Friday, October 30, 2009

a message from summer intern: josh engel

submitted by Josh Engel, who interned for One Mango Tree during summer 2009

I'm currently an MBA candidate studying Social Enterprise at Kellogg School of Management. Before starting school, I came to One Mango Tree to engage in the growth of a business which was designed to maximize on social impact. I examined OMT's Uganda operations, from production processes to the flow of management tasks. I worked with Halle to design solutions to bottlenecks and inefficiencies, eventually supporting the launch of One Mango Tree's fully functional training and production site. I also worked to weave One Mango Tree's core social objectives, focused on improving the quality of life of the people of Northern Uganda, into demand-driven growth strategies. Prior to One Mango Tree, I worked in Refugee Resettlement and for an innovative private-public partnership in Chicago workforce development.

I really miss One Mango Tree and thinks of Gulu often! I've attached a photo of me eating lunch with a friend in front of Lucy's market stall.

Interested in interning with One Mango Tree? Send an email to

Thursday, October 15, 2009

from seed to bag - we did it

The upper balcony at Good African Coffee at Lugogo Mall is usually filled with people who "work from home." They have free UTL internet, and the place has gotten so popular that you end up sharing a table with three strangers. It's a mobile office of sorts, and they have great cappuccino.

One rainy afternoon, Gihan showed up to do some work and plopped a stack of fabric swatches on the table.

"Do you like any of these? I know this guy, and he can turn any PDF into a print for you. He normally does t-shirts for me, but he makes a lot of these fabrics."

Many of the prints were gold on a solid backgroud, or printed on a textured, non-cotton fabric, but i was intrigued - they were intricate and the lines were all really crisp. Could this be the way out of the Chinese trap?

A few weeks later I drove Zach and Anna up to Gulu. One of their first tasks as OMT volunteers was to help me pick out some graphically interesting [Chinese] kitenge. It was difficult to ignore some of the obnoxious colors and polyester fabrics, but we chose for design and design alone. Back at the workshop, we photographed the repeat of the design and Zach loaded it up onto Adobe Photoshop. After playing around with pantones, we stood back and admired our work - we'd created four gorgeous designs.

After emailing them to Gihan, we got a response back from Herbert Musisi, the owner and lead designer at Chui Designs - a textile printing workshop based in Kampala. The following week I sat down with Gihan, Herbert and Alison to talk about our designs.

We agreed on 100% Ugandan cotton - a fabric called "Jinja" - named for the place where it is created - at Nytil factory in Jinja, the source of the Nile. All the fabrics are hand-dyed to our specifications, and Chui creates custom screens in our prints.

The result? We have bulk materials with custom colors and designs - a 100% cotton, 100% Ugandan product, from seed to bag. We did it!

Check out the new products this holiday season - coming soon to our online retail store.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

the chinese man behind the waxprint curtain

When One Mango Tree began, we were small enough that I could waltz around Gulu market, plucking six yards of each print of kitenge that I liked, and have some bags made out of it (see photo at left). As soon as OMT launched as an online retail business, I knew this wasn't going to work anymore. Even so, our small quantities made it easy to just find maybe 100 yards of a certain print at a time.

Then we started to grow. After connecting with Greater Good early in 2009, we needed 500 yards of each particular print to meet order quantities. I found myself going downtown to Nakivubo Mews every day to buy fabric and make sure they had enough of the prints I'd selected. I'd often take photos, get an order, and come back to find they were already gone within a few days. When we started selling wholesale and retail to Global Girlfriend, we'd stretched the local purchase model as far as it could go. You just can't get 1000 yards of one single print, no matter how hard the local vendors tried.

I don't give up easily, but after weeks and weeks of boda rides back and forth downtown with no success of finding bulk kitenge, I threw in the towel. And I wanted to know WHY?!

The origins of "waxprint" fabric dates back to Dutch colonial occupation in Indonesia. The Dutch learned about batik techniques from local artisans, and decided to adapt this technique with all the new gadgets from the Industrial Revolution. They started printing "waxprint," but it wasn't too popular in Europe. Instead they decided to explore the new market down south - the African colonies. Africans loved the fabrics, and dresses and suites made from the bright cotton prints became the fashionable choice across the continent.

African factories picked up on production, and the textile industry in countries across the African map flourished from production of the fabrics.

And then China stepped in. African factories could not compete with the Chinese knock-offs coming in by the container-load in Mombasa (right) and African markets were filled with imported prints. The prints come in 12 yard sections, piecemeal and ready to be bought by budding tailoring businesses to create African garb. Each bale could have hundreds of different prints, making it virtually impossible to sell the fabrics in bulk. And at a price of only $1.50 per one can compete.

I find it disheartening to walk through African markets seeing row after row of cheap Chinese-made products - cups and plates and lanterns that often break after one use. How cheap is cheap anyway? And to realize that our authentic African bags were really Chinese-made fabrics... it launched me on a campaign to find a seriously authentic fabric for our bags - even if we had to find an artist and make it ourselves.


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