TDi has been committed to inclusive sustainable businesses since the early days of the social enterprise movement in Australia. We’ve proudly partnered with NAB in a number of ways, one of which was the Two Feet Accelerator programs. These were designed as part of a long-term mission to build a critical mass of successful social enterprises across Australia. Now, 4 years on we’re seeing the real fruits of these initiatives. We’re following up on several Two Feet Accelerator Alumni businesses to see what they’re up to…
This week we’ve been chatting with Anna Robertson from YEVU – a social enterprise clothing brand designed and manufactured in Ghana. Anna moved back to Sydney from Ghana in the midst of the COVID shut downs. 6 months on she is still here, but deeply connected to her other home and business in Ghana. Here’s what we caught up on…
Firstly, what is your connection to Ghana, and how did the YEVU journey begin?
I didn’t really know anything about West Africa until I went there as part of the Australian aid program AYAD in 2012. So I spent a year there and that kind of introduced me to the place and by the end of that year I had started the development of the business.
Did you plan on starting a business? What was the impetus to start one?
I guess I didn’t realize that I had a burning desire to start a business, to be honest with you. It wasn’t part of the plan. It really was born out of witnessing and experiencing a few different factors in that environment that led me to think about the potential of a business like YEVU.
On the creative side, it was the textile industry – the locally made fabric, and a lot of textiles that are original to the country of Ghana. That sort of sparked my interest – as an Australian I hadn’t really been exposed to these sorts of textiles.
My background was in international development and I suppose I saw that there was a very obvious need for the employment opportunities for a certain part of the community – the informal sector. Most of these are women who run small micro, unregistered and informal businesses. They may have skills in making textiles, seam stressing and different technical skillsets but really a lack of exposure to income beyond their immediate communities.
There were a lot of little different businesses, operating by themselves. I could just see the possibility: if there was a kind of big space where everyone could be brought together and there was training and we had the access to an international marketplace – what could we do with that? So that kind of sparked it and then, you know, one thing led to another. And I happened to meet a certain group of women who had a space that they weren’t using on their family property. We started operating out of that space at the end of 2013 and did our first range there. It was a tiny little range. I just put some savings into it and then opened a pop-up store in Sydney. We sold out of everything in the first couple of days. So, I thought, ‘people must want this’ and it kind of snowballed.
“…I saw that there was a very obvious need for the employment opportunities for a certain part of the community – the informal sector. Most of these are women who run small micro, unregistered and informal businesses.”
Wow! Good early market testing I guess. So how did you end up being part of the TDi Two Feet Accelerator program?
It was pretty early on in the business journey. We were part of one of the first of the NAB/TDi Two Feet Incubator program around 2016 I felt pretty special to be included – at the time our business felt like a bit of a sh*t-show! There’s wasn’t a whole lot of strategy in that early stage. The business has changed quite a bit since then, but the Two Feet program was such a great way to lay some foundations and start thinking about our business strategy and our marketing and looking at different revenue streams. And just being around people who were going through similar things and at different stages of the journey. I’m still in touch with people from my cohort.
“…the Two Feet program was such a great way to lay some foundations and start thinking about our business strategy and our marketing and looking at different revenue streams.”
It was also good to be put in uncomfortable positions, like you know having to stand up and pitch and do all that stuff – it was terrifying! I think it was a great way to understand the potential as a business – and to learn from people who specialise in different areas. The ongoing support and mentoring they provided even after the program was great, having that connection to TDi and what they’re doing here in Australia to ground it. That’s been really nice especially being a business that is based majority overseas.
It must have been a steep learning curve. Did you have previous business experience, or did you learn as you went?
No business experience. I’d always had a pretty good work ethic though – I was working since the day I was legally allowed to! So keen! Stacking IGA shelves for $12 hour. I guess I’ve always been a bit of a doer and wasn’t concerned about my lack of experience running a business because I’ve always had the attitude that you don’t have to do things the ways they’ve always been done.
And I think that especially in the fashion space – again, something that I had no experience and to be honest, like no particular interest in, you know. I kind of like to think that I care about bigger issues. It was a means to an end. So from the start we’ve felt that we don’t have to follow the rules – we didn’t have to do anything seasonally, we can sell whenever we want, we can produce whenever we want.
And I think the reason why I set it up in the way I did was so that we could have that autonomy and freedom from an industry that puts a lot of pressure on manufacturers and brands. We run our own factory; everything is in house. We only sell online (after the initial pop-up stores to get the brand out there). So, it’s given us total freedom.
