The journey to Swahlee
Originally published 20 February 2019
Thirteen years ago, I never would have imagined that one day I would start an apparel company in India. I was halfway through my junior year of college and had just begun a semester abroad in Uganda. I thought I was there to “help” people, volunteer with orphans, explore a beautiful country, and take some courses.
I quickly learned that to really help people in a lasting way is hard and complex, and even more so when crossing cultures. I was humbled to realize that I did not have a lot to offer, but that I had a lot to learn. Thankfully, my East African classmates, professors, and homestay families were gracious and excellent teachers. Despite being challenged by the complexities, my time in Uganda ignited a life-long passion for building relationships across cultures and for working alongside and learning from women to change our world together.
Through studying and working in the area of international community development, I began to see a pattern when girls lack education and economic opportunities: it inevitably leads to an increase in forced/coerced early marriages, childhood domestic servitude, sexual exploitation, and other harmful forms of labor migration. These things occur in different forms and to varying extents all over the globe. They aren’t limited to certain regions or countries. In fact, in today’s globalized economy, injustices in one country are exploited and exacerbated by the policies and spending habits of another.
Later, while working in the area of aftercare, I saw that even after escaping from exploitative situations, the same young women continue to face barriers to employment due to lack of education, stigma, and vulnerabilities from trauma, and remain at risk to continued exploitation.
In my role as a consultant for nonprofits, it became apparent that in addition to the valiant efforts of NGOs (non-government organizations), legislatures, and law enforcement, there is a huge space for job creation and income generation that can only be filled by profitable, fair businesses. Swahlee was born out of a vision to fill this void.
Working abroad has given me wonderful travel opportunities. Throughout my travels, I’ve seen exquisite, artisanal products made using skills and talents passed down from generation to generation. The fast fashion available in most of our retail chains today cannot compare both in artistic value and longevity to these treasures. Ethical business is a way to connect these artisans to markets that acknowledge the true worth of their craft. When these craftspeople and makers are compensated the fair value of their work – what they are rightly owed, they can adequately provide for their families and plan for the future. This means we as consumers may have means to buy less, but what we buy is fairly purchased and better made. This is the way business is supposed to function and this is a business I want to be a part of.
At Swahlee we see untapped potential in this region we call home: a vibrant, young labor force and a beautiful handloom fabric tradition. We bring these together in the creation of lovely, well-made dresses that we are proud to share with the world.
Andrea Stokes is the founder and a director of Swahlee Textiles and Apparel.