Ellen Leabeater finds out why Anna Robertson, founder of Ghana-based clothing company Yevu, just wants to generate decent wages for a small group of people. Oh, and bring some sweet threads to the international market.
Ellen Leabeater (EL): Anna, introduce yourself with whatever title you want.
Anna Robertson (AR): Ruler of the world, does that count? [Laughs] Hi I’m the founder of Yevu clothing, a social enterprise based out of Ghana in West Africa.
EL: How did you find yourself in Ghana?
AR: I found myself in Ghana in 2012, I got a position through the AusAID program when it existed called Australian Youth Ambassador for Development.
EL: So what exactly were you doing in Ghana?
AR: I was working on the federal election, and my job was to monitor and evaluate election projects which was going towards “improving democracy in Ghana.” And I’m doing inverted commas. We were doing the biggest national observation of the election in 2012 which is really important in newly democratic countries.
EL: What was it like for you in Ghana coming from a wealthy, Australian life?
AR: [Laughs] I was like, I’m not going to last here a fucking second. I remember touching down, I was reading a book called Shadow of the Sun by [Ryszard] Kapuscinski. He was one of the first Polish journalists in sub-saharan Africa and the chapter I was reading was about Ghana as we landed. And that chapter was written just post-independence in the late 1950s, and I kid you not, I got off the plane and it was exactly as he’d described it. And that was 60 years ago. So it was shambolic, it was crazy chaotic, messy, dirty, noisy and intense. Totally over sensory, the experience was really sensory for me, and it was scary.
EL: Had you travelled much before?
AR: I travelled extensively, but I had never been in a place like [Ghana] that felt so foreign. There is very little tourism. It’s this crazy hectic city where it’s not beautiful, but there is a real pulse. If you are an adrenaline junkie, — which I am, I don’t get adrenaline from jumping out of planes but I do get it from living in those environments — then it can really feed you and nourish you in a certain way.
EL: How long did you have this job for?
AR: Only for a year. I learnt an incredible amount about West African politics the socio-economic situation for Ghanaians. My job was to interview political party and electoral commission members people. And everything is politicised in these places. Like everyone wants to have a say, you very rarely meet someone who is apathetic towards the political process. I was able to get a really good understanding of the economic and political situation of the country because of that job.
EL: What happened when your job with AUSAID ended?
AR: I tried to get an extension but it failed. So then I was like “fuck it, I’m going to stay here and work for free for a while” [laughs] and part of that was because I had started to developing a business in the months before that, and I wanted to sort of spend more time on it before I left.
EL: So this was the start of Yevu, what your motivation?
AR: I don’t know, I think I was kind of crazy. I didn’t start this with the intention of pursuing it full time. I guess the impetus was threefold. Firstly, incredible textile industry in West Africa and Ghana is the epicentre of that. I’ve seen Asian and Indian textiles and I was like, these are just different. These will kill it in an Australian summertime market. Secondly it was also knowing how many people are employed in the informal sector in Ghana.
Image: Yevu Clothing.
EL: What’s the informal sector?
AR: So informal sector is like the market vendors, the guys selling you toothbrushes by the side of the road. Everyone is an entrepreneur, everyone has a 9–5 and a 5–9 they call it in Ghana. 80% of the country is employed in that sector that means they’ve got no social security, no pension, no healthcare, no nothing.
EL: If you’re employed in the informal sector how much money are you making in a year?
AR: It really varies, there is no consistency around it. So off the top of my head someone might earn, maybe $USD3000 a year. Like that’s someone who is a seamstress or a tailor.
EL: And is that enough money to live on in Ghana?
AR: No. Ghana is highly inflated. Finding [a place to live] is almost impossible. And I’m not talking about for me, I’m talking about for Ghanaians. I can pay cash upfront, it’s illegal to, but you have to pay cash upfront two years rent to secure accommodation, that’s for locals. It’s really unregulated basically. So rent is one of the costs, the cost of living is high, especially if you are running a business because of the electricity crisis and water shortages. They’ve only just increased the minimum wage from 6 cedis to 8 cedis per day, that is about $AUD2–2.50 per day, that’s a statutory minimum wage, no-one can live off that.
EL: There are three reasons why you started Yevu — the design, the potential in the informal sector and…?
AR: Three, I think I just wanted to give myself something to do when I got back to Australia. Because I was like, getting a job in the development sector in Australia is not necessarily easy. And so I just wanted to explore other options and give myself some time and I thought starting up Yevu was a good way to do to that because it required very small financial input from me and like, no risk.
EL: So what made Yevu so successful?
AR: There was a gap in the market for really good quality, really good quality contemporary African textile apparel in Australia that appeals to a market that isn’t just about buying socially conscious clothing but actually thinks a product is fucking cool. And it was about changing the mindset around having African made goods as charity. We are so far behind in the way we think about charity and development and Africa. You’ve still got that image of the famine children, the World Vision sponsor a child, and there is so much wrong with that as well. That aid model is no longer relevant, and I’ve experienced that first hand. Yes in a very small context, yes it’s a drop in the ocean, but coming from my background and studying it and having a passion for it I can safely say I think that model is now really redundant.
