Her social innovation – Sari for Change – is an upcycling or sustainable fashion project that enables women to become self-sufficient through recreating new garments from recycled saris. It is ‘a pay it forward model’ that allows for one woman to donate their gently worn sari to another woman to recreate a new garment and earn a dignified income whilst working in their own spaces.
She is very passionate about developing talent in Africa and considered an expert in the sustainable fashion industry, having recently been invited as a panel expert for African Fashion International.
Business Insider Africa (BI Africa) caught up with Rayana Edwards, after she was recently announced the joint winner of 2020 Goldman Sachs and Fortune Global Women Leaders Award. During the interview, Rayana talked about why she started Sari for Change, ways to tackle women unemployment in Africa, among other things.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
BI Africa: Why did you start this social innovation?
Rayana: Sari For Change was initiated as a sustainable fashion project to influence and shift the mindset of unemployed women, to believe in possibility through utilizing and starting with what we already have. Financial empowerment is vital to every woman and with the high rate of unemployment, entrepreneurs need to create an environment to bridge this gap in working together to be part of a solution. I recognized the sari as a 6m of fabric resource and instead of it ending up on a landfill after no longer being in use, we could repurpose it into garments that everyone can wear.
Having been in the fashion industry for 35 years, we needed to explore new ways of tackling our issues in Africa. Previously, I travelled to the rest of the world to import both the fabric and production, however, the challenge was how I can localize the manufacturing aspect, whilst being mindful of the environment. This project speaks into the essence of paying it forward in planting the seeds of sustainability and self – sufficiency. Women must know they can rely on themselves given basic resource and skills transferred.
BI Africa: How did you attract public attention to the issue you wanted to tackle and make others believe in your purpose and potential?
Rayana: It started off as an idea I quietly tested and realized there could be potential. When we shared the concept and idea with women who wore saris, they felt it was realistic and wanted to be contributors thereof. Our first callout was working with an organization that encourages service to their thousands of volunteers. The sari collection became part of their service (seva) programme for one year and within that one year the saris collected were many and it forced us to take to the townships in Johannesburg to start the recruitment of trainees. We had good PR on the project and a strong presence on social media. As we tap into the consciousness of community we still find that word of mouth is the most powerful way in getting our work out, both in sari donations and sales of garments.
BI Africa: What are some of your greatest achievements with Sari for Change?
Rayana: In 2017 we produced a full collection for a client in Sweden who partook in Torino Fashion Week in Italy. She went on to win an award for the collection and we were able to track everyone involved in the achievement; From the donor who bought it in India or South Africa and donated to us, to the women who produced the collection in Johannesburg before it was exported to Sweden and then showcased in Italy.
We currently export to clients in Denmark and the USA with a loyal following. We were also invited to showcase at the Indian Consulate where the theme was India/Africa.
BI Africa: You were recently named the joint winner of 2020 Goldman Sachs and Fortune Global Women Leaders Award. Tell us briefly how this came about and how you intend to build on this achievement?
Rayana: I am a graduate of the 10 000 Goldman Sachs women entrepreneur programme. I received an invitation in March 2020, just before Covid to attend a round table discussion with some of Goldman Sachs delegates from New York and local corporate held at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Thereafter I was invited to apply for this competition where they recognize the work women leaders are doing in their community.
With the prize money, we plan to roll out more fashion incubation hubs at schools in our townships. The hubs will provide a skills base with the primary objective being to provide the necessary tools to the women to become self – reliant.
The schools benefit too as we will pay rent for the space we utilize and will also invest in equipment for full-scale production. The independent makers currently on the project become trainers and this is the paying it forward model at each hub. Back to school for moms also allows for the moms to be near their children whilst this project serves as a skills-based intervention with a niche in creating high-quality products.
BI Africa: What would be the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring social innovator, with a big heart and a willingness to do something?
Rayana: Trust your instincts, you will always have naysayers but most times they are your teachers. When your intention is clear on your why you doing what you do, your “how” will manifest. Ensure you are part of good networks and share your story and ideas all the time. Stay authentic and if you are able to see your vision, and you are consistent in action, something has to shift.
BI Africa: Who are the women that have inspired you?
Rayana: Mother Theresa for her service to the poorest of the poor. Coco Chanel for her style and defiance of societies expectations. My grandmother and great aunt who were garment factory workers that raised and educated their families as single parents. They all had a side hustle, selling products to their fellow factory workers and this second income paid for the extras. They never left the factory only until they reached the obligatory retirement age whilst actively continuing their side business.
BI Africa: A great number of African women still lack education; still suffer sexism in the society, and are unemployed. In your opinion, how do you think this situation can be fixed?
Rayana: This is the basis of why this project started. African women are talented and creative. This is often misdirected and the potential to create functional products to scale into markets are often lost. Through our intervention, they are able to explore their talents, learn new skills and thus use their God-given talent to move towards self – sufficiency.
Women learn most when doing, practical skills through practice within a collective. We create a safe space in training and often the kids become part of this and when they see their parents are growing and are able to buy stuff for the home, they start to see the possibilities. We are creating new role models in the presence of the youth. When women are financially empowered they are able to make better decisions for themselves and their kids. The heart of the project is about what financial empowerment and enablement represents to a mother, and to women.
This is our urgency, as more people are able to earn proficiently, the better the chances to improve their quality of living and diminish the labels inflicted on poor communities. Let us believe in ourselves and each other. Find a project or a purpose bigger than yourself to direct your energy into. Choose positivity and become a contributor to the community you want your children to experience. Positive actions attract positive outcomes.
BI Africa: For the purpose of advancing gender equality, would you be willing to empower the male gender with the Sari for change initiative?
Rayana: I have worked with a young male designer and his designs showed a definite room for potential. Would love to bring this into our incubations as we see the appetite for our products and at the same time believe it is important we work together. I hereby urge male designers or tailors to reach out and let us collaborate. There is space for a strong male perspective in design.
BI Africa: Assuming you were aspiring for a political appointment; what role would that be and why?
Rayana: We align ourselves to the UN sustainable development goals. Each community has its own way of achieving this and Africa in itself has its narrative. My political appointment would be to use this UN blueprint as a guide but at the same time to venture deep into our communities to get their voices, knowledge and ideas heard on how they feel best we are able to solve the problems and issues they experience. This UN blueprint speaks of 17 very attainable goals, examples that we are touching on are:
- Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
- Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
- Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities
- Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth
There are many success stories on the ground and so instead of always having to create new ones, let us build and innovate further from these stories and look at cross-pollination of industries.
My role would be to ensure a sustainable economy coming from the bottom up and meeting with government organizations and corporations in the middle to move it to the top. In this way, we are inclusive and building a sacred economy based on what the majority of our country and continent truly represents and to follow it through with focused solutions whereby the citizens are taking ownership. Transparency, self-responsibility and accountability are what we need on all levels. We can build an Africa that is inclusive and able to thrive economically.