VAZI AFRIQ

Fashion designer who plants a tree for every cloth she sells

Kauer Akisa, 32, is making people care about the environment in her business

In Summary

• Akisa is an environmental scientist-cum fashion designer pushing for the restoration of Kenya’s lost green cover by planting indigenous trees

• Part of the money she earns from selling her African-made products is the resource she budgets for buying seedlings from Emaua

Vazi Afriq CEO Kauer Akisa plants a tree
Vazi Afriq CEO Kauer Akisa plants a tree
Image: EMOJONG OSERE

In 2009, when Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Agriculture Minister William Ruto were at loggerheads over the government’s decision to evict 20,000 families illegally occupying the Mau Forest, Kauer Akisa was 20 years old.

Although she was aware of the evictions, Akisa told the Star she did not understand the politics that fuelled the ejection of the illegal inhabitants of the expansive forest.

She only later understood how significant it was to preserve the water tower and the general environment when she enrolled for a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Science at the Eldoret University a year later.

Akisa is an environmental scientist-cum-fashion designer pushing for the restoration of Kenya’s lost green cover by planting indigenous trees.

She runs the initiative through Vazi Afriq, an African fashion and design company that plants one tree for every Sh1,000 ($10) cloth she sells.

The native trees are supplied by a local partner organisation, Emaua, which champions environmental conservation.

“We plant the trees every April of every year because of the long rains since it is easier to plant them during the rainy season,” she said in an interview at her shop at Hass Petrol Station in Busia town.

“Emaua delivers the seedlings in April when the rains have started. We chose April because if we planted the trees during the dry season, not everyone would get motivated to plant and water them.

“We give some of the trees to our clients who are passionate about environmental conservation to plant for themselves, while some are given to Emaua organisation to plant in institutions like schools.”

Akisa, who comes from Aboloi village in Teso North subcounty, also distributes the seedlings to local farmers who supply her company with acacia trees. She uses the trees for making removable stools and lap tables.

The farmers who receive the native tree species from Vazi Afriq for planting in turn supply her company with papyrus reeds, which she uses for producing lampshades, candleholders, picnic baskets and magazine racks.

Her collaboration with local farmers, she said, is meant to economically empower her community.

A team from Emaua organisation, which supplies native tree seedlings to Vazi Afriq, offloads some of the seedlings in readiness for planting
A team from Emaua organisation, which supplies native tree seedlings to Vazi Afriq, offloads some of the seedlings in readiness for planting
Image: EMOJONG OSERE
We give the trees to our clients who are passionate about environmental conservation to plant for themselves, while some are given to Emaua to plant in institutions like schools
Kauer Akisa

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERN

Akisa, the fourth born in a family of two boys and four girls, said her motivation for combining her fashion and design business with environmental conservation comes from her passion for fighting runaway ecological degradation.

Official data shows Kenya has been losing approximately 12,000ha of forest cover every year since 1963, when the country attained independence.

The Kenya Forestry Service reported in March that at least 988,422 acres of public forests under the service have been degraded and need to be fixed.

Akisa told the Star one of the challenges the world faces is environmental abuse which, if left unregulated, may result in adverse effects on humanity.

The entrepreneur, who graduated in 2014, said it is the duty of every Kenyan to conserve the environment. It is vital in protecting wildlife, promoting biodiversity, maintaining a healthy, functional ecosystem and preventing the extinction of some animal species.

Her company, she said, relies on local raw materials, such as the acacia trees, which she said should be replenished whenever cut to guarantee the sustainability of investments that directly depend on such tree types.

“Some people really get shocked, especially when I am in the village, where people see no connection between trees and clothes. But I explain until they understand that it is a good course,” Akisa said.

“I tell them that it does not take hard work because we already have an organisation called Emaua that supplies the seedlings.”

By April 12, when she spoke to the Star, Vazi Afriq had already planted over 700 indigenous trees sourced from Kakamega forest.

Akisa is inspired by the late Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and former BBC senior manager David Attenborough. She planted her first $10-sale tree in 2018.

Attenborough, who also worked as director of programming at the BBC, is known for his writings on natural life.

“I love my project because it enhances the safety of the community in Busia county through the use of local resources,” Akisa said.

Part of the money she earns from selling her African-made products are the resource she budgets for buying seedlings from Emaua.

The young trees, after procurement, are conveyed to her clients, local farmers as well as Emaua organisation officials for planting.

Emaua plants the trees in Busia’s learning institutions spread across the seven subcounties of Teso North, Teso South, Nambale, Matayos, Butula, Samia and Bunyala.

Some of the trees are planted in parts of Siaya county neighbouring Busia.

TREE SUPERVISION

Since its inception, Vazi Afriq been keen on ensuring every tree planted survives. Akisa visits farmers who receive the indigenous seedlings after every four to six months to assess the trees and gauge their chances of survival.

To ensure the trees have a higher chance of growing to maturity, she gives the beneficiary farmers an assignment.

