I first met Jennifer back in 2007. The Ethical Fashion Forum (UK) had partnered with International Trade Centre's Ethical Fashion Initiative headed up by Simone Cipriani who were invested in promoting creative trade and industry in Kenya. They had put together a tour and conference of a whole array of artisans and crafts group in and around Nairobi. I somehow managed to tag along and it became the start of many a beautiful thing.
Jennifer was working with with the Kariobangi Catholic Church who were being supported by the ITC in Korogocho. Korogocho, meaning crowded shoulder to shoulder, is Nairobi's second biggest slum. Jennifer was born there and has lived their her whole life. There was this whacky leprechaun-like little Italian priest (who's name escapes me) who obviously had a flair for creativity and endorsed all kinds of training for people like Jennifer in the community.
Through these initiatives Jennifer learnt weaving, leather work, shoe making, bead work, sewing and loads more I'm sure. In time they gained funding via the church and the ITC in order to buy industrial machines so that they could produce commercially for the export market. It was around this time that we met and for a few years Jennifer and her team made little ballet pumps out of the fabric off cuts from Lalesso clothing.
It kind of fizzled out and we lost touch for a while. It was about a year ago in 2017 when I was back visiting in Kenya that I got a message from her to say they were really struggling and could I support their work. My kind of challenge!
Initially, I bought heaps of beaded dog collars from her which I sold to whoever asked in Cape Town (side project!) but when I was starting Asha : Eleven I knew I wanted to engage with her and her community more and this was the start of The Jennifer Project.
Jennifer is one of those people whose zest for life is unavoidably inspirational. She's a YES woman. The project is named after her because really she deserves all the light she can get.
We started by chatting about what materials are readily available to her and what materials we could use that would aid in recycling in her area. In the end we decided on using plastic bags which are gathered from the grubby streets of Nairobi. She lives near a leather tannery which uses vegetable dyes and has so much excessive off cut waste so she would collect the pieces that were destined for land fill but stil of a decent enough size to use. The brass elements are made from melted down old recycled brass bits like padlocks etc.
After washing the plastic in a little nearby river, Jennifer distributes to her merry gaggle of women in Thika who carefully weave the baskets in the comfort of their homes where they can still look after their children, tend to their homesteads and not have to spend their money on commuting.
Jennifer then collects the baskets from the ladies and assembles them all together exactly to the design specifications I have sent her in her little workshop.
With her in Kenya and myself in Cape Town, we do all of this over whatsapp - anything is possible!
THE FUTURE FOR JENNIFER
In 2007 when Kenyans became subject to heinous sufferings with the post election violence, Jennifer was in the thick of it. Many of her community were killed and homes were burnt and destroyed all around her. She survived but one thing was for certain, she knew she wanted to get out of the slum. By 2011 she had saved enough money to buy a one acre piece of land in Thika. By 2017 she had managed to build one small hut on it which she now uses as her workshop.
Her goal is to move her and her close community there but they need to build a toilet and more dwellings so she's still saving. I firmly believe in trade not aid and we're not just supporting Jennifer, one bag at a time we're supporting a much greater extended community.
And to me the most special thing is, financially we're supporting her and improving her life but emotionally Jennifer will always be one of my greatest supports and inspirations.