When Carly Beischer, Director of Sales and Partnerships for Ethical Apparel Africa (EAA), first started attending university, she had a clear career path in mind – and it didn’t have anything to do with fashion. Instead, she studied history and had planned on building a career around law.
After her first year at university, however, she ultimately realized that she was keen to explore an industry with a global reach. “I was drawn to the fashion and textiles industry as I found it to be an amazingly complex web of skilled people working together across a number of continents, and it felt like something that would never get boring, and that would also provide an opportunity for me to try and make some positive impact,” she told Fashionomics Africa.
So, Carly went on to study Clothing Technology and Fashion Management at the University of Manchester, where she directed her studies towards sustainable sourcing and lean management. Upon completing her studies, she worked in the clothing industry for over ten years and spent many years working on the supply side of the industry, liaising both with factories and retailers. She ran her own accessories brand for a while too, which gave her a new understanding of how hard it is to establish and succeed as a brand. All these experiences combined made her the perfect fit for the UK limited company, Ethical Apparel Africa, which was founded on the core belief that all manufacturing can and should be done ethically. Whilst working together in Ghana in 2015, co-founders Keren Pybus and Paloma Schackert decided West Africa was the best place to realize this concept.
“EAA is working to unlock the tremendous potential of the West African apparel industry, supporting African-owned factories to grow exports to the US, UK, and Europe. We are dedicated to developing factories in a lean, sustainable, and ethical way that sets the standard for garment manufacturing in a West African context. We work closely with government and development agencies to develop an ecosystem for industrial growth -- including the launch of a Centre of Excellence for local skill development (mechanic, pattern, industrial engineering etc.) and efforts to catalyse investment in an integrated cotton value chain. Our focus is on driving operational excellence at the factory level, reducing waste and steadily increasing efficiency. The resulting savings are invested in workers - through benefits, empowerment programs, and steady progress towards living wages,” Carly explains.
There is a huge pool of talent in West Africa, and for the region to be successful, it needs to be utilised. In Ghana, for example, where 50% of the population is under the age of 25, there is a literacy rate of 80%. “EAA doesn’t just want to provide work, we want to provide 'worthwhile work' which means satisfying jobs that offer career progression. We are transferring skills to the local workforce so that they can take on skilled roles and build a world class manufacturing region adopting best practice throughout the production processes. It is also essential for cost competitiveness; factories need a steady stream of local talent to allow them to increase efficiency and capacity. We currently have an expert team on the ground with many experienced expats, but they will not be in West Africa forever so in the meantime they are passing on their knowledge.”
To both improve existing jobs and create new ones, it is important to build long-term relationships with retailers and factories based on mutual benefits; without consistent orders, the factories can’t provide consistent employment. “This is where our focus is in finding the right clients for each factory, then supporting these relationships to grow and provide long term benefits for both parties. By 2023 we aim to help to create 2,500 worthwhile jobs in the West African apparel sector and we are on track,” Carly is proud to announce. “It is difficult to definitively say how many jobs EAA has helped to create to date, but thanks to the orders we have facilitated, our partner factories employ over 700 individuals, 70% of which are women, while the total was approximatively 200 when we started working together.”
As has been the case for most individuals and businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced EAA to adjust its plans for 2020. Following the great success of the first sourcing summit in 2019, EAA was all set to host the second event in May which, unfortunately, had to be cancelled. That said, the company was still able to mobilize funding and support from multiple donor agencies, which has enabled the production of over 50,000 sets of scrubs meeting international performance and quality standards. “The scrubs will be distributed to public and private hospitals at free or reduced cost levels, in close coordination with Ghana and Benin Governments. EAA is also investing to build PPE production capability in Ghana, with a focus on the manufacture of surgical masks achieving international testing requirements and certification. This surgical mask production unit will be the first of its calibre in Ghana -- providing a reliable source of local supply for medical-grade masks to protect healthcare providers.”
Ethical Apparel Africa will also facilitate a research project to identify the salient impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic on suppliers and workers operating across the African content. “The aim is to report on qualitative and quantitative data to advance a worker-centred understanding of the current situation in workplaces, effects on businesses continuity, supply, distribution and retention and how this is affecting livelihoods. The report will be made public with the hopes that it will inform businesses’ strategies to address and remedy, where possible, the salient human rights impacts of the pandemic on suppliers and workers in Africa,” Carly explains. “Beyond this research, the intention is that the results also contribute to better informed strategies when it comes to planning for post-COVID recovery – in other words, the wellbeing amongst workers, businesses and supply chains.”
In addition to providing medical clothing and PPE locally, EAA is working on developing long-term relationships with US and UK medical buyers by facilitating access to the West African production capacity and diversify their supply chains. This pivot has enabled the factories to avoid the widespread disruption seen in other garment producing regions, as they continue to provide their employees with safe and secure employment through this crisis. “We have a number of great partnerships in place with international brands and will dedicate 2020 to growing these relationships and continuing to provide high quality products, as well as reaching out to other companies who might be looking to branch out their supply base into new regions. Our Technical and Impact teams will continue to work closely with the factories to grow our capacity building and empowerment initiatives.”
SOURCE: African Development Bank Group (AfDB)