Natasha Buchler and Annie Rudnick are the co-founders of the UK’s leading online retailer dedicated to selling handmade accessories, jewellery, homeware and fashion from independent African designers. Find out how they have developed and grown a business which puts local African communities and artisans at its core, establishing a platform for ethical businesses to thrive…
What inspired you to launch AKOJO MARKET?
AKOJO MARKET went live in April 2019, following a year of working with designers on the continent in Africa to gear up for selling internationally. We (Natasha and Annie, the co-founders) have been inspired by African fashion, art and design for as long as we can remember – Annie’s family is from Zimbabwe and Natasha worked extensively in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly Ghana and South Africa as a business consultant, prior to founding AKOJO MARKET. The sheer volume of creativity and entrepreneurship, particularly by female business owners, inspired us to create a platform that gave independent designers in Africa a space to tell their narrative and sell their beautiful, artisan-made products to a UK audience. Our goal in launching AKOJO MARKET was to create an elevated shopping experience where UK customers could securely purchase products and designs made in Africa, whilst also contributing to the growth of small businesses and in turn the communities of artisans and employees behind each organisation.
What are your sustainable priorities for the business?
Natasha’s background in due diligence and investigations allowed us to focus primarily on the human rights challenges that occur in the supply chain, particularly in emerging markets. The existence of bribery, corruption, fraud, human trafficking and forced labour is unfortunately prevalent across the retail industry, and using our in-house knowledge, we designed on-boarding processes including due diligence questionnaires and ethical criteria that enables us to verify that our designers and their employees are being fairly paid, working in safe conditions and enjoying freedom of movement and speech. It cannot be assumed that these are a given, and our work helping companies build their own compliance policies and processes is a key part of how we support small businesses on the continent.
Our brands and designers not only meet our criteria for ethical sourcing and manufacturing, but they go over and above to provide skills training and employment opportunities for their workforce and artisans (in particular women) as well as engaging in philanthropic and social impact projects locally in Africa. Key examples are No2Malaria, which makes beaded bracelets from recycled glass. With each purchase of a bracelet, a mosquito net is donated to a family in need in West Africa. South African brand Something Good Studio, which sells the most amazing sumptuous blankets, donates stock to homeless people in Johannesburg. The examples of how our brands generate growth and financial independence for women in their local communities are endless…
How has your eco strategy developed as you have grown?
We are now focusing more and more on the sustainability aspect of manufacturing, and have included criteria with respect to the environment when deciding whether to take on a new designer. Our designers and brands are truly innovative when it comes to sustainability – from using upcycled fabrics, low-impact dyes and recycled packaging to monitoring water usage and offsetting carbon emissions. Kenyan clothing and jewellery brand Lilabare plants indigenous seedlings back into the ground in Kenya with the sale of her recycled brass necklaces (part of the Lasting Footprints range), whilst Pala Eyewear has created sunglasses from recycled acetate. Newly added brands to our site include Yala, which was the first UK jewellery company to receive B corp status, and Origin Africa, which donates 100% of profits back to projects in Gambia and Mali and sells T-shirts made with 100% Organic Cotton (GOTs certified).
Our focus on the planet, in addition to people, has developed as we have become more knowledgeable in the sector (and with the help of Eco-Age!)
How challenging has it been to maintain your eco principles?
The most challenging aspect of maintaining our core principles is turning brands away because they do not meet our ethics and sustainability criteria. In an ideal world, we would have the time and tools to help every single designer to operate in an ethical manner and to assist them in gearing up to sell internationally. In the near future, we will be launching a part of our site which contains additional guidance and can be a useful resource for designers starting on this journey. A success story for us has been working with designers that were willing and able to change some of their processes to meet our criteria – for example the founder of Nigerian brand, Bakwai Bags, Oyin was delighted to produce a range of bags from raffia rather than plastic beads, and these are, unsurprisingly, selling really well on AKOJO MARKET.
What have been your biggest milestones and triumphs until now?
As we have only been trading for 6 months, since April 2019, this is difficult to say! We launched with ten designers and now have 25 on our site, and many more coming online soon. We work very closely with the designers and brands, establishing a trusted rapport and complete transparency in how we, and they, operate. We are delighted to have received recognition for this from Eco-Age, and to have so quickly been picked up by the Evening Standard and other mainstream media, as well as smaller industry and local blogs.
What have been the main prohibitors to your progress in building a sustainable business?
The main prohibitor is logistics – without a doubt. The ethos of most brands we encounter cannot be faulted, but the ability to deliver on orders without comprising sustainability objectives can be challenging. Two examples spring to mind: the shipping of products to the UK (and in a short time frame) whilst keeping carbon footprint sensibly low is a major challenge; likewise, some of our brands source fabrics from politically unstable countries, and are subjected to requests for bribes to release fabrics and products from customs or across borders. We work with our brands on these topics and look forward to solving them with our delivery partners and advisors!
Do you feel pressure from your customers to be more eco?
In fact, no. We are transparent about what is and isn’t being done by each of our brands, as well as laying out clearly what we as an organisation are capable of achieving and capturing this by monitoring our impacts. The most frequent pressure we encounter from customers is related to cost – customers are used to shopping low cost products, and we are educating customers as to why well-made products, by well-paid artisans and employees, using sustainable processes, is going to cost more than cheap labour and cheap, harmful processes and materials, made in bulk.
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to launch a sustainable business?
Unfortunately, no one should believe any brand or business that claims to be entirely “sustainable” or “green” – the retail industry does by definition have a negative impact on the environment. Rather we should be promoting and buying from businesses genuinely focused on specific ways to mitigate the damage and contribute to society and the environment. Our advice is to launch a business with clearly defined objectives, and work hard to meet those objectives rather than using buzz words that may later expose the lack of meaningful impacts being made on people and planet through your activities. Also, critically, we have learnt this lesson: you cannot have an ethical and sustainable business if you do not have a business! You must be selling products that customers want to buy – sales is essential to enable you to make the desired tweaks and upgrades to your processes.
Which other sustainable businesses have inspired you?
We are inspired by many different businesses that focus on elements of sustainability. We have long admired the way Stella McCartney has made it cool to be ethical, and not wear animal fur or leather. We have also been inspired by the innovation occurring in the industry, through the use of pineapple leather (Pinatex) and recycled plastics.