Kaleidoscope Beauty on how to give back with your fashion brand

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Kaleidoscope Beauty is a UK based jewellery brand created by Umutoni Thuku-Benzinge. Growing up in the UK whilst being of Kenyan and Rwandan heritage, Umutoni wanted to bring the three cultures together and simultaneously make an impact in a meaningful way.

The product of this was an ethical artisan fashion brand, with a focus on quality African design that invests into the community that makes its jewellery. We spoke to Umutoni on how she pays it forward to young artisans in Kenya with Kaleidoscope Beauty below:

When was Kaleidoscope Beauty created and what inspired you to start your jewellery business?

I launched Kaleidoscope Beauty on the 17th December 2018. From the age of 15 I knew I wanted to own a business and that it would be beauty related. Being British born and of both Kenyan and Rwandan heritage, I’ve always had a very strong affinity with my East African roots and had a desire to amalgamate all my worlds while giving back in a sustainable way. My experience in a pageant I competed in, aimed at sharing the importance of marine conservation; [opened my eyes] to the many possibilities and avenues that can be used to drive social change.

In addition, [I observed] creative industries taking their inspiration from the African continent.  Spanning from high fashion runways, to Hollywood costume designs in films such as Black Panther, I realised there is a global demand for African design and I am well equipped to be a part of the movement. These realisations coupled up with the social impact potential gave me the confidence to take the leap of faith and venture out into the unknown. 

How is it going so far?

We’re still going, and in the middle of a pandemic, so I would say that’s a positive sign especially as an e-commerce brand when retail is shifting to having a more online focus. I started the brand as a side hustle alongside my 9-5 at the time. Last year I took the leap to go full time with Kaleidoscope Beauty. There have definitely been ups and downs, challenges along the way but I’m super optimistic about where the brand is going and what we have in store for the rest of 2021 and years to come.

What led you to seek out artisans in Kenya’s disenfranchised communities to make Kaleidoscope’s jewellery?

I’ve always wanted to be able to give back to communities that are often overlooked, however I wanted to steer away from the % of the proceeds going to a cause model. I wanted a more sustainable model that didn’t create dependency. In addition, knowing that 61% of the population in Kenya are youth, I’d always seen young people who are eager to learn but just have limited resources and opportunities. 

It was important for me to source the jewellery from artisans I could build a relationship with, grow with and create with. Visiting Baba Dogo, a slum on the fringes of Nairobi opened up my eyes to the harsh realities of life in the slums but more importantly the opportunity that could be extended to members of the youth with their own ambitions and dreams. 

Our unique pieces are hand-made by Kenyan artisans determined to turn their lives around. From young mothers, to reformed criminals and street boys, faced with the burden of multigenerational poverty, lack of sanitation, and the harsh realities of living in the slums.

Given the right tools, and an opportunity for a career, our artisans are trained to create; through beadwork and brass-work, which in turn creates job opportunities for them, and provides a sustainable source of income.

Why is it important for you to pay it forward and give young people in Kenya an opportunity to turn their lives around?

Because the only difference between these artisans and myself for example is that life dealt us a different hand. The African proverb, if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together comes to mind here.

Kaleidoscope Beauty jewellery pieces are handmade by our talented artisans located in Kenyan slums. Currently we work with artisans in Kibera, the largest urban slum on the African continent as well as Baba Dogo, a slum on the fringes of Nairobi. Being able to work with these young men and women is so eye opening and inspiring and has allowed me to discover more about Kenya through the brand as a member of the diaspora community. 

Ultimately, Kaleidoscope Beauty is keen to empower, enrich and enhance the communities that we work with. As much as possible I do my best to work with local talent, from our artisans to creatives we work with as I believe collaboration will be the key to business growth moving forward and we can all help each other. 

How have some of your artisans been able to change their situations after working for your brand?

The most simple way is by providing job opportunities to our artisans. Prior to the pandemic, Kenya had a high number of tourists that would come into the country and artisans had some potential customers to sell to. In 2020, with all the restrictions, travel bans and curfews in place, the market dried up for a lot of artisans. As a brand, we have only increased the number of artisans we work with in line with our steady growth giving our artisans a steady source of income to meet their living needs.

In addition, last year we ran a campaign called Umoja, where 50% of the sales from our debut ring went towards supporting families by providing a month’s supply of food in the form of maize flour, wheat flour, beans, rice, oil, green grams and rice. This campaign helped 12 families at the time and helped families in dire need who had no clue where their next meal would be coming from. 

In the first ever mission video you hear from one of our artisans Dennis who was a 21 year old young man who has hopes and dreams of carving out a career in acting. Through money he makes with some of the brass-work, he finances a small kiosk that sells music and films within his community, all of which is being fed back to fund his acting aspirations further. 

How much do you pay your artisans/workers in Kenya?

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We pay our artisans rates they dictate to us which vary from piece to piece depending on the size and complexity of the jewellery items being created. Where possible and negative we pay it forward for example with an artisan who had a family emergency, it’s nice to know we have developed a good relationship and can be seen as a source of support in times of need.

Do you have plans to expand the ways you work with young people in Kenya or other African countries?

Of course! The aim is to grow the team and artisans we work with in order to provide more opportunities to earn and learn skills that are valuable. I’d love to expand to other countries across the continent too. When the world opens up again, I plan to explore these options.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to start an ethical and sustainable fashion brand?

Having an ethically driven and sustainable business isn’t the easiest thing to do, have patience and stay true to your mission. 

Sometimes, solutions can take a little longer to come to when you’re not trying to take shortcuts but it will be worth it. A personal example here is, we have just introduced 24k gold plated pieces to our store but the desire has been there for a while. My personal challenge however was that I didn’t want the value-add to be done outside of Kenya in line with the mission of sustainability and to avoid the model of exploitation – taking resources from the continent while having the ‘value-add’ abroad. 

In addition, be patient with yourself as you learn more too. What it means to be sustainable is growing and changing and can sometimes be a lot more expensive too. Allow yourself the time to grow and learn as you implement this into all aspects of the business.

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