In 2013 Russian entrepreneur Evgeniya Khromina relocated to Kenya to set up Panâh, a luxury fashion production house. She and her co-founder, Persian fashion designer Morteza Saifi, were previously based in New York, one of the ‘big four’ fashion capitals of the world. Saifi had worked with some of the world’s leading brands for over two decades and was looking for “other challenges that would create social opportunities for people”.
“The ethical [consumerism] trend was picking up in the US… We started looking at several places in the world, [including] Haiti and Bolivia, where we could set up an ethical fashion production house,” says Khromina, president of Panâh.
“We discovered East Africa, which has an amazing location along the Indian Ocean that makes shipment easier, a great pool of labour and a lot of aspirational consumers who have disposable income.”
Panâh provides design and product development, sourcing, and manufacturing services for global and emerging African fashion brands. Its clients include Edun, a label started by U2’s frontman Bono and his wife Ali Hewson; Swedish brand Elsa and Me; Lemlem, founded by Ethiopian model Liya Kebede; and African luxury brands Mille Collines, Adèle Dejak, and Katungulu Mwendwa. It currently produces 500 pieces a month and plans to double this over the next year.
Finding a niche in ethical production
The company has carved a niche in ethical production – an emerging sector driven by consumers’ desire for more transparency in the clothing manufacturing process. In 2013, an eight-storey garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people. This incident again cast the spotlight on Asia’s sweatshops supplying big western brands.
For Panâh, ethical production means providing a secure space for its staff, paying them above minimum wage, providing free breakfast and lunch, and offering training and skills development opportunities. And its raw materials also have to be sourced sustainably and handled in ways that do not harm the environment.
Running a sustainable business while applying these standards, however, comes with additional costs.
“Consumers want more transparency and people to work in safe conditions – but they don’t want to pay for that. But the fruits we are seeing is that brands want to work with us because we provide good quality, which we have achieved by training our staff, offering all of them full-time positions as well as the other benefits,” says Khromina.
“Obviously we didn’t come here looking for fast gains. We came here to pursue a bigger dream – to create a factory beneficial to workers where they would gain skills and earn their salaries. The whole world is admitting that Africa doesn’t need special treatment or subsidies, Africa needs opportunities.”
Learning to operate in Kenya
But running the business is challenging with most management responsibilities falling on the shoulders of Khromina and Saifi.
“We have to plan what needs to be done today and what should be done tomorrow. You need proper organisation, which is challenging when you rely on other people. In the early days we would be waiting for supplies the whole week and even then the supplier never showed up.
“But we have gotten used to the delays and now always plan to be ready two weeks ahead of deadline to make sure there are no complications,” says Khromina.
Coming from New York, the duo struggled to fit into the Kenyan business environment. First they had to wait until after the March 2013 elections to set up the business. Then when they moved to Kenya they assumed it would take two to three months to begin operating – but plans lagged and eventually it took six months.
“In New York, you have three or four meetings a day, so when we came here I tried to do the same, and I was unsatisfied with myself that I couldn’t manage it. I didn’t know Nairobi and the traffic situation so well. We would often get stuck in traffic unable to reach the next meeting on time,” recalls Khromina.
“Importing things also proved quite a trying experience. Eventually we learned we needed to work with local companies.”
Moving forward Panâh hopes to expand its client portfolio, with Khromina citing increasing appetite for its services among local and international brands.
“But the bigger vision is to start our own [fashion] line produced here by Panâh and sold internationally,” she says.