It’s also meant that we’ve been able to survive difficulties like COVID-19, while so many other businesses haven’t done so well because they’ve been at the mercy of their factories and wholesalers, with YEVU being a direct to customer brand .
“…I set it up in the way I did was so that we could have that autonomy and freedom from an industry that puts a lot of pressure on manufacturers and brands.”
That’s great to hear. How have you managed through COVID?
We shut down our factory for a couple of months, but we were able to sort of control the damage and you know, make sure that our staff were safe and okay. And we were able to speak directly to our customers and make sure that as soon as we came back to work, we could pop out a bunch of stuff that we knew were going to sell so we could get our revenue back up again. I think people are wanting to put their money into brands that have a little bit more purpose given the catastrophic state of the world and everything that’s going on. There’s a little bit more considered buying. So it hasn’t been a disaster, and we’re grateful for that.
“I think people are wanting to put their money into brands that have a little bit more purpose given the catastrophic state of the world and everything that’s going on. There’s a little bit more considered buying.”
So reflecting on the journey so far, what are some of the other things you’d really celebrate?
Just maintaining a really stable and invested team has been such a huge success. And having the ability to grow that team when we need to and when we can – having that growth be organically led and not investor led. I think saying no to a few really good things, maybe going against traditional business advice has actually put us in a really good position.
We said no to people wanting to come in and share ownership and while I would have really enjoyed the help at that stage, I had to say no. I couldn’t bring that into the mix when I wasn’t sure where we were going. I didn’t want someone leaning over my shoulder saying “we need to grow, we need to grow, we need more revenue to do X, Y and Z”. Not having to force it has been great. We’re now in a great position where we have people coming to us to manufacture for them which is kind of wild! It gives me such a kick because people are coming to us because of our quality. But we grew that. That took time to develop.
I think something else I’m proud about was renovating our workshop this year. We were able to invest about $10,000 to scale up with more machinery and create a better working environment. It’s beautifully ventilated and a lovely place to work. And we also built a training centre and have started running women’s health projects with partners The Cova Project. That was a really cool moment to finish that – before we fled the country due to coronavirus! Creating partnerships for social impact, particularly with Avenue, our ecommerce fulfillment partner. They work with people of all different abilities and support them to complete work tasks, socialise and develop their individual skills, regardless of their support needs.
I love that you celebrate stability and that you haven’t pursued growth for growth’s sake. What’s your thinking around that?
The whole impact investment and growth is sort of taken for granted. It’s assumed that most businesses that are starting off want to grow with the right investment.
This came up for me during the TDI accelerator. Part of the process was to prepare our pitch. And I was like ‘I don’t want to pitch because I don’t want investment’.
It was an interesting thing to bring up at that point, I think having that support and the ability to communicate around that made me feel confident that it was okay to go down that road. It forced me to sort of understand why and explain it, articulate it and make that part of our strategy. I think without TDi’s support I probably wouldn’t have been as considered and conscious about it, and maybe we wouldn’t be where we are today without knowing that I could be firm about something that maybe wasn’t as popular.
As I said one of the reasons for that decision was stability. We wouldn’t have been able to grow in the way that would have been necessary, had we looked at the investment path. Because we’re led by the capacity on the ground in Ghana. That’s what leads our growth. Sure, we could scale up, employ a ton more people and just focus on growth, but I don’t think that would align with our values. We want to work closely with our team in Ghana, ensure that we are really hiring people (single mums) who are currently lacking access to a sustainable livelihood, and invest in training and bring them onboard as a valued part of our business. This also reflects in a more empowered workforce, and also a better product. We’re one of the very few small scale workshops in Ghana who are factory line producing. That goes against how young people have been trained as an apprentice. So I mean you could bring in a whole lot of new people and pump out a huge volume. But you’re going to be forcing people to work very long hours, to train and onboard in a completely unreasonable way. That’s not going to be conducive to long term happiness for them or benefits to our business and our consumers. You’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on our team leaders and that’s not fair. So, we’ve had to grow in a way that reflects our capacity and our ability to produce goods consistently. We can’t afford a lull in production. It’s like anything, you have to add small things at a time to make it work, or it topples the balance.
It’s great to see how you were able to have such clarity about what was important early in the journey. How do you make staying to the intent that you set out with?
