Wildlife Works is a Kenyan fashion brand linked to a carbon-credit project named the Kasigau Corridor REDD+ (Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) project and the Rukinga Wildlife Sanctuary. All profits Wildlife Works earn from selling their many fashionable products – from jewellery, to pure-cotton clothes, to toys, baskets, furniture and soaps – go towards sustaining employment, as well as educational and social programs for the members of the community living near the conservation area.
Glitter Trotter: Thank you for inviting me to the shop! I am really honoured and excited to have a chance to share your unique and very inspiring story! Let’s start with a bit of a lesson. Your company, Wildlife Works, is a “carbon credit” organization. Could you briefly explain what this means?
Wildlife Works: To put it simply, our company is reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) by protecting primary forest from deforestation and forest degradation. We help our customers reduce their carbon footprint and then offset their carbon footprint, and the funds go into wildlife and forestry conservation, as well as community development projects. To be verified and certified as a REDD+ carbon-credit project in Kenya, an organization must show how they work with the local community to provide tangible benefits such as improve their livelihoods through meaningful partnerships, employment, education, and healthcare. While addressing this requirement, we need to ensure that the community does not see us as as a charity, that the projects are thanks to their involvement in conservation, and that at the same time we do not undermine its social and cultural fabric.
GT: It sounds like the certification requires a lot of work.
WW: It does. The project auditing progress leading to certification is rigorous to ensure both accountability and transparency not only towards our clients and project investors but to ensure that the project is actually providing benefits towards community members living adjacent to the project area. To do what we are doing requires a lot of creativity, persistence, and patience! Not everyone realizes how demanding it can be to set up a successful REDD+ project. Through a combined team coaction, hard work and by fostering meaningful partnerships with the communities, you can create verified positive impact. You really have to put in the time and the effort, – but the results can be truly rewarding like what we are now seeing with the project area!
GT: Can you give us a bit of a history? Why did you pick Rukinga and the surrounding project area? What was it like when you first started?
WW: Our story started in 1997, when Wildlife Works’ founder Mike Korchinsky first came to Kenya on vacation. He fell in love with the country, the kindness of its people, the beauty of its animals and forests, and the vastness of its landscapes. Yet, he also saw the potentially devastating conflict between people and wildlife, in which both sides were losing. So, he returned to Kenya with a vision to create a space, where humans and nature would support and nurture each other. And here we are now – Rukinga is a 31,000-acre conservancy between Tsavo East and Tsavo West National parks in Kenya. It is a part of the 500,000-acre Kasigau Corridor REDD+ (Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) project, which has been awarded a Gold-level status by the Climate Community Biodiversity Alliance for the exceptional community and biodiversity benefits that are derived from the project. Things have really changed.
GT: Now, how does the conservancy work link with fashion?
WW: This is where the creativity comes into play. You know, a conservation project might be seen as disruptive to the community members because some of the activities they have always been doing are no longer allowed – mostly, the activities related to livelihoods –slash and burn agriculture, illegal cattle grazing, cutting trees for logging and charcoal production, and so on. We had to offer the local community alternative ways of sustaining their households, while remaining respectful to their culture.
GT: Can you tell me, which particular communities you are most engaged with?
WW: In Rukinga area, we are mostly talking about Taita and Duruma, some Masaai and Kamba as well. A lot of Taita women in the region traditionally did basket weaving, and some were even doing weaving still – because they liked it and had small outlets of sales. This was a starting point for Hadithi Craft Support Community Based Organisation, who we have a close partnership with – they market and sell the baskets for the now 1,500-strong women who are part of their CBO and give all the profits back to the communities.
As a side note, did you know that almost all tribes that weave have their unique traditional style? It’s almost like a “tribal fingerprint” – in our shop, most of the baskets are created in the weaving style traditional for Taita people called the fine weave. Its distinct characteristics are the thin, fine threads. The stitches/rows of a Taita basket are very thin, and the basket itself is light but incredibly durable. These baskets are very different from the ones you typically find in Nairobi – those are made of thick threads, it’s an easier weave that doesn’t take as long to complete. Depending on the size, a Taita basket might take two days to make, and it will last a lifetime.
GT: I definitely did not know that. Why such a difference in the time it takes to make these two types of baskets?
