Women in Africa’s Largest Urban Slum Are Knitting Their Way out of Poverty
Welcome to Africa’s largest urban slum: Kibera. Located in Nairobi, Kenya, it’s home to more than 250,000 people who reside in a sprawl of makeshift homes and earn less than $1 per day; 40 percent of the population is under the age of 19.
But for clothing designer Ava Darnell, Kenya is a place she has known and been fond of since visiting for the first time with her activist parents at the age of four, and Kibera is now the home base for her ethical fashion line, Slumlove Sweater Company. The brand sells unisex handknit sweaters and accessories made by Kiberan women, and every purchase provides fair wages, scholarships for kids’ education, and increased access to health care for residents.
I spoke with Darnell about Slumlove’s Autumn/Winter 2015 collection and how, by choosing ethical fashion and working with an incredible Kenyan community, real progress can be made for the very community she’s regarded as her second home since childhood.
TakePart: You’re from Texas and based in Austin, and you own a company committed to Kenya’s Kiberan residents. How did this all come together for you?
Ava Darnell: From my first trip there at four, I’ve loved Kenya and Kenyan culture and the people. Also, it was really important to my humanitarian and activist parents that my brother and I see and experience the world. In high school, I really started to develop an interest in and a passion for fashion. Then, about seven years ago, in 2009, I was working for a nonprofit in Kibera as the creative director. I met this woman named Clare who knitted school sweaters for children. In Kenya, uniforms and sweaters are a part of everyday life. After speaking with her and seeing her great sweaters, I started to see how I could develop a fashion line and market it to friends and family in the U.S.—and have the money generated from the sale provide a living wage for Clare and her family while supporting the school that I worked at in Kibera.
TakePart: Your company motto is “Fashion is a force for good.” What impact does Slumlove have on the community it employs?
Darnell: Slumlove pays fair wages to its local workers for hand-knitting sweaters and other accessories and then donates 10 percent of its sales proceeds to the Kibera Penda Project, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to high school students in Kibera. This funds around 125 kids to attend and stay in school. For every piece of clothing that we make, we’ve also built in a 5 percent health care budget, which means that every woman who works for Slumlove gets an extra 5 percent of all her earnings that goes toward helping them with health care, so they have more routine checkups, versus only seeing doctors for emergencies. We also support ethical fashion from an environmental perspective and make all products from 100 percent organic and CmiA-certified cotton yarn that’s produced in an environmentally friendly fashion.
TakePart: What is your favorite Slumlove product this season?
Darnell: I really love the Knit Dress. My friends obviously knew it was a design that was coming, but everyone who saw me wear it would get really excited about it. Before this collection, our sweaters were all unisex, so it’s a much more feminine product for us that we haven’t done before.
TakePart: All of your products are sold exclusively online. What’s the strategy behind this?
Darnell: I knew that the higher I priced the clothes, the less accessible it would be for normal people like me to be able to be a part of this. We are online only, and a big reason for doing this is that I wanted to keep our costs low. We pay a lot for our clothing because it’s ethical fashion and we want to be able to pay the women a fair wage. And then we give a percentage back to the Kibera Penda Project. I’m really passionate about being able to uplift anyone and everyone who feels called to help, and I didn’t want it to be something that was just reserved for people who had a lot of money.
TakePart: You are the only staff member based in the U.S. How big is your entire team, and where are they based?
Darnell: While I’m based in Austin, Texas, and travel to Kenya, we have close to 30 staff members in Kenya, which include six machine knitters, 20 hand knitters, and two full-time local managers on the ground. Slumlove also owns a production facility in Nairobi as well.
TakePart: What has been an aha moment for you and your journey with Slumlove since its launch?
Darnell: About a year ago, I realized, “I’m running this ethical fashion company, I’m telling people why they should buy ethical fashion, why it’s important, and I don’t feel like all of my fashion choices in life are reflecting what I’m telling other people to do.” I felt like I really needed to start practicing what I was preaching. So I’ve learned a lot about ethical fashion this last year and have discovered a lot of other really great brands while still being a voice for Slumlove in the market.
TakePart: What are words you live by?
Darnell: Whenever people tell me, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do something like this but I don’t know where to start or what to do,” I always ask, “What are you passionate about? What are you good at? Take that and use it to help people.” I think a lot of times we overcomplicate how to help people or how to make a difference. We think we have to have a lot of money or a lot of resources at our fingertips, and I don’t believe that at all. I think everyone has gifts that they’ve been given and talents and passions that they can use to change the world. It really is as simple as that.
The Knit Dress and other items from Slumlove Sweater Company’s Autumn/Winter 2015 collection can be purchased on its website. You can also enter our sweepstakes for a chance to win a Slumlove sweater.