Recently, I went to the Ethical Fashion Forum‘s Source Expo in London and what an inspiring time  it was. I chatted to the international suppliers and manufacturers all making the textile industry a …

Recently, I went to the Ethical Fashion Forum‘s Source Expo in London and what an inspiring time  it was. I chatted to the international suppliers and manufacturers all making the textile industry a fairer place to work.

From Blacker Designs, who use British rare breed sheep’s wool to create yarn, to London’s Inmakulate who source textile made from recycled cotton and plastic bottles. From street projects in Bali and beyond, to the celeb-endorsed Environmental Justice Foundation, whose fans number Lily Cole and Katharine Hamnett.

This is the first post in an occasional series about who I met and what I learnt during The Expo.

First up producers working in Malawi, a tiny country in South Eastern Africa which runs along the coast of Lake Malawi. Think year-round sun, blue waters and the constant beat of reggae – you could be in the Caribbean. A place close to my heart as I travelled through several times in my free-wheeling twenties. Small it may be, but Malawi’s soul is huge – they don’t call it the warm heart of Africa for nothing.


Fishing on Lake Malawi (thankyou

Venture away from the coast though, beyond the tourist slogans, the smiling locals proffering Carlsberg and potent Chibuku homebrew and you’ll find a different reality –  where for every bar, there’s a coffin maker and where, like our Great-Grandmothers, many women know how it feels to lose a child.

What to do? Since Livingstone first visited the country back in the 1860s, Westerners – including a certain Madonna – have ‘done their bit’ to convert, feed and generally save this corner of Africa forgetting that, as with all of the African continent, Malawians don’t need ‘saving’ at all.

In fact, their creative and entrepreneurial potential is vast they simply deserve the opportunities that those living in The West take for granted: a good education, a stable and transparent government and fair, merit-based access to capital (not that these things are perfect in The West, but relatively speaking…).

These days though a new wind is blowing: trade not aid. ‘Give a woman a fish and you feed her for a day; teach a woman to fish and you feed her for a lifetime,’ and so on.

The rumble of Malawian creativity is being heard, boosting industries from tourism to textiles: take the annual Lake of Stars Festival on the shores of Lake Malawi where thousands of international tourists descend to watch local acts headline alongside the likes of Seth Lakeman and Groove Armada’s Andy Cato.

Manufacturing co-operatives too are springing up, working in partnership with international know-how and contacts. At the  EFF’s Source Expo I talked to two such initiatives.

Mayamiko Trust:

Mayamiko loves everyone, but has a special soft spot for the most vulnerable – women and children.”


Mayamiko's Fran MacEnroe and Paola Masperi

Cotton may be Malawi’s fourth biggest export commodity, but it only counts for a paltry 2% of the country’s total exports.  Unsurprisingly, what money is made rarely trickles down to the cotton growers.

Mayamiko wants to change this.  Producing garments in Malawi itself would add huge value to the cotton. It would also create jobs for women. This is vitally important as Malawi has heart-breakingly high infant mortality rates (175 out of every 1000). Study after study proves that when women are lifted from extreme poverty, infant deaths tumble.

Mayamiko’s plans are still developing, but they aim to train Malawian women in sewing, business, IT, literacy and lifeskills. Once these skills are up to scratch, clothing production will begin for both the internal and international markets.

Of course as all mums with young children know, work is impossible without reliable childcare. With this in mind, Mayimiko set up the Mini-Mayamikan Nursery providing little ones with healthy food and a fun, creative environment while their mums work.

To donate to this fantastic project, find out more or if you are interested in producing fairtrade clothing click here.


Fashion by Mia:

Forget those Fairtrade-fashion stereotypes, Mia Nisbet’s quirky, cut-and-paste designs are less church-fete, more Topshop.


Mia by Mia Nisbett

Visiting her Malawi-based sister, Mia, was inspired by the country’s street stalls: makeshift markets scattered on dirt-roadsides where the world’s op-shop donations (yes, your dad’s old rugby top and that skirt from The Warehouse) rub shoulders with Malawi’s brightly-hued traditional textiles.

Clothing alchemist that she is, Mia has upcycled fashion gold from this unlikely source. Think sharply tailored suites and jackets, hi-waisted fifties-style shorts, fitted jackets and loose-fitting tunics for women and little ones (her children’s line is called WeeMia) all with a Malawian twist. In doing so she’s made headlines all around the world including NZ’s very own 3news.


Mia Nisbett with some of her designs

And the fairy-tale ending?  Mia won the prestigious Make Your Mark in Fashion Award for ethical fashion during London fashion week 2008.

For more ethical fashion updates follow me on twitter:  @MaryMalyon

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