Mifuko – Making Waves in the Design World Through Sustainable Design
Mifuko is a Finnish company offering bags, baskets and small wood items. The items are designed in Finland, and made in Kenya with local methods and materials. The story of Mifuko is that of two Finnish designers determined to make high fashion in a way that is sustainable and contributes positively to the world.
They were at the fair in Stockholm when it struck: This could actually work. They had poured their hearts and souls into designing sustainable items with a clear focus on design, and had gone through a hell of a time getting all the pieces together. But now, it seemed like the way ahead was truly opening for Mifuko and the two people behind the company – Minna and Mari.
The path that led Mari and Minna to that Stockholm event has been full of chance encounters and quick turns. They met queuing for lunch in the School of Arts, Design and Architecture in Helsinki and since became inseparable. After graduating, both were doing freelance work when Minna ended up moving to Kenya for a while in 2008, intending to continue freelancing from there. What she found in her new home would change their lives and result in the birth of Mifuko.
A true partnership
As Minna got to know her new home, she saw that the local craftsmen and –women in Kenya were incredibly skilled in working with the materials they had, and had perfected their traditional designs over the decades. She immediately knew that finding a way to collaborate with these local craftsmen could be an avenue to creating sustainable design with a personal twist. She called Mari, who traveled to Kenya and together they sought out partners. Their mission from the start was to form a true partnership between themselves and the people in Kenya. They would let the materials and methods of Kenya influence their Finnish design decisions. Mifuko would create sustainably produced items with design fit for the high street.
”Sustainable design was not a new thing at that time, but we wanted to do it our way. We wanted to be on equal terms with the people we would collaborate with – their input and work is invaluable to us and we want to develop their businesses in a sustainable way, and the only way to do that is to empower them to be business-savvy”, says Mari.
Minna and Mari saw that the Kenyans had perfected their craftsmanship and know-how concerning materials, and the Finns could best contribute through design and marketing. According to Mari, they didn’t want to just export Kenyan handicraft products, but to create something new, infused with their design sensibilities: ”Design means everything to us. The products we make have to be so desirable that you fall in love with it when you see it in a shop. Then, getting familiar with the background of the product is icing on the cake.”
There was some confusion when the Finns introduced the Kenyan locals their designs, which were simple and classic: ”They were pretty taken aback by the designs, and some even might have taken us for a couple of dummies: Why would anyone want to do black or white baskets, when there’s so much color in the world? Furthermore, what’s the point in obsessing over detail – the baskets are good for carrying items, no matter what the color. We actually ended up bringing some Finnish magazines along and explaining that this is what the typical home looks like where we come from, and that furnishing is a hobby to many people. We took it from there, in agreement.”
Successful and sustainable
Now Mifuko export their products to 30 countries. They have the World Fair Trade Organization certificate, and collaborate with some X people from Kenya, contributing to employment in the country. They’ve struck a balance between commercial success and contributing to the world in a positive way: ”That moment at the trade fair in Stockholm when we realized we could sustain our business – but equally important to us is the way we conduct business. We design and market the products, and offer business advice to people in Kenya. Every person buying our products is taking part in this positive cycle”, Mari says.
There have been times when Minna and Mari have almost lost faith, but every obstacle has been overcome. According to Mari, the problems have to do with succeeding with a business in general, not so much with working in developing countries: ”Some people have said it must be lots of trouble to produce items in Kenya, it’s halfway around the world, and all that. Well, cell phones have made it so that we can use WhatsApp to run things on a daily basis, and the mobile-based banking system MPESA is used as a payment solution – the world has gotten much smaller in a matter of few years.”
In the future, Mifuko are looking to expand their operations in Finland and seek more retailers and countries to sell their products in. They’re also running a project to construct dry lavatories in Kenya. ”We do these projects through Mifuko Trust, which we founded. For instance, we got a cow for one group we work with – she’s called Mifuko, and has already had a calf, called Suomi. It’s ”Finland” in Finnish – the cow’s name is a celebration of Finland’s 100th year of independence!”