I think that’s a very good question. Being led by the needs of our team in Ghana really. And having a leader there who is able to communicate their needs very honestly and transparently, I think. Our head of production, Felicia Adwubi, has been with us since day one, 8 years now so we’ve got a good relationship. Little things, like we ensure that we increase wages by 20% every year in line with inflation in Ghana, we make sure that our team participates collectively in initiatives that they set up. For example – group savings is something that they do which has been really successful. Everyone puts in a certain amount of money per month, so if anyone has an emergency – a family health issue or a funeral the money is there for them.
I know we’re doing a good job when everyone who is working with us is happy. It really comes down to trust and relationships. It’s been about me living there, spending every day with the team. It’s a shared mission – sharing financials, sharing disappointments and successes. Sharing ownership not only of the product, but how the customers engage with it. I send them every bit of feedback we receive from Australia. Ideally, one day we’ll be able to formalise this shared ownership and pivot our business model to be more of a cooperative.
“I know we’re doing a good job when everyone who is working with us is happy. It really comes down to trust and relationships.”
What other things do you think you’ve learned from the TDI experience, and in your business journey beyond that?
Something I enjoyed was understanding the social enterprise model – looking at different types of businesses in Australia that fall under the umbrella of ‘business for purpose’. It was cool to see a full spectrum of these types of businesses and ask ‘where do you fit in?’.
I think it was also about being confident about our business model and why it’s different to other sustainable brands. We’ve done the hard work to deserve the understanding that we are actually a social enterprise because the project in Ghana is part of our business. It’s not separate from it. We’re not just donating money, we’re doing it all ourselves.
“I enjoyed understanding the social enterprise model – looking at different types of businesses in Australia that fall under the umbrella of ‘business for purpose’.”
What’s the dream situation for you?
My dream is for the business to be less dependent on me. I was full time working in the business for three or four years while we were growing. Now I run it in my spare time, so we’re getting there. If there’s less of a need for me then it means the team are empowered to do the job. This is my goal. For example yesterday our head of production in Ghana messaged me and said “hey, can we get three new apprentices as we’re really busy?” I replied, ‘you’re in charge, just tell me what you need.’ We’ve got all of our bank accounts there and as long as they are monitoring our expenses than they are in control of most decisions. The more I can step out of it, the more I feel like we’re doing a good job.
The next step is to address our structure and look at how we can give equity to the team in Ghana. One of our directors is Ghanian on the NGO side but we also have an Australian arm which I’m the sole director of. So I guess we need to work some things out and grow to make sure that there’s enough financial security and that equity and ownership is in their best interest. I mean it’s really up to them.
“The next step is to address our structure and look at how we can give equity to the team in Ghana.”
What advice or encouragement would you give to other people who are maybe just at the beginning of their social enterprise journey?
I think one key piece of advice that I’ve always come back to is: don’t underestimate the value of good product as a social enterprise. If you don’t have a great product that sells and continues to sell and bring customers back, then you can kiss your social impact goodbye. Because without a product that is worthy to sell, you’re not going to have the revenue to do any of the good work you want to do.
The purpose needs to initiate the business – identify the need, the problem you’re trying to solve. But do not put that over the product. They sit equally together. And maybe in the early days even put the product first. It’s got to be competitive internationally. Otherwise it’s charity. You’d don’t want people to buy because of the purpose. You want them to buy because they love the product and the purpose goes along with it.
The other important thing to address is access to capital. I’ve done some mentoring and stuff with various groups in Ghana. And working in emerging markets like Ghana, it would be completely unfair for me not to acknowledge my privilege and my ability to get access to capital when I needed it in the early days of the business. I had my own savings, I have family who were able to loan me some start-up money, I could get bank loans if I needed it, overdrafts, all of the above.
Figure out what your network is, and what your access to capital is and plan accordingly.
Understand what you need to start, and maybe simplify and start small and grow in a way that’s going to be more financially sustainable. This probably means you will have to work outside of your business to support yourself initially. That’s a pretty common thing to do.
“If you don’t have a great product that sells and continues to sell and bring customers back, then you can kiss your social impact goodbye.”
Thank you for sharing your story Anna. It’s an encouragement to see Australian social entrepreneurs kicking goals and sharing the potential to inspire others.
Absolutely. I feel like people are going to be coming into these things more informed as the social enterprise space has become more part of the mainstream vernacular.
You can learn more about YEVU and shop the range at https://yevuclothing.com/