By Nicanor Gordon
The award-winning Yala brand sells eye-catching jewelry, immersed in Kenyan culture, to a primarily UK and increasingly global audience.
To hear CEO Audrey Migot-Adholla describe her company, Yala and all her accolades are side-effects of her main purpose – platforming her home country, Kenya, and its artisans, while supplementing their income.
Fast fashion was long considered the only model in the fashion industry. Non-stop production, inhumane working conditions, and treating clothing and apparel as temporary goods with a limited shelf-life, have been the hallmarks of this untenable practice. All of that is topped off by the industry’s considerable carbon footprint.
“A lot of us as consumers have had a rude awakening in the last 3-5 years when we realize how clothes are actually made, and how the people who make clothes are paid, or not, as the case may be,” Audrey explains. Luckily, her laser focus on keeping her production cycle as traditionally Kenyan as possible, means the company already had sustainability as a foundation.
Yala’s artisans – from a few female run and operated workshops in the Maasai Mara area, who specialize in bead and brass work – educated Audrey around what was possible. The materials that feature in all of Yala’s offerings are easily sourced from the areas around the workshops.
There’s a culture of reuse that permeates through Kenya, and especially the informal sector. If there’s a fault in craft, or demand falls through for a necklace or earring, the jewelry isn’t thrown out but repurposed. Brass can be melted again and reshaped. The beads can be plucked apart, and then ready to be used again.
Even Yala’s packaging epitomizes the principle of reuse. When you receive a box with your jewelry, it’s elegant and a presentation piece within itself. You’re urged to reuse it for whatever.
Yala is the first jewelry brand in the UK to be a certified B Corporation. This distinction highlights and verifies an outfit meeting standards of accountability on numerous factors including employee welfare and maintaining low carbon emissions. This requires incredible transparency, which can be easily assessed by B Corp and the public.
Yet, Audrey still isn’t satisfied. She’s aware of the emission cost of an international business, one with customers around the globe. This is compounded by Yala’s operations being split between the UK and a technologically underdeveloped area of Kenya, at least by conventional Western standards. Oftentimes samples and design documents are delivered via mail as the artisans have extremely limited access to computers, with only one or two of them possessing an email address. Completed jewelry is then sent across the Atlantic to the UK for Audrey to package and relay to a courier, who then delivers it to the customer.
To respond to this eco dilemma, Audrey uses a third-party service that helps her to calculate the fuel cost of her deliveries using the weight of the package and the distance as data points. She then makes investments in a range of forms such as funding renewable energy farms and securing alternative cooking oils for struggling homes, to neutralize those carbon costs.
Still, it always comes back to the artisans. The backbone of Yala is Kenyan craftspeople, and Audrey makes sure they’re fairly compensated. From the get-go, she interviewed the workers and had them come up with the cost of production. She explains that when it comes to negotiation, of either labor or wages, she has to set a baseline to maintain high-quality output, and so the workers don’t run themselves ragged. They’ll never say no. “Survival entrepreneurs,” she dubs them. “You have to remember that a lot of the people you’re working with aren’t making jewelry out of passion, it’s out of necessity.”
Right now, their rate is well over the Kenyan minimum wage. Yala provides a 50% deposit in order to procure materials and cover expenses, and the remainder is paid upon completion and delivery of the jewelry. The subsequent 50% is pure profit for the artisans. According to Audrey, a study was done on Jemima’s (the head of the bead workshop in the Maasai Mara) workshop and found that additional income would go on to benefit 300 additional families. The women from the workshop would start co-ops, help the needy in their communities, and were able to become even more financially dependent. Some stories were almost proverbial, a worker was able to go from walking 10 kilometers to purchase milk for her family, to buying her own cow and selling milk herself.
Audrey’s passionate endorsement of her own people is infectious and extends beyond Yala’s artisans. She teases a fact: “70% of people in Kenya do not have a bank account.” So how does she pay these talented artisans? M-Pesa is an inventive Kenyan developed mobile payment solution where users can do wireless payment transfers without the destructive overhead fees of bank accounts. “It’s like having a bank on your phone,” she gushes over the innovation. The system is so innovative that Kelsey Piper for Vox.com wrote in 2020, “Cellphone-based banking in the country has in many ways surpassed payments systems we have in the US…”
On the UK side, Audrey is still adapting to her role as head of a trendy fashion brand. While she keeps a talented rotation of freelancers in her rolodex, she still has her hands in everything. The company is more than a one-woman show, but it does take on a lot of her identity, which has led to a few wake-up calls. “I wanted my brand to be blackity black black, but I forgot where I live and who most of my customers were going to be,” Audrey laments. She recalls an interaction with a friend – and they’re still friends Audrey stresses with a laugh – around model diversity. The first batch of model photos for her first-ever collection were these beautiful black women wearing Kenyan-made jewelry. When she showed this anonymous friend, who is white, she commented that she’d never purchase any of these, assuming “it was a black thing.”
It was a moment of profound irony, but one laced with truth. “People want to be able to see themselves reflected in the products they want to buy,” Audrey admits. “When you’re a minority, you don’t expect to see yourself anywhere so you do mental gymnastics to look at something and imagine how it would look on you.” Still, she tries to keep a diverse rotation of models of all races, body types and sexualities.
Thankfully there are triumphs. Within every Yala order, there’s a picture of the artisan who crafted the piece with a short write-up about them and their aspirations. Another touch is to inform the consumer of the real hands behind their latest purchase. One highlight was a pair of earrings made by an artisan named Austin that was sold to the award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. Austin and Lupita (and Audrey as well) are from the Luo tribe in Kenya. “She is one of us,” Audrey grins. It meant a lot for Austin to know that he made something for her and that she wears it. She’s seen his face, and on some level, she knows who he is.
Yala is already profitable. Audrey wants to keep pushing the company where it can grow with the artisans, with them growing and opening their own factories. It’s simple. “Either we grow together, or none at all,” she says.