A few weeks ago I sat down (via Skype) with Fiona Vloet, a Dutch entrepreneur living and working in Tanzania, to talk about her new project the Fairtrade Factory and how it is to live and work in Tanzania. After just a few questions I realised how courageous, adventurous and entrepreneurial she is. You might not know Fiona yet but if you have visited the Bag&Buy store in Utrecht you might have come across one of her cool, reusable and plastic-free bread bags. So let’s get an inside view on Tanzania’s fashion and textile industry.
Hi Fiona, how’s the weather in Tanzania. I am already jealous looking at the pictures from your Instagram?
The weather is always good, about 30 to 33˚C. In Tanzania you don’t have to worry about what to wear in the morning, a dress is always a good choice. It’s different during the rain season which causes a lot of flooding and people drowning due to a lack of preparation.
I’d like to know a bit about your background and how you ended up in Tanzania.
This goes a few years back. I was studying to become a social worker in the Netherlands. After I finished I paused a half year before I would start a follow-up education as a teacher. During these six months I went to Ghana as a volunteer worker teaching children. In Ghana I realised that what people really needed besides education were jobs and a subsistence. After my studies I have come to Tanzania with my husband who had started his own business. In Tanzania I discovered the colourful textile fabrics that were made using African prints. I then got the idea that it would be great to make them available in the Netherlands, especially with a 100% transparency about the production process. After talking to a lot of tailors I created my first collection for Thamani Fashion a few months later.
You created a fashion brand without any background in fashion and in a foreign country as well, how did you manage to do this?
I had a lot of help from my mother-in-law who made all the patterns and most of the designs. A lot of other volunteers here and in the Netherlands helped me and it was a lot of hard work.
How many pieces did you have in your first collection?
Really a lot. Ten different pieces and many different sizes. About a hundred pieces in total. Creating the first collection I learned that, to create another one, I would first need to get the quality right. The way they work in Tanzania is very different from the Netherlands, so it was very important to get the quality right after the first collection. Fabrics should be perfect and not just good enough!
What else did you learn working in Tanzania?
When you start a business in Tanzania it is really important to be here. When I went back home to the Netherlands for some months everything in Tanzania stopped working and went wrong. To make the business work here I had to build up a structure, understand the culture and how to work smoothly together.
You mentioned the textile industry in Tanzania, can you tell me more about it?
In Tanzania they have a different kind of traditional prints called Kanga and Kitenge. At the Fairtrade Factory (FTF) we use the Kitenge because it is easier to use for clothes. Furthermore they have various types of prints that also have special meanings. Some prints are used for burials, for example. Nowadays this matters less and people just wear whatever they like. Besides the traditional clothes the people in Tanzania also wear clothes from Europe, mostly the elite and rich people, or clothes and textiles imported from China, mostly the poorer people.
At FTF we are looking for real Tanzanian products and avoid importing cotton from China. In Tanzania they also grow cotton and this makes it much easier.
What kind of cotton do you use for your designs?
We use cotton and we also use the unbleached cotton they have here. We use it to create cotton bags. Unfortunately they don’t have organic cotton and I don’t want to import this from China because shipping products around the world from one factory to another is less sustainable in my opinion.
Why did you start the Fairtrade Factory?
The idea was to create a transparent fashion industry and a transparent supply chain for our customers, businesses we work with and with that create jobs in Tanzania. When I met my colleague Rose, she already had a small sewing factory, we founded this project together and she works as an operational manager and I do the sales and marketing.
In the future we want to offer customers a visual tour on Skype. We started to train people from Tanzania, where unemployment is very high and help them make a living or even to start their own tailor shop.
Who will be working at the Fairtrade Factory, what are you looking for in your future employees?
We want to train women and men and create jobs for those who cannot easily find a job at all, for instance people with disabilities. Our goal is to address the unemployment problem in Tanzania by creating jobs and paying decent wages.
You mentioned transparency and that you want your company to be totally transparent. How difficult is it to reach this goal in Tanzania?
At the moment we are buying most of our fabrics and textiles from Tanzania. We visited the factories and cotton fields. At the moment it is still difficult to trace everything to the roots. I believe the best way is to do everything yourself. My dream is to make everything so transparent that it will be clear to the customers without the need for certifications. I’d rather spend the money I have on improving the work conditions than on getting a certificate.
Are there limits to transparency?
There are of course limits to transparency especially when you depend on others in the supply chain for there can and will be gaps in the knowledge about the products. One example is dying the textiles. Right now we are looking for alternative ways, methods and materials to sustainably dye our fabrics.
Compared to the Netherlands, how is living and working in Africa?
The working mentality is different and the people are really taking their time. In the Netherlands everybody is super efficient and striving for the highest quality but a lot of people have burn-outs and are dissatisfied with their lives. Comparing both cultures I think I have learned a lot about how to mix both worlds and work with the mentality here but with my Dutch quality standards.
A big problem we currently have is the availability of tools for our workers and factory. Much of our equipment is coming from Asia, like sewing machines and materials. Compared to Asia the equipment needed in Tanzania is twice as expensive, which doesn’t make it easier for us.
After living in Tanzania for some time now have you become more relaxed?
I have, otherwise it wouldn’t work out for me.
Working in the garment industry in a developing country can be very difficult and many places in Asia are infamous for their working conditions. Does this also happen in Africa and especially Tanzania?
People in Tanzania really stand up for themselves. If they do not like something they will not come to work anymore. It’s a very different mentality to Asia. The conditions in Asia are really different to Tanzania. It might be different in Ethiopia and I have heard that the salaries there are very low. People here switch jobs very often or are unemployed and have to rely on their families.
Tell me something about your idea “Pimp My Factory”.
We were asking companies in the Netherlands to donate stuff like machines, needles, textiles to practice on for training our workers, laptops and furniture to get our factory going. Right now we are looking for a container to create a new working space. I started the project “Pimp My Factory” because everything here is hard to get and the second hand Dutch stuff is of really good quality.
What challenges do you encounter selling your products on the Dutch market?
Our cotton bread basket is going well in the Netherlands because people don’t want to put everything in plastic anymore. It could go better of course but not all bakeries want to sell it. Their customers don’t really want to buy an extra bag for their bread. Another challenge is that some shops like Eko Plaza prefer organic cotton bags and we cannot produce these locally in Tanzania. Organic is more popular among customers even if the transportation costs are high than products with transparency from Tanzania …
All images by Fiona Vloet.
That’s it for today. What did you think of her story, isn’t it just amazing how she managed all this without the necessary education and just by being fearless and going after her vision? If you want to support the Fairtrade Factory, visit their website and find retailers near you.
Any comment will be highly appreciated.