Ethical Ecommerce Interviews: Mayamiko on Transforming From a Charity Into a Business

We spoke to Paola Masperi, founder of both charity Mayamiko Trust and ethical womenswear label Mayamiko. The charity behind the brand trains disadvantaged people in Malawi and other parts of Africa in creative and transferable skills like tailoring, and then supports them to use those skills through business and finance education workshops and micro-financing.

What inspired you to start Mayamiko?

I first went to work in Malawi in 2004, on a project supporting primary education with technology. I made lots of friendships and professional partnerships, and, over time, I really got to understand the country and the problems women were facing there.

Have you seen many would-be business or charity founders starting projects in Africa without that understanding of the country?

That happens all the time, and not just in Africa! People mean very well and really want to help, but developing a concept on the other side of the world based on knowledge you’ve acquired through reading or researching simply doesn’t work.

The people on the ground in these countries know more than you could ever learn through reading alone: the social context, the financial situation, the nuances. If you want to start a project in a developing country, you have to realise that you’re of service to the people there, and that you’re just bringing what you can, whether that’s tools or opportunities or techniques. You need a listening mindset, and in the areas that we’ve done really well in, that’s what’s worked for us: listening to what local women were telling us that they needed.

For example, one of the things the women told us was that tailoring and sewing was so appealing to them because of the flexibility that it offered. Some of the younger women were happy to come to a workshop Monday to Friday, but many of the other women had caring responsibilities, which meant that going to a place of work every day didn’t fit in with their life. We realised what they really wanted wasn’t just a job: it was a skill, and the tools to make a business out of it in a way that worked for them.

So it’s on us to adapt our methods to the environment rather than just going in and saying: “this is how we work, and if you want to work with us then this is what you need to do.”

Why did you transform Mayamiko from a charity into a business?

It was very clear in my mind that the training aspect of Mayamiko had to be purely charitable, but I knew that to fund the charity we also needed to be a self-sustaining business. I’ve seen too many great projects that were heavily dependent on external funding, and which lasted as long as the funding lasted. And then the community was almost in a worse position than before, because they’d invested so much in this project and infrastructure.

You have to take yourself out of the equation: if I disappear one day, for whatever reason, have I created something that can carry on without me? That’s where I think business can be a force for good.

What are the most impactful ethical practices a business can put in place?

You can’t do everything, especially when you’re just starting out, and especially in an industry like fashion. You look at the sheer size of the challenge and have no idea where to start: people, materials, processes, business models. It’s massive.

I think you need to look at it as a system. That’s how I’ve approached it: I’ve laid out all the impacts of the business and the efforts needed to address it and asked myself: what can I address now? What will I address later? What means the most to me? You prioritise things, and then you can start chipping away at them.

Tell us about how you grew Mayamiko at the very start, versus how you find and engage with your customers now.

To begin with, we were a production workshop for other labels. That was a really valuable experience: it taught me about what was possible, what was difficult, what worked well, and so on. In the end, it was clear that it would be more sensible for us to become our own brand, where we could be in control of the creative element as well as production.

So, very, very timidly, at the end of 2013, we tested a very basic, free, Shopify site to see whether the logistics worked and whether people trusted us enough to buy from us. We were just selling very basic things: accessories, clutch bags, laptop covers, that kind of stuff. That proved the concept, and started to tell us who our customers could be: the kind of people who are interested in products with stories. Off the back of that, again very timidly, we launched our first capsule collection a year later. We’ve been growing and launching a collection every year since.

Building a community has been the most significant thing for us. We’ve tried to grow slowly and really stay in touch with our community: it’s about quality of over sheer quantity. But in a world where we’re all judged by how many followers we have, I often wonder: am I doing it right? Is this good enough?

How have you gone about fostering a community?

Mostly through social media and newsletters. But we’ve also done a few pop-ups over the years, three or four a year, and they’re a fabulous opportunity to interact with your customers face-to-face: not only to see how they react to the products, but also what they actually look like. You get a picture of them through the site data, but it’s quite a different thing to see them in real life.

It’s never really about the money or sales made at these events: it’s about creating a spirit of community. Online, you lose that human connection.

What are the biggest challenges Mayamiko has faced?

For an entrepreneur, one of the key things to get right is your focus. You have a clean slate, and you could fill it with almost anything: there are so many different directions the business can go in, which all seem right at the time.

Having an entrepreneurial mindset means seeing these opportunities, but it can get tricky when you see too many. As a rule, I found myself losing focus and dispersing energy when I pursued these leads, whereas if I’d stayed with my eyes on the prize I could have got to my objective faster, or in a better way.

You have to practise this every day. When something pops up in your inbox and you think it sounds like a good idea, ask yourself: how does this align with my vision? What other area of the business could this take energy from? What would my customers think about this?

Tell us about the tech you use.

We use Shopify: it’s not perfect, but it does the job! We have several of their apps, and that model is great for us because we can gradually find solutions to our customer pain points instead of investing in a custom-made infrastructure.

But the technology that’s made the biggest difference for us, although it’s the simplest of them all, is WhatsApp. It’s a very low barrier for people, as most people have it on their phone already. I can’t remember the last time I exchanged an email with my team in Malawi, but we talk on WhatApp every day.

What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in ecommerce?

Go direct to consumer. Without a chunk of money going to intermediaries like resellers and wholesalers, you can afford to pay your growers and makers better prices, while still having an inclusive price point for your customers.

What do you think the future will look like for ecommerce?

This has been said by many already, but COVID has simply accelerated trends that have been happening for years, particularly the growth of ecommerce. And so I think differentiating your brand from others online, where people don’t have a physical experience of your product, is going to be really important.

This is where brand values and storytelling come into play. People buy products because they like how they make them feel: so were the people who made it treated well? Were the materials used kind to the earth? You need to make sure you’re really clear with your messaging.

And then you need to find and nurture these people who share your values, rather than chasing different trend-led, passing customer acquisition strategies, because those are the ones who are going to stay with you. We don’t want lots of one night stands, although they might be fun: we want long-term relationships!