Guest Post - Trade Not Aid: Sancho’s Dress & the ‘Scarves & Sustainability’ Kickstarter

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As part of the run up to Fashion Revolution Day, I have a guest post by Nickie Shobeiry from Sancho's Dress.  Sancho's Dress is an independent, ethical organic fair-trade clothing store, and they believe in trade over aid. Read more about what they stand for below.   Thank you, Nickie for the post! 

Born in Ethiopia and raised in the UK, Kalkidan Legesse has always been very aware of the struggles of Africa. During her studies, she decided it was time to take some action, and joined several NGOs. Eventually, she moved to her grandmother’s house in one of Addis Ababa’s outer districts, and began doing practical work in Ethiopia. As time went by, she realised the limited ability of charities to have long-lasting impact on developing countries. Returning to England, she and her partner Vidmantas decided they’d take matters into their own hands.

This is how the idea for Sancho’s Dress came about – a store based entirely on transparent business and ethical, sustainable fashion. Now, the Sancho’s team are halfway through their Kickstarter campaign, ‘Scarves & Sustainability’, and through the support of backers, can open a workshop and employ six women in Debra Mark’os, Ethiopia. An ancient weaving technology will be used to create beautiful cotton scarves, with the hand-looms themselves being made of eucalyptus bark. This sort of infrastructure doesn’t use electricity, ensuring the process is kind to the earth. 

Explaining her experience with aid work in Africa, and why she is now a trade advocate, Kalkidan said, The kids [in Africa] aren’t proud of where they’re from – they grow up believing only Western influence can bring about any type of change, even if it’s short term. They understand that the likelihood of it reaching them is really rare. They grow up thinking the only thing that can bring them any development is the help of an aid worker, but also knowing that no aid worker will focus solely on them throughout their life.”

Kalkidan found that, inadvertently, some NGOs were damaging people’s self-esteem. However, by setting up businesses in developing countries, communities can be kept on their feet – all in exchange for gorgeous, often hand-made pieces, steeped in culture. While straight-forward, charitable aid may bring about surface change, trade allows individuals to thrive independently and live self-reliantly, in turn bring continual prosperity to their homes and wider community.
No-one is talking about the talented, able youths who lose confidence in the capabilities of NGOs,” Kalkidan continued, “because a majority of NGOs make their money by telling everyone how difficult life is out there – and it’s so heart-breaking. However, business isn’t about that. Transparent accounts and social enterprise is about showing people what they can achieve when they work hard, and then rewarding them for their hard work. It’s about boldly saying ‘I love what I am, and I will wear it on my sleeve until others see that it is beautiful too.’

So, not only does trade ensure sustainable livelihoods, but it also empowers individuals by allowing them to use their talents and skills. With this sort of empowerment in mind, Kalkidan, Vidmantas and filmmaker Haroun travelled to Debra Mark’os, to oversee scarf production and meet their future employees, should the campaign be successful.

During their trip, the team experienced the beauty of Ethiopia’s land, were warmed by its people, delighted by its delicious food and fascinating culture. However, they also witnessed the struggles of the Debra Mark’os people. They found the job market to be over-crowded, and the majority of workers salespeople, living on marginal profits. While having a specialised skill like weaving gives people a better chance at securing stable income, it isn’t guaranteed – and furthermore, women are heavily excluded from trades like weaving, with approximately 80% of the industry being male. Realising they had to change their approach, the team decided to employ a male shamani (‘weaver’ in the local tongue) to train women.  Before long, they found Bekabil – a kind man who has been weaving since he was a boy. Bekabil lives in Debra Mark’os, where he weaves beautiful, traditional garments in his own home. Bekabil has three young children, and hopes to support them by working in the Sancho’s Dress workshop. Also living in the community is Maaza, Sancho’s Dress’ potential head seamstress.

Bekabil and his loom.

Bekabil with his son.

Born in eastern Ethiopia, Maaza’s family was separated by the civil war. Since then, she has learnt to sew using a pedal-powered machine, and her love of clothes-making quickly bloomed. Maaza made a living and supported her kids by mending her community’s clothes, but due to the rise in cheaper clothing, found the market for her skill decline. Now, she’s looking forward to managing the Sancho’s Dress workshop, and going on to create many more traditional garments like dresses, tops and of course, more scarves!

The workshop can only be set up through the support of backers choosing from a wide range of rewards. Should the campaign be successful, Maaza’s visions for future designs will be for sale in the Sancho’s Dress shop, along with the work of the other weavers. Through the selling of such items in wider markets, and making the products more competitive, the Sancho’s team hope to shatter the misconception about developing countries, and allow the celebration of different cultures begin.

More and more organisations are beginning to demand trade over aid. Sancho’s Dress is at the fore-front of this sort of action, and hope that you’ll join them for the ride.

This article was written by  Nickie Shobeiry
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1 comment

  1. I liked this story. It is nice to help people have a trade and to make beautiful things that are ecologically friendly.