Hi my name is James Crawford, founder of Venture Leather, for the past two years I have been working with a leather manufacturer in Kenya with the hopes of making leather goods for the US market where 100% of the profit returns to Africa and gets invested in local businesses.
Recently I have started releasing videos based on my most recent trip to Kenya. The vlog documents the ups and downs of trying to do business in Africa and offers people in the US a unique perspective on life in Africa. It is very hard for Americans to really understand what is life in Africa and how to relate to the people there.
I have partnered with Causeartist to release each episode and blog post here, so the community can follow along on my journey to create a sustainable social impact brand.
March is the worst time to be in Mombasa, Kenya. It is that last month of dry season where is it 92-95 degrees (F) (34-35 Celsius) and above 80% humidity. At night the temperature won’t dip below 80 which means unless you have a strong fan on you, a good night sleep is very hard to come by. In my $15 a night hotel the malaria net restricts the air flow enough so I took it off every night. This is the third time I have stayed at this hotel which is more than adequate (I’ve stayed multiple times in a $6 hotel in Uganda) when it isn’t dry season. In anticipation I did bring a personal fan in my bag but the electrical outlet fried it on the first day. Sadly I didn’t get the smoking fan on video. Luckily no other electronics have faced a similar fate so far.
Once arriving at the factory Roy, the factory owner, explained the details of some of his business dealings. Specifically he talked about the massive piles of leather and materials in the factory. His ability to get materials at good prices from India became much clearer to me. The leather industry in India is huge and therefore there are a lot of materials left over. Often materials get bundled into large sacks and get sold by weight. Sometimes through auctions. Interestingly, this is exactly what often happens to our clothing and shoe donations. They get put in sacks for local retailers (small shopkeepers) to buy. The sacks are bought without the buyer actually looking into the sack and examining it.
Roy scheduled two women to come work on my samples but they had a conflict and couldn’t arrive until the next day. In preparation we looking into storage to find the right leather to use. Unfortunately the leather I had hoped was there went to Nairobi because of issues with taxes and customs.
After the brief power outage I sought to explain why we are using materials from India in the first place and not sourcing locally. At Venture we want to put as much money into the local economy as possible and we want to source locally as soon as possible. The challenge is that there are massive problems in the value chain in Africa. Materials are more expensive and of lower quality locally. This compromises my personal principle of refusing to make customers pay more because of our mission. The truth is that is we don’t get the product right, the mission doesn’t matter.
Rather than using local materials and charging $170 for a leather tote like our competitors, we are able to source from India and make the same bag with the retail price of $100-120. If we want to create hundreds and thousands of jobs in Kenya we have to get the product and price right. Roy owns a tannery in Uganda and I have other contacts that will help us source locally eventually but with the financial resources we currently have, those options are not feasible.
The day ends with some sweet footage down by the water where hundreds of people pack onto ferries to head home from work and I finally get back to the hotel and look forward for Day 3 when production begins.
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Born and raised in San Diego, CA James received his BA in Business Economics from Azusa Pacific University where he was also an All-American in soccer and won a National Championship. He attended the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UCSD he he got his MA in International Development. After school, James worked for a management consulting firm as a data analyst before taking a position with a social enterprise in Northern Uganda as the Business Director of 31 Bits. Recently, James has launched his own company working with a leather manufacturer in Mombasa, Kenya where 100% of the profits get invested back into local businesses in Kenya.