Meet Choolwe Mweemba, a 28 year old smallholder cotton farmer from Simabwachi Village in the southern region of Zambia. As the mother of three boys, Choolwe has been growing cotton on her small farm since 2012. „I enjoy growing cotton because it gives me the income to support my family”, she says. To keep her soil healthy, Choolwe alternates growing cotton and growing other crops and vegetables, especially maize. Ever since she received basic economic training in the so-called Farmer Business Schools, she can run her farm like a small business. “I have learnt to save money in the bank. I used to keep my earnings in the house and spent it without budgeting. Now I plan expenses and buy inputs for farming.”
In April 2017, Papa Shabani, a young photographer, communication designer and artist from Uganda, accompanied Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) to its farming regions in Kasese, Uganda to capture CmiA in pictures. The project was part of the initiative’s campaign #WearASmile. Papa Shabani’s photography is vibrant, inspirational and honest and explores the boundary between art and documentary. This made him the perfect match for Cotton made in Africa’s colourful #WearASmile campaign. After the successful campaign launch, Papa reflects on the photoshoot in a short interview with CmiA:
CmiA: What got you started in photography?
Papa Shabani: I partly grew up with my grandmother and was exposed to a lot of photo journal works as a young boy. When I was a kid Africa looked different than now. A lot of the newspaper contents were kind of graphic, especially for a small boy of my age. The mid-90s were the time of bloody politics in Africa: the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Ugandan government fighting in the Congo or the Sudan’s ethnic wars. All this has shaped me and my ambition to become a photojournalist with a focus on documentary making.
In what way does your home country shape your work as a photographer?
Nowadays, the cultural exposure and vibrancy in Uganda is mega. Uganda’s population is very young - more than 73% is under 35 years old. And our neighbouring countries are also very colourful – Rwanda, the new South Sudan, Congo and Burundi. All of this keeps my inspiration for creating photography alive.
What was it like, shooting the “Wear a Smile” campaign for Cotton made in Africa in your home country Uganda?
It was a great and very informative experience for me! I learned a lot about the lives of smallholder farmers who produce the cotton that the world wears. It was an honour to be selected to document the present for the future, but also to be able to create photographs that will change the misconceptions about African cotton farmers. The story of CmiA is compelling for me and the lives of the farmers I photographed absolutely intrigued me.
How did you experience working with the locals in Kampala?
I often have photoshoots in the capital city. It’s usually easy for me in Kampala, where strangers rarely say no to my shutter-hungry index finger. In this campaign, the WearASmile sticker I carried around brought extra fun to it - it was a great shoot!
What do you want to express with the pictures you took for the „Wear a Smile“ campaign?
The message is simple and straightforward: the misconceptions we often have about the lives of African smallholder cotton farmers are not the ultimate reality and consumers should pay attention to what kind of cotton products they consume. Their priority should preferably be CmiA cotton, since it implies much better working and living conditions for the cotton farmers. And it’s also better for the environment!
What does the “Wear a Smile” campaign mean to you?
Papa Shabani: For me, Wear a Smile is a great campaign because it gives consumers a very deep insight into African smallholder farming and the work of CmiA. It connects consumers with the people that grow the cotton they wear, and that matters. The campaign introduces us to the lives of CmiA farmers and invites us into their world.
How did you perceive the cooperation between CmiA, the cotton farmers and ginnery workers in Uganda?
They all work together, that’s what I instantly noticed. Everyone is a part of Cotton made in Africa and the different groups - the farmers and the cotton companies and CmiA – they work together on eye level. And that is essential for achieving the CmiA vision. You can really see how the farmers benefit, and their families, too.
Thank you for the interview, Papa!
Emelly Mwanza is a 24 year old Cotton made in Africa farmer from Zambia. She has two daughters, aged 2 and 4, and has started growing cotton shortly after her first child was born back in 2013. For Emelly, cotton is an important source of income. It allows her to provide for her family, have enough to eat for everyone and meet other household needs. Emelly has also received trainings in good agricultural practices, which has helped her improve her farming skills. “As a result, I have increased my cotton yields and income. I have built a two bedroom house, bought a cow and started growing other crops.”
Meet Bruce Chinyaka, CmiA smallholder farmer from Tobonte Village in southern Zambia. He is 35 years old and has two daughters and four sons. His eldest child is 15, his youngest has just been born. To support his family, Bruce startegrowing cotton back in 2001. When he joined the Cotton made in Africa initiative in 2005, he received a number of farmer trainings. „Through the trainings I have attended, I learned to diversify. Besides cotton and maize, I now grow soy and sunflower. My cotton income also gave me some capital to start up a small grocery store and support my family’s day to day needs.”
