“We got some carpenters and made it from old boats. There was no ethically-produced wood. So we found some second-hand wood.”
Helen Espey-Kelly explains how she started out her business, Handmade from Tanzania, which has a pop-up shop in Dun Laoghaire until the end of the week.
The social enterprise has been making clothes and furniture in Tanzania for twelve years. She had moved to Tanzania some years previously with her Scottish-born husband – an architect.
Her project began with furniture, handmade from timber – which was in short supply in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Helen needed the furniture for her own home.
However, when people saw the creativity of the work undertaken by the local carpenters, Helen got in lots more orders and other businesses started to copy her. The old boats she was taking apart to build the furniture got more expensive due to the demand from these new rivals. She sourced an ethically-sourced supply of timber from an NGO called Mpingo Conservation.
“Everyone was knocking at the door saying ‘We want some furniture made.’ Then it became quite popular, and other people started doing similar things. So we branched out.”
Helen turned her hand to clothes-making.
“When the kids were younger I used to be able to buy the sheets locally from the local weavers but they have narrow looms. So I would buy 20 metres of fabric from them. They were wide enough for the single sheet for the kids but I’d sew them together to make the double sheets. We built a beach house and we needed more sheets. I went back to the weavers to ask them for the material. They refused. It wasn’t worth their time.
“They told me I’d have to buy 60 or 70 metres of fabric if they want me to do it because otherwise it’s not worth their while setting up the looms. So then I decided to set it up myself and that’s when we decided to build our own looms. So we had some help from GOIG, an NGO in Dar es Salaam and they put us in touch with Frank, a weaver who helped us build our first loom along with my carpenters.
“The first weaver we employed was Zubelli. He’s very good. I wanted to find the right cotton and after a couple of months we got what they wanted – finer cotton than we had been using. After Zubelli, Eliza came on board. She trained with colouring so she did the colouring and dyeing by hand. We needed another set of hands to go faster at producing the fabrics, so we brought in Musange to assist in helping Zubelli and Eliza. And that’s how we really started what’s with the sheets and pillowcases and then we decided the fabric was actually very good for clothing.”
She now employs a workforce of twenty making furniture, bed linen and clothes. She set up her shop in Dar Es Salaam on an acre of land.
“It’s a nice atmosphere to work in, and it’s a very friendly environment. There’s a dirt road approaching it, but it’s a nice big old building. My house is in one part of it and the shop’s the other part. The home on the same location is brilliant as it keep costs down.
“People come to the workshop they see the fabrics being made they meet the tailors, they meet the weavers and the carpenters and they in turn get to understand who’s buying the work that the shop does. And then we came across Mustafa Hassanali who runs Swahili Fashion Week.”
Helen and her friend Anoek took part in Swahili Fashion Week for the first time three years ago. They haven’t looked back. The social enterprise feeds into so many other industries and businesses in the Tanzanian economy – and it’s all from sustainable and ethically sourced raw materials.
“We have Fair Trade principles, certainly. But it’s very expensive to join the organisation itself. Everything doesn’t have to be about charity. People are working, they are given a fair wage for what they’re doing. People are interested in working if they get paid properly and get paid regularly.”
Helen’s pop-up shop in Dun Laoghaire is open until the end of the week, every day 10am til 6 pm, Sunday 11 til 6pm. You can find it on Facebook.
You can find their website here.