WW: The Taita baskets are made of sisal. The ladies are keen on the quality of their baskets, and have been trained by Hadithi in terms of what quality sells well, so they take time to prepare the sisal, let it fully dry, make the twine threads, etc. Another thing that is really special about the baskets in our shop is that you know who made it – in each basket, we have a little photo with the name of the weaver and their story. For example, this little basket is made by Mercy Mukal from one of the women’s group that works together with Hadithi. ‘Hadithi’ means ‘stories’ in Swahili. The ladies from this group work together; they sit in a circle and tell each other stories while they are weaving the baskets. This is one way our company supports local organizations such as Hadithi and our customers can contribute to preserving the local culture.
GT: What are some other ways?
WW: Well, let us talk about cotton, because this is one of the biggest ways for us to contribute towards sustainable value chains and support the communities living near Rukinga. Most of the clothes you see in our shop are made of pure organic cotton.
GT: Do you produce cotton in Rukinga?
WW: No, there is unfortunately no organic cotton production in Kenya. We do hope that one day we can bring back organic cotton production to Kenya. It is not impossible, but it will take a long time. So for now, we import organic cotton from Arusha (Tanzania) and India. But what we do locally is pattern creation, screen printing and clothing production. All our screen printing inks are water-based; they are done in a traditional and environmentally friendly way. Once the cotton is in Rukinga, the production is done locally. Most team members already had basic tailoring skills, but we train them on industrial machines to international standards.
GT: I noticed that all your clothing, especially dresses and ladies’ tops, have very interesting, intricate patterns. Where do you get the inspiration for them?
WW: All our prints are inspired by the community heritage and by the wildlife in our area. For example, we have a lot of patterns integrating triangle-type shapes. Those are traditional African patterns. In fact, my favourite top in the store is the one which ornament is celebrating the traditional Masaai wedding necklace that a bride’s mother makes for her daughter for her wedding day. The necklace looks like a wide circle mostly made of glass beads – rows and rows of colourful beads – and triangle metal elements. It’s an incredible piece of wearable art.
GT: Does it have a meaning?
WW: Yes, it signifies that you moved to the “other” side, you are now a woman, and the mother wants you to remember the beauty of your culture and remain strong. Girls actually never remove their wedding necklaces. So, we deconstruct the Masaai aesthetics into this print to celebrate their culture.
GT: Aside from clothes, what else do the Wildlife Works factory team make?
WW: Well we make clothes for babies and adults, as I say, men and women. We have some unisex clothes for those who like a more relaxed style. We also have some toys that a local disabled group make from both leftover fabric and khanga. And talking about leftovers, we pride ourselves in our zero-waste approach. For example, I already mentioned the toys from the fabric leftovers; some of the leftovers we also use to make scrunchies and headbands. Now, look at this tassel – can you guess what we use to make them?
GT: Thread leftovers?
WW: Exactly! When the threads become too short to use in stitching, we collect them and then make tassels – for bags, necklaces, and earrings. There is another cool thing I want to show you. As part of our work in Rukinga, we do a lot of construction work – i.e., when building schools for the communities and other infrastructural projects – which means we use a lot of cement. Cement bags would be a pollutant, if we were not using them creatively -- in this case, to produce cute, water-resistant cosmetic pouches.
GT: You know, if anyone told me before that it is possible to make a cute pouch out of a cement bag, I would not have believed them.
WW: We also have something we call “recovered wood.” For example, there are scrap pieces and recovered wood from construction, and we can use the wood (and scrap metal) in furniture production, and to make picture frames and some wooden fixtures.
GT: How do you know all of this?
WW: Well, we did not learn everything overnight. What you see is a lot of trial and error, and working together with our communities. And speaking about communities, they are our best inspiration – everything you see in the shop is inspired by nature, people, and life in our project area. For example, look at our t-shirts – they are one of our price-friendly products, a way to engage customers, who want to shop with us but are price-conscious. We have a name for each t-shirt – Sungura (swh. rabbit), Njiwa (swh. Pigeon), Swala (swh. Impala), Chui (swh. leopard), Simba (lion) – all the animals that can be found in our conservancy. Here is also a zebra t-shirt – in Rukinga, we have Grevy’s Zebra, which is an endangered species, but has been doing well in our area thanks to habitat protection. Finally, here is an elephant t-shirt, and elephants have a special place in our conservancy and our hearts.
GT: I love the t-shirt with a gyrocopter on it! What is the story here?
WW: In the project area, consistent aerial surveillance is imperative to support our ground ranger teams within the Rukinga Wildlife Sanctuary and the entire Wildlife Works project area to ensure that nobody is cutting down trees or poaching animals. Our ranger teams, hired from the local community, have received training that goes a long way in building their capacity when doing their daily patrols, but patrolling the forest and the sanctuary from above makes sure the animals and the people are safe.
