Ali Hewson: Edun regained
By Craig McLeanSunday 30 May 2010
As schools go in Africa’s second-biggest slum, the children of Bidii Nursery are lucky. They’re in class from 8am to 3pm and are fed basic meals. There are 90 of them, aged one to seven; 35 are orphans. The school roll, written in a jotter, includes kids who don’t seem to even have a second name: Robert, Dennis, Brian.
The children have to share five teachers and one room of approximately 20ft by 20ft. The walls are bright with posters featuring lists of English words. The floor is hard-packed earth. The toilet is a flyblown hut out back. Neighbouring jerry-built developments are encroaching on the school’s modest footage. And some of those children who have parents are leaving Bidii. Mum and dad can’t afford the monthly school fees of 200 shillings – the equivalent of £2.
This is Kibera, a jam-packed mass of corrugated iron roofs, mud walls, twisty alleyways, 1.5 million people and no running water. It is a city within a city – Kibera billows out from the edge of Nairobi, capital of Kenya. Some westerners might know it from The Constant Gardener, the 2005 film about the corrupt practices of first-world pharmaceutical companies.
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That’s how I “knew” Kibera. But obviously I didn’t really know it. The smell, the smoke, the crunch and squelch underfoot of rubbish and gnawed cornhusks, the swampily faecal pools, scrubby patches of Brussels sprouts, people crammed everywhere. The shop-shacks selling buckets of coal, handfuls of potatoes, grooming, surgery: Ongare Success Shop; Humble Beginnings Salon and Beauty Shop; Bongo Vibes Pub; Family Planning & Circumcision. It is a lot to take in.
Ali Hewson had no direct experience of the poverty in Kenya either. In 1985, shortly after U2’s career-making performance at Live Aid, she and her husband Bono went to Ethiopia. In 2005, she visited Lesotho, to check out the factories which Edun, her and Bono’s ethical fashion company, had established in the southern African kingdom. I was with her on that trip. Lesotho, a small mountain state decimated by Aids and unemployment, was overwhelming too.
But Kenya is new to her. She is here to visit Made, a fair-trade jewellery and accessories company established in London in 2005 by Bristol-born Gerson Barnett and his Italian wife, the designer Cristina Cisilino. Made wanted to use African skills and African raw materials – many of them reclaimed and repurposed (glass from beer bottles, rubber from flip-flops) – to create hand-made products for western boutiques and chainstores. And to create jobs for African people.
In 2007, Cisilino and Barnett took their principles and, along with their son, moved to Nairobi. Now they employ 65 local people to make necklaces, earrings, bracelets and bags that are sold in Whistles, Topshop and John Lewis. They play to the strengths of their Kenyan craftspeople: the Luo tribe are adept at metalwork, the Masai know how to work beads. And they work with visiting collaborators, such as the Dutch jewellery designer Natalie Dissel and Livia Firth, the wife of Colin Firth and co-owner of Eco boutique in London, using locally sourced and recycled raw materials.
Hewson wants to see how Made does things: how it runs as a business, how it turns the profits back to the local people; in 2008, Cisilino and Barnett founded a non-profit organisation, Made Africa, to promote and support educational and training projects. It sponsors Bidii school.
“They’re very forward-thinking,” Hewson says approvingly after a morning touring Made’s airy, light-filled workshops a 10-minute drive from Karen, the Nairobi suburb named after Karen Out Of Africa Blixen, on whose former farmland the western outskirts of the Kenyan capital are situated. “They have developed new ways of designing and putting jewellery together. We can really work with that.”
Hewson is impressed with “how they make everything here on the ground, from the bone beads to casting their own little parts for necklaces and bags. That’s very exciting – we can send our creative director here and she can work with them.”
Hewson is also in Africa to kick-start the relaunch, five years after its inception, of Edun. Despite the deep pockets which she, Bono and his brother Norman Hewson used to launch the company; despite the input of the well-regarded New York designer Rogan Gregory; despite the clout of the world’s biggest rock star, it wasn’t enough to make Edun the trailblazing profitable, ethical, desirable fashion brand Hewson wanted it to be. In 2007, the three shareholders had…