Trade over Aid: How Seamstress Training Creates Economic Opportunity for Women in Ghana

Trade over Aid: How Seamstress Training Creates Economic Opportunity for Women in Ghana

TUMI Ghana is a Kumasi-based social enterprise, that aims to create sustainable income opportunities for women in Ghana through training and employment in the seamstress profession. Recognizing that the possession of employable skills can both be a source of personal dignity and of financial independence, Dutch founder Milou Lommelen has dedicated herself to equipping women with economic opportunity. Beyond equipping women with seamstress skills, TUMI Ghana additionally provides training in entrepreneurship and offers resources related to reproductive health thus helping empower women beyond immediate professional training. Through an affiliated hostel and store, the organization aims to become entirely self-funded. SHE SAID spoke to Milou Lommelen about her vision to empower women through trade and not aid.


You grew up in the Netherlands, where you studied Tourism & Leisure Management and Facility Management. It was not until 2015 that you first came to Ghana to intern in agro-tourism. What inspired you to found TUMI Ghana during this time?

I lived in a host family which gave me the opportunity to experience “real Ghanaian life” (as far as you can really understand another culture in such a short time). What I saw were so many young girls and women with so much potential and an eagerness to learn but with so little opportunities. I also learned that successful seamstresses were able to earn a decent income but to reach that point, you would need to invest in an unpaid 3-5 year long apprenticeship. Unfortunately, for most women this is not financially viable. So we at TUMI Ghana developed a sewing-fashion training for 5 days a week and only 4 hours a day thus enabling students to take care of their family or even have a job on the side. Since we don’t depend on customers or the availability of a seamstress, we are able to finish the whole curriculum within 1.5 years. 


One of the fundamental tenets of TUMI Ghana is the belief that trade is superior to aid. How is your enterprise equipping young women to become self-sufficient and to live more self-determined lives than through international aid? What challenges remain? 

I believe that learning a skill for you to earn your own income is way more sustainable than a one time gift. It is also much more dignifying. It makes people independent instead of depending on aid which always creates an unequal balance between the aid giver and the receiver. In our program, aside from teaching the skills of sewing and designing, we also focus on teaching entrepreneurial skills to help participants start their own business. And last but not least, we also teach sexual health which covers family planning, the body and related rights, reasons to get involved with someone and the difference between love and lust to name a few. The challenge that remains is that not everyone is able and willing to start their own business so we are now focussing also more on the aspect of job creation through production.


In addition to training women in tailoring, design and entrepreneurship, you give them access to sex education and birth control. Why does TUMI Ghana focus on the seamstress profession as a key to economic opportunity and what role does family planning support play in this context?

Seamstresses can make a very decent living in Ghana, which coincides with the profession being embedded in Ghanian culture. Insofar, TUMI Ghana represents a means of improving the way of learning the associated skills without introducing culturally foreign elements into the local economy. Early on we have connected our professional training with sex education as I believe that family planning is a key area for women to take more control of their lives. To be able to plan when to have kids provides so much freedom and enables women to make self-determined choices for their best future. Economic opportunity and private life go hand-in-hand. Family planning support is intended to help our participants flourish in their profession while enabling them to find family arrangements that they feel comfortable with and empowered by.


Recognizing your noteworthy contribution to economic and social empowerment of Ghanaian women, what is your vision for the economic future of Ghana? How does this vision influence your work at TUMI Ghana?

Ghana has been doing very well over the past years. This also becomes evident when assessing the country’s response to the COVID pandemic. Overall, I am very hopeful that Ghana will continue to grow economically. Prior to the pandemic, Ghana was a rising tourist destination, which makes me hope that once international travel resumes more economic opportunity can be uncovered in this area. In the meantime, we at TUMI Ghana are focusing on how to become less dependent on foreign tourists. This includes tailoring our products towards domestic Ghanian tourists as well as focusing on production. 

Svenja Kirsch is a Masters in Public Policy (MPP) Candidate at Harvard University and previously studied International Relations at Jacobs University and Sciences Po Paris. She specializes on business and government policy and focuses particularly on corporate government affairs, CSR, female economic empowerment and sustainability. Before joining GRI, she worked in academic reviewing, political campaigning, think tank research and corporate sustainability management.

Categories: Africa, She Said

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