Talking social enterprise in Sri Lanka with Josie George, AMMA

This week I’m happy to be introducing you to my cousin Josie. Josie runs AMMA, a social enterprise that trains and employs mothers in Sri Lanka’s central highlands. AMMA uses colour from food waste and local plants to create beautiful, natural textiles. Read our interview below.

Molly: What led you to start AMMA?

Josie: A few different reasons. Something needed to be done about the high unemployment levels amongst mothers in the tea picking communities here. Around the same time, Child Action Lanka, the local charity we work with, was looking to start income generating initiatives to become more financially sustainable.

I wanted to build an enterprise that demonstrates a different, fairer, more wholesome way of doing business in the fashion / textile industry. This gives me the opportunity to promote natural, botanical dyes, which I believe are a much safer alternative to synthetic dyes for both our planet and our wellbeing.

Molly: How do the mothers you work with benefit from the project?

Josie: Three mothers currently work with us. They all live on the local tea estate and the majority of their family members work as tea pickers or in the tea factory. They benefit by earning a fair wage, which is a hefty amount more than they would earn as tea pickers.

They have access to our savings scheme, where they invest a small portion of their monthly wage. Alcoholism is a huge problem amongst men on the tea estates. We can’t control what the mothers spend their money on or who they give it to, but we can guide and advise them through the savings scheme.

Child Action Lanka runs day centres and pre-schools for underprivileged children, so our mothers’ children attend the local pre-school and we work flexibly around them. We also acknowledge that life happens. If something comes up, we can adapt.

The women benefit by developing a purpose beyond the home, too. We have seen confidence grow hugely, especially in our youngest mother. She’s 23 and working for the first time.

Molly: The natural dyes you use create lovely results. Which is your favourite and why?

Josie: Thanks! At the moment my favourite is our pomegranate skin dye. The skins are really high in tannin, which means the colour bonds to the cotton fabric strongly. It has great colour and wash fastness. The spectrum of colour and diverse tones you can achieve from it are fascinating.

We’ve found that the water quality plays a big role in determining colours. The water source connected to our workshop is very high in iron. This surprised me by creating a green result when I had previously achieved yellow. We’re in a very dense farming area, so when the farmers prepared the ground with lime, this got into the water stream. It reduced the levels of iron, giving us bright yellow!

AMMA Sri Lanka Natural Dye Samples

Molly: What has (or hasn’t) surprised you about running the project?

Josie: Everything has surprised me. I didn’t know what to expect when starting AMMA. Each day has proven different to the last and a challenge of its own. Productivity can feel so low here because it takes twice as long – or longer – to solve a problem. This can feel disheartening and frustrating. I didn’t expect to spend so much time and energy on small practical things like fixing sewing machines or a water leak!

Equally, I’ve been happily surprised by the commitment of our mothers and the positive response from the local community. Cafes, hotels and restaurants have been so keen to donate food waste for us to dye with that we needed to buy a freezer to stop it all going off. We had a constant stream of orders and jobs early on, which meant we got started as soon as the workshop opened. Our mothers have learned on the job and we’ve had the cash flow to cover wages and start making a small profit.

Molly: What’s the most important lesson or skill you’ve learned since starting AMMA?

Josie: To be confident and believe in myself. I’ve had to do so many things that I used to avoid or be fearful of. I hate talking on the phone, but Sri Lankans love it, so I’ve had to get over that. I used to really care about what others thought of me. Now I’m the weird white girl collecting eucalyptus leaves with her arse in the air at the side of the road… I’ve learned to hold things lightly and to be flexible. Always be grateful for the good days and move on from the bad.

Molly: What advice would you give to other hopeful social entrepreneurs?

Josie: If the issue you’re trying to solve breaks your heart and you’ve got an idea that captivates you and uses your skills, just try. Before starting AMMA I was often told that it’s going to be really hard and it might not work. I knew I had to try because nothing in the world is changed by people who don’t give it a go.

Molly: How can people support the project?

Josie: Following us on Instagram (@amma_srilanka) is the best way to keep up to date with what’s happening. Our aims for late 2017 and early 2018 are to develop a more specific product line and decide on the creative direction of AMMA. We’re going to need lots of feedback from our followers and community!

To learn more, visit AMMA’s website. Follow AMMA on Instagram to see what Josie and the mother makers are up to.

AMMA Workshop in Sri Lankan Highlands

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