bana; like the coconut and banana but hashed it together.

Haroun Kambi
Haroun Kambi

That was my first sort of relationship with the first artist that we have onboard Haroun Kambi. The first assignment was getting him to draw some beautiful art of nature, flowers and our products on the wall of our store. When I went back to Tanzania after COVID-19 I caught up with him and other artists in the Tinga Tinga market and then realized that they have actually been affected by lack of tourism in Tanzania due to the pandemic. As a result their income had plummeted. They did not have a market for their stuff and some of them were seeking jobs elsewhere or moving away from their daily job of art. For me, the situation was quite worrying since it means that art is starting to become lost; we need to keep Tanzanian/ African art resilient.

SWEATIZEN

Furthermore, we decided to empower the artists by providing a platform for their work. 10% of our profits go back to our artists and we also employ them to deliver art classes in local schools.  

I have always been so fascinated about Tinga Tinga art especially the vibrancy, the colors, diversity of the big 5 and uniqueness of local nature. Natural attraction has always been fascinating for me since I grew up. It has always been an inspiration for me.

How are your customers responding to your fashion attires ever since you launched them?

Awesome. I think people love the story and the combination of people and planet to make an impact. People are also very curious about the African art in the UK; it is great that people are now becoming aware of the art of in Tanzania and that it is a produce of organic cotton.

People have responded very positively and have been fascinated by the colors and vibrancy. They also love the impact of actually teaching art to local schools and the woman empowerment story.

I think it’s about trying to tell a good story in a synced way which we have been working. Indeed, people have been positive and it is setting the bar high for others to also establish an eco-friendly brand that has a people and planet approach.

We have learnt a lot from our first collection which we will use to refine our next collection. The next collection is going to be focusing on minimalistic experiences such as embroidery and side prints; we also have some other interesting designs. We are actually working on our next collection which is with an artist in Tanzania called Ramstagram who actually pieces designs with chalk.

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We have also just finished on a Christmas sweater concept that has Tinga Tinga art embroided. For instance, we have one product that has a pulp zebra with Christmas hats and snowflakes coming and a bit of presents at the bottom.

We are doing this on a pre-order basis so that way we eliminate inventory. We basically get all the sizing right to fulfill the orders so we are doing a mini launch of the Christmas jumper coming soon.

What are some of the ways you think fashion can contribute to a sustainable world?

There needs to be a people and planet approach, I think fundamentally around, how to create products that have a minimal impact on the environment but while also considering the supply chain variable; the process from the farms to the customers as garments.

There are two trends that are going to be happening; the first one is around eco-friendly materials. There is going to be many interesting technologies that are coming on stream that will be great for the environment. The other one is how can people wear less and how can you utilize used clothes? I think that is where fashion can be sustainable. It is really thinking about the raw materials and making sure they have minimal impact on the environment, but, also thinking about the people involved and making sure they get paid well.

Unfortunately, many brands just stop at the factory as they do not want to understand things behind the scenes. Since I think it is important to understand the whole traceability side of things, brands should start considering where this stuff comes from and who is involved in the supply chain. More people should also adopt their business model to look at some of the key trends which are around wearing less recycling.

What is your view on the collaboration of African-inspired art and fashion with the Western fashion culture?

I think that people in this part of the world have a tendency of liking simple colors such as black. For instance, people like minimalistic and so, when its winter they wear black and grey. Moreover, when you think about Africa, you think about the sun, animals, nature and greenery. You also think about colors and vibrancy such as garments such as the whole Kitenge fabric.

I think there is an opportunity for Africa to bring some sunshine to this side of the world in terms of just lighting up the colors and wardrobes. Africa has a lot of heritage and culture, which I think, feels a bit forgotten. It is important for countries in the UK who have had past relationships with Africa to really understand the history, art, roots and heritage of the people of Africa because ultimately the world is one people.

I love this quote from Jeff Bezoz when he went to space he said “I was up in the moon and I did not see any borders I just saw one world”. So we are part of one world and we should try to learn from each other. Let us try to promote each other’s work and do something different and unique. That has always been an inspiration because I have spent 18 years back in Tanzania and 18 years in the UK and I have always been looking for ways of bridging and promoting the harmony between the countries.

There are many opportunities to leverage and learn from each other. Although I think London is a cocktail of fashion, I trust that African fashion has not really gotten the level of recognition it deserves.  The continent has a lot of exciting designers that just need exposure and opportunities. We should also support and promote independent and smaller brands sine they are ultimately the pioneers and innovators.

What are some of the challenges that you have come across in the course of your fashion journey?

The first challenge was COVID-19. We started this journey in March 2020 and it was difficult to set this up during the pandemic. The supply chain distraction, factories shutting down, delays in getting orders. We also had this incident where we registered a company called sweat root in the UK and there was a Canadian company called Roots who had trademarked it. Therefore, we spent a lot of time, money and resources on sampling and getting designs on Sweatroots which was our first name because the whole premise was Grasroot and nature of the brand we loved grassroots.

The second challenge is when we launched the UK economy had just started to open up so people were now shopping in the stores rather than online. Therefore, the timing of the launch was not conducive to what was going on around me. 

It has been a difficult journey and a lot of ups and downs with also building the right team and having resources to keep me going. What kept me going is the people I am working with and the people I am supporting back home in Tanzania. I am also trying to prove to myself that it is possible you just have to persevere and have a vision.

Which are some the most iconic attire of your brand that you can recommend to your customers?

I definitely recommend the Rhino Hoodie and the Mustard Sweatshirt. They are both very light and comfortable. I am biased on the Rhino T-shirt and hoodie because rhinos have a special place in my heart because it is big, beastly and vegetarian so it is like a friendly bear. There is also the fact that there only a few rhinos remaining in Kenya and Tanzania as it is one of the creatures that has been affected by poaching and we are all about promoting wildlife and nature through the eyes of the artist

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