Mwayi: Custom-made Clothing Fostering an Inclusive Economy for Women in Malawi

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I am particularly interested in business models that integrate the craft of workers into the increasingly interconnected global economy. Mwayi is a company doing so for young women in Malawi. The founder, Renata Aráuz-DeStefano, launched Mwayi during business school and now manages the social enterprise as a side hustle. I have been wanting to work on a Q&A post for some time now, so I'm excited to share her story. Thanks, Renata!

YOU PREVIOUSLY WORKED IN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AND NOW WORK AS AN INVESTMENT BANKER. WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO LAUNCH THIS SOCIAL ENTERPRISE?

Working toward a more equitable world has always been a core guiding principle for me. Throughout my three and a half years in microfinance, I noticed that unskilled and under-educated individuals, particularly women, were left out of the formal and informal economy. Without the tools to start a business, they were ineligible for business loans. So there was this disconnect that was constantly on my mind. Then, while living in Malawi, I fell in love with the bold, vibrant fabrics we call “African prints,” and the accessibility of “tailor-made” garments.

Finally, once I returned to the U.S. for business school - with a suitcase full of custom-made African print clothes - all the pieces sort of started to come together. I was in a business-focused environment that exposed me to social entrepreneurship, I had a product that people were interested in (I had friends giving me their measurements so my tailor in Malawi could sew garments for them), and I still had this strong desire to build something that would serve the people excluded by microfinance and other development initiatives.

MWAYI MARRIES TWO DISTINCT STYLES: TRADITIONAL AFRICAN PRINTS AND MODERN DESIGN. TELL US ABOUT THE HANDMADE, MADE-TO-MEASURE PRODUCTION PROCESS. HOW DO THE UNIQUE GARMENTS COME ABOUT WITH A TEAM OF TAILORS ABROAD?

Well, everything starts when our customer places her order and sends us her measurements (this brief video tutorial walks them through how to get each measurement right). From there, our tailors in Malawi cut each piece of fabric specifically for that customer. Rather than having ready-made inventory, we have an inventory of fabric – also called “chitenge” in Chichewa, the language spoken in the region of Malawi where we’re based. We produce on demand, so we can’t compete with “fast fashion” and two-day delivery times, but we believe in our product. Customers feel confident when wearing something tailor-made for their bodies, and also gain satisfaction from knowing that their purchase empowered the women who made their garments.

 The Adona

The Adona

 Joy Gondwe, Lead Tailor

Joy Gondwe, Lead Tailor

 The Adamma

The Adamma

AS A SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE COMPANY, MWAYI IS CENTERED ON FAIR WAGES AND EMPLOYEE DEVELOPMENT. WHAT IMPACT DO CONSUMERS HAVE WHEN PURCHASING FROM MWAYI?

From the very beginning, we wanted to have the biggest impact possible and, for us, this meant seeking out some of Malawi’s most vulnerable young women.  Through a partnership with a Malawi-based NGO, Mai Aisha Sisters Youth AIDs Programme, we are able to do just that.  Thanks to their grassroots outreach and village-based youth groups, we identified at-risk young women who dropped out of high school and lacked career skills, and thus stood to gain the most from our Mwayi Apprenticeship Program (MAP). From over 50 applicants in 2017, we selected 5 apprentices who are set to graduate from our program this month!

These young women receive a small stipend and transportation reimbursements throughout the duration of the training program and, upon graduation, are eligible for full-time hire at 2x the average salary for tailors in the region. Mwayi sales allow us to continue to pay above-market wages and invest in a community of women that otherwise would not have access to a viable career.  Prior to joining the MAP, most of our apprentices were unemployed or relied on infrequent odd jobs, such as selling candies on the street.  For me, Mwayi is not only about creating jobs, but about expanding the pie and bringing previously excluded young women into the workforce for the first time.

HOW IS MWAYI DIFFERENT FROM OTHER RESPONSIBLE BRANDS IN THE MARKET?

I think that this point I just brought up, in reference to expanding the pie, is a key differentiator.  We aren’t simply going out and hiring tailors who already have the skills and income to sustain themselves and their families, we’re training young women who, for various reasons, weren’t able to complete their formal education and now need an “option B” so to speak (shout out to Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant!).  Also, I think it’s important to note that we go a step further than most: we don’t just offer jobs, we offer jobs that pay 2x the regional average.  And – if I can just add one last point – we’re the only made-to-measure African fashion brand in the U.S.!

FINALLY, IN WHAT WAYS HAS AN MBA ENABLED YOU TO LAUNCH A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE ABROAD?

First of all, the thought of launching Mwayi without an MBA in-hand seems inconceivable to me!  I’m biased, of course, but I can’t think of a better time or place to launch any business than while in business school. In an MBA program, you’re surrounded by academics who live and breathe business, you have countless extracurricular resources at your fingertips, and you have remarkable peers with a vast array of experiences who are able and willing to help you along the way. In terms or more tangible take-aways from by business school experience, I guess I would say that an MBA gave me a toolkit or a “blue print” of sorts: it empowered me with the core building blocks for how to think about a business and provided key insights as to how different players (customers, investors, etc.) interact with it. More than anything, though, being at Wharton gave me access to a wealth of resources and experiences outside the classroom that enabled me to launch Mwayi – not least of which include some of my incredible classmates, you know who you are!

Ready to place your Mwayi order? Use code "RESPONSIBUYS10" for 10% off!

Anairis Hinojosa