Artisan jeweler Austin Brass
A jewelry brand that is “inspired by Africa” is solely using materials that are reclaimed or recycled, and employs 150 Kenyan artisans, including a group of Maasai women.
Audrey Migot-Adholla, the 36-year-old founder of Yala, started making jewelry from home, as a hobby, in order to maintain her connection to her home country of Kenya.
“I wanted to keep the knowledge of traditional crafts that I had learnt as a child,” she says. “Over my time my hobby grew to the point that I couldn’t keep up with my customers’ demand anymore.”
Migot-Adholla tried to outsource production, but after “several encounters with unscrupulous middlemen,” she realized ethics and transparency in the jewelry industry was “rather hard to come by.”
The entrepreneur used her existing connections in Kenya to find artisans who she could work with directly.
“Despite the saturated industry I was entering, I could see a niche for sustainably made pieces from a brand with total transparency,” she says, “so I set up the business with that mindset.”
Two in five consumers want more information on which jewelry is ethically sourced, while 42% also want retailers to sell more ethically sourced products.
Founder Audrey Migot-Adholla
The company has only been in operation for a year, but Migot-Adholla says that even as a consumer, she has noticed a change in brands putting ethical credentials first.
“Terms such as ‘Fairmined’ and ‘Eco-gold’ are popping up more and more often in website content and marketing material.”
But it’s a competitive industry: the U.K. jewelry market is worth £3.3 billion with relatively consistent year-on-year growth. And Migot-Adholla says achieving the necessary level of visibility in order to stand out has been tough.
Bracelets from the collection
“The jewelry and accessories industry is an incredibly saturated market, with clear price segments. The most obvious difference is our B-Corp status. Following a months-long validation period, once I received confirmation that Yala had been certified I was also informed that we were the first jewelry company in the U.K. to do so.”
(Jewelers E.C. One is also now B-Corp status, which it received after Yala.)
Migot-Adholla says “in theory” every brand operating in the sustainable space could be considered competition, but adds another big unique selling point is the packaging inserts that come with the products.
“We showcase the names, faces and stories of all those involved in making our jewelry, and that’s unusual. We want our customers to understand that every product is made by hand and offer them a connection to the people behind the products, as well as the impact that their purchase will have on the lives of the artisans.”
Despite only launching in November 2018, the company won “Jewelry Brand of the Year” at the 2019 Sustainable Jewellery Awards.
One of the entrepreneur’s highlights is working with a group of Maasai women operating out of a Fairtrade-certified workshop.
“The majority of these women are uneducated beyond primary school level, but they can use a traditional skill to earn extra income. Due to their family dependencies, the work they do has a positive effect on 300 additional households in the surrounding area.”
Overcoming the key challenge of setting up a robust supply chain was difficult, and Migot-Adholla then faced issues with setting up payment.
“Kenya doesn’t offer a free banking system and not all the artisans have access to a computer or the internet. However, nearly everyone has a mobile phone so mobile money systems like mPesa allow me to pay artisans directly and messaging tools like WhatsApp allow us to communicate directly with each other and exchange photos and sketches.”
But the entrepreneur is keen to expand beyond jewelry. “I sometimes joke that Yala as a company isn’t about jewelry at all, because the core mission is to improve the lives of the artisans who make the products.
“There are thousands of highly skilled artisans in Kenya who we’d love to work with on different product categories.”