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Diane Mastrull: Phila. pair's Kenya venture grows fitfully

Lucy and Herman Bigham's home on a tidy West Philadelphia block is more than 7,400 miles from the litter that has both bothered and inspired them.

Herman and Lucy Bigham display some of the handbags made from plastic shopping bags. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
Herman and Lucy Bigham display some of the handbags made from plastic shopping bags. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)Read more

Lucy and Herman Bigham's home on a tidy West Philadelphia block is more than 7,400 miles from the litter that has both bothered and inspired them.

Inspired them, that is, to start a small business with anything but a small agenda. They are out to turn plastic shopping bags in her native Kenya into a valuable commodity and elevate the fortunes of impoverished women there.

Of course, they also hope it leads to profit - which their backers here think is doable. After all, that's part of the goal of social enterprise: to make money to do more good.

"We make it clear we are a business to empower through trade and employment," Lucy Bigham, executive director of Tosheka Textiles L.L.C., said during an interview at their Mantua home last week.

If the Bighams' plans are realized, Tosheka will become a vertically integrated textile workshop in Kenya incorporating the full range of production - from growing cotton to converting it and other materials into a variety of products. The Bighams would most likely relocate to Africa, they said.

But for now, theirs is a long-distance start-up initiative orchestrated from their home and limited to turning plastic shopping bags into handcrafted, fashionable, eco-friendly handbags.

You could say it began at the East Africa Resource and Study Center in Philadelphia, where the Bighams met seven years ago. Lucy, now 50, was a textiles-surface designer coordinating an apprentice program at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Center City. Herman, now 62, a lifelong Philadelphian, was an electrician and real estate developer.

They married four years ago, blending his passion for traditional African sculptural art, exhibits of which he puts on around the country, and her drive to revitalize the textile industry in Kenya.

The industry was vibrant until the early '90s, when it did not survive Kenya's new trade-liberalization policies, she said: Back then, there were 52 textile mills; now, just five.

In terms of economic development, nonprofits weren't getting the job done in Kenya, often fostering dependency on grants and providing training for jobs that didn't exist instead of empowering entrepreneurs, Lucy Bigham said.

"We felt there needs to be a change in the approach of how we do economic development," she said. "That change was the creation of Tosheka."

That was two years ago, their business plan a product of the Wharton Small Business Development Center. The Bighams reached an agreement with Nakumatt, a major retailer in Kenya, to supply Tosheka with plastic bags that customers were encouraged through incentives to return rather than throw out. Soon, similar arrangements were made with other markets.

Word quickly spread that plastic bags had value. What had been a major trash problem in Kenya became less of that, more a source of employment for low-income women.

With training from Tosheka, which has a staff of five in Kenya, and design guidance from Lucy Bigham, about 180 women working from home now are crocheting, knitting and weaving handbags from recycled plastic bags and other fibers.

The handbags retail for $45 to $250 under the company's Recycled Treasures line. They are modeled on the Kenyan "Soko" market bag, known also as a Kiondo basket, but are gussied up with linings, zippers, and decorative beads.

Typically, each woman is able to make three to four bags a week, earning $25 - slightly more if she provides her own materials. The Bighams said a typical Kenyan woman might make $1 a day farming or doing household chores.

"It's very fulfilling to see the kind of impact you can have on one person or more," Lucy Bigham said.

That was part of the appeal for a Media nonprofit. Untours Foundation, which helps businesses committed to sustainability and job creation, provided Tosheka a seed loan of $50,000.

"Tosheka is the full-meal deal to our foundation by providing green jobs - with training - to very low-income women while offering a skill that these women can take beyond Tosheka," said Elizabeth Killough, the foundation's manager. She also lauded the company's role in helping to initiate plastic-bag recycling in Kenya.

"We have confidence that this will be a successful business on two continents," Killough said.

That's the Bighams' hope. Until now, the market for their bags has been limited to Kenya. Sales in the United States have just started.

Herman Bigham said he has had encouraging talks with - but no commitments from - Philadelphia-based women's clothing retailer Anthropologie, and positive feedback at trade shows. Lucy Bigham has started to offer the bags for sale at gallery gift shops and house parties (information:

But expanding production to meet bigger market demand requires money. The Bighams are seeking $200,000 - funding that remains elusive.

"It's difficult getting funding if you're not high-tech," said Herman Bigham, who is now seeking corporate sponsorships.

With just half the number of Kenyan women they had planned for currently making bags, the Bighams expect it will take three years for Tosheka to reach profitability. Their original projection was one year.

Diane Mastrull:

Herman and Lucy Bigham talk about their Tosheka Textiles endeavor and show off the handbags in their West Philadelphia home.