What it’s like to… run an ethical fashion factory in Kenya

Jo Maiden and her young family live between east London and Kenya – where she runs an ethical fashion factory, providing garments for the likes of ASOS. We talk fashion, family and deciding which country to settle in for good…

“Nine years ago my husband and I were working in London and fancied a life change – before settling in London with kids and firmly on the career ladder. We went to visit Kenya and through a conversation the idea for SOKO [our ethical fashion factory] was born.

I spent some time in London writing the business plan and chatting to anyone who would listen about the concept and vision and after a bit of personal fundraising we decided to head off and give it a go. Seven years later and two kids on and we’re still there.

I’d previously worked in London doing freelance projects in the fashion industry. I had always been interested in the story behind our clothes and the ethical fashion industry was just coming out of the hemp-hippy era and becoming more mainstream – I was lucky to be in London at the time and working alongside the people that were spearheading the change. It was a very exciting and I got to work on amazing projects that at the time were small but now represent the start of the shift in awareness of the changes that were needed in the industry.

I never really had maternity leave, from day one with both children I have been on call and checking emails

Until my daughter Daisy was born three years ago we would visit England twice a year for three weeks but we are now dividing our time fairly equally between England and Kenya.

Having kids has been totally turned up side down! I feel very lucky to be my own boss and have never had to deal with that dreaded lead up to maternity leave ending and have had the freedom to choose to work when it suits – naptime, after bedtime etc. The other side of this freedom is that I never really had maternity leave, from day one with both children I have been on call and checking emails.

On an average day, both children wake up between 6am and 6.30am. My husband, Dave, does the first stint while I catch up on a bit more sleep. Bertie is 10 months and still wakes a couple of times in the night and so that extra half an hour to an hour in the morning gets me through the day!

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Dave gives the kids breakfast and at 7.30am I come down with their clothes. Dave gets them dressed while I jump in the shower and get ready. From 8/8.30am I take over the kids while Dave gets ready. Dave is an artist and his studio is at the end of the garden so at 8.45am he walks out the back door to his studio.

Bertie sleeps from 9am – 10.30am and we generally stay at home. I do chores while Daisy potters around playing with her toys. It’s a good bit of time for Daisy and me to have some one-on-one time together to do jigsaws or play with duplo – anything that when her brother is awake he would destroy.

At 10.30am we normally head out to meet friends, go to the park, go to someone’s house for a play. If we come home for lunch then we’ll call Dave in to join us for lunch.

We always aim to be home by 4pm for the kids to have a bit of a wind down before we start the whirlwind of bedtime. The kids play and watch a bit of TV.

At 5.30pm Dave comes in from the studio and he makes dinner for all of us. We eat together at 6pm; kids are in the bath at 6.30pm. Dave reads Daisy a book and I feed Bertie. By 7.15pm they’re generally asleep.

We’re aware that this to-ing and fro-ing is going to come to an end when Daisy starts school in a year and so we’re trying to enjoy every minute of the adventures of it while it lasts

After they’re in bed I have a quick clear around and Dave and I watch a series and eat chocolate. I’m in bed by 10pm and Dave heads to bed at 11pm.

Until a month ago Dave and I were sharing childcare and I was working early in the morning, after the kids had gone to bed and trying to squeeze in an email or two while pushing the buggy. With two kids and a hectic inbox I was struggling to keep my head above water and started feeling like I was doing both roles badly.

Due to our lifestyle of dividing time between two countries and long waiting lists for nursery places it’s never been possible to put Daisy into nursery. A month ago a nanny started with us working 12 hours a week and it has changed my life. She’s in our home so I can still feed Bertie and it gives me really focused time to work.

In Kenya, we have the same routine as in the UK but everything happens earlier. Dave has a studio in our house so at 8am he heads into the studio and Alice and Pauline, the two ladies who work in our house and look after the kids, arrive. They have been working with us since before the kids were born and so are really part of our family. Daisy is always very excited to see them – show them what she’s wearing, tell them what she’s eaten for breakfast, what time she woke up etc.

I hang out with the kids until 9am when I head to work while Bertie has his nap. The factory is five minutes walk away so it’s easy to come back and forth. I come back home at midday and start to make lunch while Alice and Pauline have their lunch break. At 2pm when Bertie has his afternoon nap I head back to the factory for a few hours.

At 5pm we often go for a walk to feed our neighbour’s chickens or go on a game-drive. SOKO and our home are based in a wildlife sanctuary and so within 20 minutes drive if we’re lucky we could spot an elephant or giraffe. Our bedtime routine happens the same as in the UK.

We’re aware that this to-ing and fro-ing is going to come to an end when Daisy starts school in a year and so we’re trying to enjoy every minute of the adventures of it while it lasts.

On running SOKO: an ethical fashion factory

There are a number of organisations and initiatives focused on working with fashion brands and factories to improve working conditions. The supply chain of a garment is so complex and so many hands are involved in the process that transparency along the whole chain is near impossible. We’re moving forward but there’s still a long way to go.

In terms of awareness and pressure on big business to change their practices, we are moving in the right direction. As with any industry the bottom line profit has to make sense, which is always the challenge.

In terms of the state of the fashion industry: fast, cheap fashion is becoming ever faster and millions of poorly made, low quality garments are entering the market and in a blink filling our landfill sites or being shipped to developing countries and interfering with their local economy.

As consumers we are completely disconnected with the fact that our clothes are made by people and that someone was involved in every seam, pocket, collar and button on a garment. This was something that was really important to me when I started SOKO – that people could know who made their clothes. Brands visit and learn about the impact producing through SOKO has on the families and the local community.

My dream for SOKO is to continue to become better at what we do and grow and create more jobs for the local community. It’s been amazing to see the change that having a secure job has had on people’s lives. In 2014 we launched the SOKO Community Trust with the aim to provide people with the practical skills needed to see sustainable improvements in their lives. These projects are growing and I’m hoping that through this work we will see more people’s lives impacted.

As for family life… In an ideal world we would continue to travel between the two countries allowing the kids (and us) to have the experience of both an amazing city and the wilds of Africa. I would continue doing exactly the same work that I’m doing but with a lot less admin!”

Follow SOKO on Instagram: @sokokenya
Visit the website: soko-kenya.com