In today’s Christmas edition of Africa’s Most Innovative Companies, Herman and Lucy Bigham – co-founders of social enterprise Tosheka Textiles – speak to Ventures Africa about the benefits of implementing a creative new business to address environmental problems while empowering the economically challenged.

Tosheka Textiles is a green textiles company, which focuses on providing innovative solutions to the proliferation and inadequate disposal of plastic bags in Africa – starting the ambitious project in Kenya.  Tosheka focuses on empowering the economically disadvantaged in society to recycle plastic bags and produce unique textiles and products.

The co-founders explain: “Our locally made hand crafted recycled textile products utilizing traditional skills and contemporary designs for the high end and medium income consumers [are] unique and of better quality…We produce cutting edge designs changing with the market trend, environmentally socially conscious products and support a community enterprise value chain.”

“We are the pioneers of the future “Green Textile Economy”,” they add.

Recycling is proving a big challenge to Africa, with every member of society being affected by the increasing extent of the problem.  The Tosheka co-founders describe the problem that African communities are facing, and the issue that their social enterprise seeks to address.

“The proliferation and disposal of plastic bags is a huge environmental problem and polluting nuisance to cities and rural environments causing health hazards and deaths to children and animals,” the Bighams explain.

“They are consumed daily by the public with no effective means of being disposed. Also, in Africa there are almost no systems for collection and recycling,” the pair adds.

However, as a social enterprise the company addresses more than one pertinent problem in Africa.  Not only does Tosheka combat the recycling deficit, but seeks to provide an avenue of income for local communities and producers, thus contributing to the alleviation of poverty – the company already employing 400 individuals, with over 200 local producers already earning between 1,200 and 2,000 Kenyan Shillings ($14- $23) per week.

“Tosheka has developed business driven solutions with significant impact on the environment and that provides income which eliminates the need to leave the homesteads to go to the cities in hopes of finding meager employment,” the co-founders say, explaining the multiple layers to the social enterprise.

Going on to describe the business benefits provided by this model, the Bighams note: “This distinguishes Tosheka from any potential competitor or the few businesses that engage in similar recycling or up cycling production. It also gives us access to the market place and long-term relationships with our partners, stakeholders and customers.”

However, the social enterprise model also has its drawbacks, with the co-founders easily pinpointing the most prominent difficulty behind the innovative business model.

“The social enterprise business model provides the benefit of establishing you as an entity that uses standard business practices with your clients & supplies and at the same time addresses social problems…The disadvantage of being an SE is that it is more difficult to get grant support.”

No amount of disadvantages or obstacles will dampen the Tosheka team’s ambition, and commitment to the cause, and the company already has extensive plans for future expansion and development.

“Our goal is to greatly expand our product line and production capacity to meet the global market demand for unique, quality green and recycled products,” reveal the Bighams, adding that they plan to use income and assets of the enterprise to: “develop a full-scale commercial green textile production facility in Kenya using cotton and other natural fibres, dyes and pigments.”

The Tosheka founders also have aims with respect to the uptake of plastics in African society, saying: “Our long-term goal is to reduce the consumption of plastics.”

Given the success in Kenya of the Tosheka business and social enterprise model, the pair already has plans for the global roll-out of the Tosheka concept, disclosing: “Our marketing response in USA and Haiti’s proximity to our Western Markets has necessitated our consideration to replicate this business and setup a production center in Haiti.”

So is the model as successful in financial terms as it is with respect to addressing important social and environmental issues, following its first year of operations?

“Our financial diagnostics values and findings are in a good range,” reveal the Tosheka founders, adding: “Using our income projections, comfortable operating and training cost figures with significant cash reserves we demonstrate moderate profitability in the second year.”

The coming period will be key for the company, with the co-foudners planning increased spending on advertising to maximize exposure, but nonetheless expecting significant growth over its second year of existence.

“The company projects rapid growth, with significant profitability in the second year. Our operating plan emphasizes the reinvestment of income for product development according to market appraisals, marketing, training and expansion. Our aggressive sales revenues will enable us fund our growth internally even without additional investments beyond that currently sought,” the Tosheka team discloses.

Despite the ambitious plans the pair has for Tosheka, they concede that there has been one particularly prominent obstacle to setting up a business in Kenya: “The bank interest rates are too high for small businesses.”

As to the consequences of this obstacle, they add: “We are hampered in achieving success or take advantage of the sales opportunities and project impact without an additional funding support.”

The Bigham pair has some parting words for budding entrepreneurs hoping to embark on their own business venture: “Do extensive research & planning up front & reassess your progress & plans quarterly.”


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