When Loft Mpili started to farm cotton according to the Cotton made in Africa criteria, he changed quite a few things on his small farm in Moono, Zambia. One of them was the way he handles pests. “I have been trained on integrated pest management (IPM) and the use of bio- pesticides”, he reports. “This has helped me conserve more beneficial insects on my fields and it’s also very good for my health. I do not get any headaches from spraying bio-pesticides and the empty containers are less harmful to the environment.” Loft is 21 years old and besides cotton, he also grows other crops and keeps and sells livestock.
A sustainable brand of kids clothing from Uganda, Abaana designs and produces beautiful clothing out of Cotton made in Africa. Founded by three moms, Abaana is a colourful young label with a true passion for sustainability. The label produces locally in Uganda and closely collaborates with artisans, producers, and Cotton made in Africa. This ensures a truly sustainable supply chain. Shop Abaana here.
Who is behind the label Abaana?
Behind Abaana are Rebeca, Rachel and Caroline. We are practically from all over the world which is wonderful as this diversity is important when sharing ideas and creativity.
Where did you meet?
We met at a baby playgroup in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. Somehow, it is fun to think we met thanks to our kids.
Why did you want to create your own label called Abaana?
Having left our full-time jobs to concentrate on our families, we first thought about setting up our own business. We kept on talking about the question how to get back to work without having to miss out seeing our children grow older. This is how we came up with the idea of creating our own business which would allow us the flexibility to combine family and work.
In addition to that we noticed that we tended to buy kids clothing abroad. That was the time we figured out that there was a need for nice, comfortable and affordable kids clothing made out of cotton. Simultaneously, Uganda was experiencing a revival of its own textile industry - from field to fashion. These two circumstances led to our idea to start a children’s clothing line right here in Uganda.
Having come up with the idea of setting up a social business linked to children’s clothing and accessories, we focused on the concept of designing products that are natural, ethical and fun. Discovering that Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) is already actively working in Uganda was at that time the missing piece in our wish of ensuring a sustainable supply chain within the country.
How did you come up with the name Abaana?
We are proud to carry the “Made in Uganda” label and aim to promote Ugandan cotton and support local workers. That is why we asked our Ugandan friends to brainstorm with us which name could best represent our brand in Luganda, one of the languages spoken here, that embodies fun, happiness and children. At the end, we found the ideal brand name for us: “Children - Abaana”.
What would you like to express with the brand?
Essentially, we want to express that we care for the clothes we make because we care for the users - we design them as if they were for our own children - and at the same time we care about how these clothes are made: the social and ecological footprint we leave as a business.
We are authentic. And we believe that our brand expresses exactly this as well because we truly like to take care of all the details along our supply chain: from the farmers who are growing the cotton in Uganda to the packaging of our products. Part of the supply chain are also our clients who are purchasing the clothes and thereby supporting a fantastic homegrown product that is fair to its producers and good to the environment.
All our designs are hand-drawn by ourselves and each drawing is brought to life with an accompanying story. Our inspiration comes from all the vibrant and colourful surroundings that make it so easy to be creative in this beautiful country with its nature and people.
Why are sustainable resources important for you?
We understand sustainability as endurance. Not only endurance of our natural resources but also endurance of work and income.
The sustainability of natural resources is one of Abaana’s core values. We strive for a minimal environmental footprint and therefore support environmentally friendly cotton cultivation methods by using CmiA cotton, design clothes that last longer and ensure that the packaging of our products can be reused.
As a social business, we strive to provide a sustainable income for all people involved because if everybody profits we can offer long-term economic growth. As a start-up, this is important for us as one of our goals is to help create fair and sustainable jobs.
Why did you choose to work with Cotton made in Africa?
Knowing that our support to CmiA goes directly back to the smallholder cotton farmers and helps them to grow their business sustainably was the key for us.
Fair and on time payment for the cotton farmers, sustainable cotton growing practices and wages for factory workers that are paid on time and exceed or correspond to at least the national set minimum wage. These practices are all in line with our own principles, so what better than partnering with CmiA?
Anything else you would like to share?
We are very excited to be launching another new line of designs: our Abaana Zero line. Recognizing how much fabric is being wasted everyday around the world compelled us to look at ways of reducing our environmental footprint. Our aim is to have a line with zero waste.
Key to Abaana Zero will be to upcycle the offcuts of old designs and transform them into new and beautifully designed clothing. At the heart of Abaana Zero are the local artisans we support through our work. They get fair prices, earn a decent living to support their families and are trained in quality standards for textile production.
Thank you for the interview.