GT: What an interesting job! You mentioned that you hire a lot of people from the community living adjacent to the Wildlife Works Project area. What are some other jobs they do?
WW: Oh! Many different jobs! We’ve now hired over 330 people. We hire them at the clothes manufacturing factory, some work as rangers on the ground, as well as drivers, cooks, construction workers, accountants, community relations, etc. There are so many different jobs people can do and get trained for. We also make soap, so they are trained on how to do that. You should definitely try our soaps! We have all the different ingredients – lime and coconut, coffee and jojoba. We also have beer soap, which is made from Kenyan beer. And an interesting thing about the beer soap is that it comes in a small soap dish made from a recycled bottle. In fact, all our soap packaging is an interesting thing about our soaps. Do you see this wrapper? What do you think it’s made of?
GT: It feels like a very rough paper. Papyrus?
WW: No! It’s paper made of elephant dung. We work closely with the Neema Women’s Group who are based in the Mwachabo area near Rukinga who produce and supply it to us!
GT: This is very impressive! What do you not produce within the Kasigau Corridor, I wonder?!
WW: (Laughs) It is important for us to be self-sustainable, so we have to produce a variety of things. We are playing with spices right now and will be soon coming up with a collection of kitchenware and utensils. So far, through all our projects we’ve touched the lives of over 100,000 people through employment, training, scholarships, and social programs. After years of protecting the forest, the wildlife has been restored in Rukinga. I’ve already told you about Grevy’s zebra, we also have other endangered species that can be found within our project area such wild dogs, cheetahs, lion, elephants and many more. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in our community, and all requires funding. This is why as a customer, when you buy things at our shop at the Alchemist in Nairobi, you directly contribute to all the projects we do – from wildlife and forest protection, preserving the stories of the Hadithi women, to providing employment for the communities living near Rukinga, and sharing the Taita and Masaai culture with the world.
GT: This is exactly what conscious fashion is all about, right!
WW: That’s true. Our mission is to inspire and educate people around us, so they become more conscious. You know, at Rukinga, we have an organic green house and tree nursery, the greenhouse team is in charge of our reforestation efforts to increase the tree cover in the community areas next to the project area, and we encourage other people to plant trees – not just our clients but our workers as well. Everyone working with us gets into the habit of planting trees, even on their own compound. And we have plants in our store in Nairobi – for people to buy, plant, and enjoy.
One more program that we are really proud of has to do with the jewellery we stock. Our beaded jewellery is made in a traditional Masaai technique made by Maasai ladies’ groups who live near the Wildlife Works Headquarters. Some are also made by a member of the Buguta Disabled Group, the same people who make the stuffed animals. In many rural communities, disabled people are hidden; they do not work or participate in social life because they are considered...
WW: Yes, families might be ashamed of them, especially in poor and less-educated communities. Hadithi works with the members of Buguta to make the stuffed animals, using both patterns they’ve either acquired or created themselves, so they can contribute to their family income. When people with disabilities are gainfully employed, the family and community dynamic changes, they are more accepted.
GT: It seems like Wildlife Works are already doing a lot for the community, for the wildlife, and for the conscious consumers. Is there anything you still aspire to achieve? Any plans for the future?
WW: Oh, yes! Big plans! We want to continue growing our customer base in Kenya. Until about a year ago, most of our products were exported to the US or Europe, where we were selling them through sustainable fashion brands. A year ago, we opened a shop at the Alchemist in Westlands, Nairobi, because we want to be more visible in the local market. We have a good story to tell; and we want to be part of the ‘Buy Kenya, Build Kenya’ spirit but in a more meaningful way. We want to show Kenyans how REDD+ projects work to solve both the unemployment and environment crisis. We want to inspire more Kenyans to purchase from local brands; especially the ones supporting conservation projects- by supporting brands such as Wildlife Works, it’s contributing towards slow, sustainable and ethical fashion. For that, we want to set up more stores across Kenya, where you might just be able to come and learn about our story, share it with others, create a movement that benefits Kenyan communities and our country. We want Kenyans to be our core customers – because together we can transform Kenya for ourselves and for our children.
GT: This is a great plan! I am happy I can contribute to it at least somewhat by sharing your story with others. Best of luck with everything! I am rooting for you.
WW: Thank you!