People have come in in the past or they email me, and say “why is your price point at this point?” and I say, “do you go into Uniqlo and ask them why their price point is so low?” Like, I can sit here and give you a fully transparent financial analysis of why our price point is the way it is. But just because something is made in Africa and just because it’s socially responsible doesn’t mean it’s a piece of shit and you shouldn’t have to pay anything for it, it’s the opposite of that.
EL: Was it a lightning bolt moment to start Yevu or did you put some thought into it?
AR: I literally just did it, I didn’t put much thought into it. I know everyone thinks planning is the road to success, but I didn’t plan it. Following my instincts and investing time and energy researching the environment first, gave me the leverage and confidence I needed to succeed. And seeing the response from the Australian market was definitely the reason I continued to do it.
EL: How did you meet your business partner, Gifti?
AR: Gifti is a fucking powerhouse of a woman. She had a tailoring business based around the corner from where my office was in central Accra and I started going there and getting stuff made for work for me personally. I saw this incredible business acumen in her, a desire to grow her own business and be economically independent. She had the production facilities to match and it truly was a lucky fluke that I met her.
EL: And when you two decided to give this thing a go, did you go into it with the intention of giving everyone good wages etc? Did that come from your international development background?
AR: Absolutely. I kind of went back and reversed what I thought I knew about the neo-liberal situation. The government was really failing its people.
At the end of the day, if you speak to an average informal sector female worker in Ghana and you ask them what they want, they just want a stable, steady income. It’s pretty simple. Not to say there aren’t massive education and healthcare challenges the international development community or the government needs to do something about, but I think that on a basic level it’s about economic empowerment.
It did start off with me thinking there is an opportunity to generate decent wages for a small group of people in jobs they are skilled by giving them access to a much wider international market. So we started hiring people. Gifti would do the due diligence on them which is like, “where is your family from, where do you live?” You have to actually know where people physically live because if they fuck off with all your cloth and money you need to be able to track them down — and I’m not kidding this has happened before — I’ve had to spend a month finding people’s housing because they just leave. That’s not the norm and we obviously don’t like to work with people who do that but it happens when people are financially desperate.
Initially we weren’t signing contracts with anyone we were just like — hey, we’ve got the facilities and if you’re good enough to work for us and you want to be here and you want to commit to the next 3 months of full time work then we’ll sample with you, see how you go and go from there.
And that’s how it happened, we started with 5–6 home based workers but I realised that’s not what we should be doing because there’s no transparency in the supply chain. So I was like okay we need to centralise this, I need to put more money into production, bring more people on board and create more demand for the product. It was kinda like this two fold growth thing that happened organically. That was a long answer, sorry, I just rambled on.
EL: Tell us more about the women you employ.
AR: We employ a team of around 17 or 18 makers and then we have 6–8 support staff, 2 of those women are full time nannies and then 70% of those people are females. The workplace and the culture of Yevu is really great. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back but it’s really fun. We have created a family so to speak and everyone is really enthusiastic about the work.
One great thing they’ve decided to do is have communal savings for the group so they put $30 a month into a kitty and if anyone in the group has a major health issue – someone’s mother passes away or one of their kids fall sick – they can take their money and it doesn’t need to be paid back. Which is a great co-operative savings scheme.
EL: Yevu is a social enterprise, how have you structured it?
AR: We are now a company limited by shares in Australia, and an NGO in Ghana. We’re working towards a financial model where our revenue (after overheads in Australia) is channeled into the the non-profit arm, the Yevu Foundation in Ghana, covering the costs of production and economic empowerment programs there. There is still plenty of information we need to get about setting up this structure, and we have accountants in both countries trying to advise us as best as possible, but it’s actually pretty tricky. There has been some recent changes in Ghana, where NGO’s were once automatically granted tax concessions but that has now changed and separate accreditation is needed. I presume that was as a result of people taking advantage of that. Because we have a commercial arm attached to our business, I understand that this will be difficult.
EL: Is social enterprise better than charity?
AR: No. I think the charity model, social enterprise, public/private partnerships and philanthropic funded groups all need to coexist. But I think social enterprise can do something charity can’t. And charity is doing something social enterprise can’t. I think the model is shifting and people are realising that there are so many challenges with the charity model and that’s still going to be there, but I think social enterprise can, maybe not replace it, but work in the same area in a different way.
EL: In a place like Ghana, do you think Yevu is solving the symptom and not the disease?
AR: Totally. I’m not a changemaker. I can’t change the capitalist system we operate in, all I can do is work within it and try and run a fair and equitable business and it’s not that hard to do. I’m surprised in the fashion industry you still have companies that aren’t able to just spend a little bit more to do a better job as naive as that sounds. The situation is people want jobs and money to support themselves and their families, to send their kids to school so hopefully those kids can get good educations and change the fucking system in those countries.
With help from Tida Tippapart & Alex Younes.
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