Each farmer is tasked to grow the trees to maturity for her to buy one acacia tree from each farmer. Every farmer receives 20 seedlings.

“We partner with farmers who grow acacia trees. We tell them we are buying an acacia tree and giving you 20 seedlings of acacia. And we will buy an acacia tree from you if the 20 seedlings have survived,” she said.

“I tell them I am not coming to buy trees from you if the seedlings would not have survived. So we try to motivate them because we give them a better price than a normal person going to buy from them.”

She said her company also closely works with local artisans. Some of the products she sells, such as removable stands, are made from the acacia tree.

Akisa was previously an employee in the Water department of the county government before resigning to venture into business. She currently partners with the Kenya Prisons Department, which she supplies with modelling attire.

She won this year a collaborative agreement with the Korinda Women’s Prison in Busia, where the correctional facility sources for modelling clothes from Vazi Afriq.

One of the highlights during Busia’s Open Day for Justice on March 19 was a session where models from the Kenya Prisons Department showcased their modelling skills donning Vazi Afriq regalia.

During the Open Day, Korinda Women's Prison head Jostinah Mwangombe praised Vazi Afriq for promoting environmental conservation.

Mwangombe said her department will always be ready to collaborate with investors out to impart positive values to the community while uplifting locals economically.

Akisa never thought she would make her fashion and design investment business official and make it her main occupation, but a passion to do things for herself drove her into it. 

She has no regrets over merging it with her environmental conservation initiatives since the two are now interdependent.

As she sources for local materials to make her products, she plants trees to conserve the environment while also economically empowering the community.

Her inspiration to join the fashion and design industry came during her 2010-14 campus days, where she designed clothes for her modelling university friends.

“I used to have friends who modelled and I would design clothes for them. Some of these designs would look really good and my modelling friends would win with them,” Akisa said.

“So before I started working just after graduation, in between looking for jobs, I would design and make something and publish it on Facebook and some of my friends would love and would ask if they can buy.

“It is through that that I became serious because if my friends loved my work then I said I can do more and make a difference.”

MARKET PROBLEMS

She said like any other industry competing with products from the West, Vazi Afriq is given a run for its money.

One of the challenges her company faces while marketing her locally made clothes and other household items is the native notion that African wear is not fashionable.

“Some people would prefer wearing a fake imported cloth compared to wearing my original kitenge because. They feel like my product is cheap and they connect it with naivety because they think kitenge is too local and backward,” Akisa said.

“So we have many people who have a bad notion about our products, although we are turning around our marketing strategies to change this so we have people embrace our locally produced stuff.”

The tendency by potential clients to look West and ignore African stuff hurts her environmental conservation efforts since it limits her sales, reducing the number of trees she plants. She currently runs three outlets in Switzerland and one shop in France, all dealing in her products.

The company operated an outlet at Village market in Nairobi but it was closed due to business interruptions brought about by Covid-19 restrictions. Clients from Nairobi who are still connected to the company still make orders from her shop in Busia before their orders are delivered to them.

To increase her sales in future and subsequently scale up the number of trees she plants, she said with time, her products will be sold in all continents.

“I would really love to have my Vazi Afriq products sold all over the world. The point for me is to work with my team locally to improve on production, and to respect the environment as I respect the people who work for me because it is also a social empowerment programme,” she said.

“I am empowering local dealers and local artisans and I would love to work with a team of empowered people because the aim is to have a team of more than 50 people who can get out of Vazi Afriq with a certificate and do something using their skills. In the next two to three years, I would like to have many people empowered as I open more outlets across the world.”

Some of the markets she envisions to venture into soon are Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania as she plans to use the opportunity to plant more than 100,000 trees.

“Always when you find a door open, you go through it, and that is why I ventured into the European market first," Akisa said.

"It is just that in Tanzania and Uganda, I haven’t found a good door yet, although some of our products are made from organic cotton that comes from Tanzania.”

She urged the youth to follow their passion and cultivate a culture that enables them to engage in activities they do with ease and enjoyment.

“If something beats in your heart, just go for it. I love what I am doing. I am passionate about it and I enjoy helping people because right now, I have six employees. So for me, I am happy I can touch people’s lives, which I never thought I would ever do.”

Competition in the fashion and design industry, which has many players, is healthy to her since it challenges her creativity to innovate new products that can withstand market dynamics locally and internationally.

“If you don’t see what others are doing, you will never really know how things are done,” she said.

“The bigger the competition the better because it pushes you to improve the quality of your work. I never take competition as a bad thing.”

Akisa's tree planting initiatives come at a time the government announced its commitment to increasing forest cover to 10 per cent by 2022, a move that needs about Sh48 billion.

Some 2 billion trees will be planted. The government has been keen to tap the potential of forestry in private and community land as it seeks to increase forest cover.

Under a draft Forest Policy 2020, the government says it cannot achieve 10 per cent cover by only focusing on gazetted forests on public land managed by Kenya Forest Service.

Edited by T Jalio