It was her participation in a year-long placement program with AusAID, an Australian government agency responsible for providing overseas aid that first brought Anna Robertson to Ghana. Working in the “vast” international development sector, the Sydney native landed herself in a Ghanian think tank.
“My managers were smart and switched on, the team was eventually welcoming, and I was surrounded by politically engaged outspoken and opinionated Ghanaians,” Anna explains. “I learnt a lot in the first year.”
At the time, Anna was working in the coastal city of Accra, where a quarter of Ghanians call home, during one of the biggest election projects in the country. The experience was eye-opening.
“There is a lot of box ticking and inefficiencies with funding,” she explains. “The vast majority of the population don’t see that money: the governments are preoccupied with getting re-elected, so that’s when I turned to social enterprise and looking at what makes the country tick.”
Unsurprising, as the informal sector employs 80% of the Ghanian workforce, the 30-year-old found the loudest ticking came from informal female-owned enterprises. It was both her disillusionment with local governments and the “crazy sensory experience” of trawling the everyday market stalls of Accra that gave Anna an idea.
“I was really impressed with how contemporary and dynamic the local textile and prints were,” she says. “After a year of living in Accra and establishing relationships and understanding how the place ticked, I realised that there was a huge potential for skilled labour, and a market gap to create a really amazing product… that was made in Africa but didn’t rely on the charity model.”
And so, YEVU Clothing was born.
Combatting the decline of artisanal clothing makers as a result of a widespread shift to imported textiles, ‘yevu’, a common Ewe word for white people that translates roughly to ‘crafty dog’ used since colonial times, combats the potential loss of income and tradition by employing local Ghanians to continue their craft on YEVU’s time. The company employs 24 Ghanian staff, both makers and support staff, who produce 1000 pieces a month, with each micro producer receiving a wage 15 times the country’s minimum for their troubles, according to a price-per-piece principle that has been set by the makers themselves. There are no seasonal collections, just a rotation of those inimitable prints in standardised styles, with a slight tweak in cut and pattern. As Anna speaks a functional level of Twi (the most widely spoken language) and the national standard is English, language is only a minor barrier to the mostly Ewe-speaking staff that are employed at YEVU. But it’s the cultural differences that have been the most difficult to translate.
“What I think is ethical practice and in the best interest of our employees is not necessarily what they think,” Anna explains. “[Rather than] imposing things… asking what people want and need has sometimes meant swallowing what I’ve spent years ‘knowing’. This has lead to us having a really invested and reliable work force that now takes ownership of the success of the business.”
Anna spends around four months of every year in Ghana and still takes part in the “physically and emotionally draining” exercise of navigating the byzantine markets of Accra to source new fabric.
“Every morning for about four hours, [I’d be] trawling through the alley ways and nooks and crannies of Makola Market… looking for the right prints, amongst hundreds of thousands,” Anna says. The fact that stall owners exchange only in cash adds another layer of complication, resulting in backpacks and bumbags overflowing with cash.
Then, [I’d be] hauling hundreds of yards of prints everyday across the markets, with some help from the local Kayayo girls, who carry massive loads in big silver bowls on their heads for people at the markets, and transporting it all to the workshop.”
While Anna stills spends a considerable amount of time looking for those “special” prints and fabrics, recently limiting each range to just 10-15 prints was a later strategy that has thankfully streamlined this process for Anna, who can now liaise with trusted women-owned wholesalers via Whatsapp to place her orders.
The nature of establishing a business in a third-world country is being at the mercy of the many obstacles that effect companies country-wide: unreliable access to electricity and machinery, water shortages, mass flooding and robbery have all plagued YEVU in the past. The factory has now installed generators so that each employee has equal access to work. “Without access to generators, workers [at other companies] literally have to wait next to their machines at times overnight waiting for the power to return so they can finish a job and make enough money to eat that week.”
In addition to generators and security to protect the staff and business from theft, the company also provides the machinery, water tanks, cooking facilities and accommodation are admirable add-ons for YEVU employees, especially beneficial to those staff members who live in villages outside the city. The company also has two full-time nannies to assist working mothers and have recently trained two managers in computer literacy, with a view to providing health care later this year. These benefits are he advantage of building an ethical company from the “ground up”, confirms Anna.
“A lot of ethical brands contract their production to factories that operate ‘ethically’, which is one way to do it, but this gives us full autonomy and control, flexibility,” Anna says. “We are fully accountable.”
You can shop YEVU online, or at the Paddington, Sydney pop-up store, open until Sunday 12th Feb.