Lucy Lau Bigham is that rare woman serial social entrepreneur, and she loves it.
She founded Tosheka Textiles, which creates community-empowering, sustainable and globally competitive eco-friendly textiles, apparel and accessories.
Tosheka takes "green" to its fashion extreme by creating innovative designs and stylish fabrics for designers from organic cotton, silk and other natural fibres and dyes.
As an expert in printing and surface design, Lucy is building a textile industry from scratch in Makueni County and wants to expand throughout the country.
Growing up in Jericho, Nairobi, she developed an early liking for design. By the time she went through Kenya High and State House Girls, she had decided to study design at the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Architecture, Design and Development.
She honed her early design experience at Tototo Home Industries in Mombasa, then went to the University of Northampton for her master’s degree.
It was here that her curiosity on the status of women began to bother her. She specifically wanted to know what factors hinder the success of women in developing countries and built this into her thesis.
Soon after, she left the country to attend a leadership course on training for development in the United States. While there, she was invited by the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) to lead a program and train some apprentices.
While at FWM, she made many trips to Kenya intending to help local people print their own textiles. She found a lack of fabric, but realised that because we had a competitive advantage on labour, there was potential for cotton growing and fabric making.
She quickly set up a non-profit organisation called Marafiki. This was basically a partnership that brought experts to Kenya to build capacity in production and also in spinning, dyeing, printing and weaving during the summer months.
Cotton productivity was an immediate problem. With friends and her African-American husband, Herman Bigham, she developed fertiliser and oils from the Neem tree. The oils are used to kill pesticides.
Productivity jumped from a mere 100kg per acre to 700kg. Today, farmer harvest at least 500kg per acre on average and they could harvest even more with improved seed varieties.
Even with these improvements, the production capacity remained low.
Peter, the manager at the nearby Makueni Ginnery, tells me the factory has a production capacity of 10,000 bales of processed cotton, each weighing 250kg, or around 6,000 tons. However, the best it has ever done is 23 per cent of its capacity.
The ginnery collects cotton from all over the country to process into cotton fibre, which textile companies then process into yarn and fabric.
Due to low production and other issues like the cost of energy, poor seed varieties, poor payments to farmers, reliance on rain-fed production, the influx of mitumba (used clothing) and mismanagement of government-sponsored ginneries, Kenya’s cost of production has been uncompetitive.
Bales of fibre lie unused in Makueni as local textile manufacturers import yarn from Asia.
This is not a major problem if clever policies are adopted and proper incentives introduced.
While it has been proved that Makueni has the potential to leverage cotton for poverty reduction, the objectives and mindset of non-governmental organisations remain the same. Governments too have not taken any steps to make cotton growing attractive to the locals.
Consequently, NGOs thrive here to provide relief food, and the parking lot of a nearby five-star hotel is filled with all sorts of NGO four-wheel drive vehicles.
Clearly, there are misplaced priorities. We should see more work from the Fibre Directorate in the Ministry of Agriculture in promoting productivity improvement in the cotton industry as a strategy for reducing poverty.
Makueni’s terrain would allow water from the Thwake River, which flows to the Indian Ocean, to be pumped onto the Makueni hilltops to allow gravity to distribute water to farmers so they can grow crops when they want to.
Makueni’s searing sun presents an opportunity for investors to build a solar farm to supply power to the ginneries and lower the cost of power.
Other opportunities lie in adding value to the byproducts of cotton, like converting seed into oils and cotton cake that we now import from neighbouring countries for our animal feed manufacturing.
If we fully exploited the entire cotton supply chain, the cost of our yarn would be so competitive that we would become self-reliant and export fabric to fully exploit the African Growth Opportunity Act (Agoa).
The measures I have outlined here would translate to hundreds of thousands of jobs at a time when East Africa is gearing up to build its textile industries. It would bring great pride to our people that we no longer need food aid when we can support ourselves from our own sweat.
Lucy has even moved further to create more opportunities to advance our textile sector through silk production.
After obtaining approvals from Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis), she has introduced Eri Silkworm to Makueni. This silkworm feeds on the Castor plant Ricinus communis, sometimes called the castor-oil-plant, that grows wild and is abundant in Makueni, yet another unexploited opportunity.
Although the mulberry silkworm (Bombyx mori) that produces better-quality silk had been introduced to Kenya earlier, it was prone to diseases and its food source was not readily available locally.
These Japanese silkworms were imported from Ethiopia, which is aggressively trying to develop its textile industry.
Twenty thousand of these domesticated silkworms can be grown in a space of about 2 metres square, about the size of a fridge, and produce between 30 and 40kg of silk.
At 200 shillings a kilo, a farmer can earn between Sh6,000 and Sh8,000. The worm’s excrement too is good organic fertilizer that can fetch the farmer more money.
It is perhaps the easiest farming that I have ever seen, with great returns and insatiable demand.
Lucy’s target is to get at least 3,000 households producing at least 60kg a month. Instead of food aid, this is perhaps the best method of fighting poverty and distributing incomes across the country.
At one point in its early post-independence period, Kenya had a thriving 52 fabric manufacturers. That number has been reduced to just a few.
With renewed efforts to revive the sector regionally, we have a great opportunity to leapfrog from an importer of used clothing to a powerful exporter, especially now when we need an export-led economic orientation.
This can happen if there was a policy-led initiative to let the government take the responsibility for some of the work the private sector is doing, such as capacity building.
For the industry to grow, we must develop incubation centres such as the Makueni Community Development Organisation to help the youth understand the business. The centre has helped disadvantaged youths to learn some skills so that they can become independent.
Industry, government and research institutions need to work together more closely. While at the Makueni Ginnery, a professor from Machakos University College called to ask if textile students could visit Makueni to see cotton and the ginning process.
Although this is how it should be, it is sad that students registered in textile courses go through college for several years without seeing the production machinery for the most important resource in their profession.
Kenya’s cotton industry collapsed largely due to vested interests. The tendency to allow cartels to infiltrate wherever opportunity exists in Kenya must be fought from the beginning.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito