The numerous textile firms at the Export Processing Zone in Athi River are manufacturers of apparel marketed by some of the world’s largest fashion brands.
Underneath the mammoth textile industry, the ultra-modern sewing machines, the intricate and meticulous processes of garment perfection, however, is a small group of workers that few Kenyans know about.
The EPZ is not only the source of high-quality garments but also home to a large community of deaf people who work tirelessly and seamlessly in these textile factories, using their skills to make their mark in the supply chain of clothing and textile.
We met six members of the deaf community based at the EPZ who work at one of the textile companies.
Hela Intimates, a British-owned apparel manufacturing company with branches in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Mauritius, recently set up shop in Kenya.
It makes garments for globally prestigious brands such as Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Warners, Lee, Wrangler and Nautica.
In their 100,000-square-foot workshop that employs more than 3,700 people, are seven deaf workers spread out across various stages within the massive supply chain.
Among them is Stephen Okumu, whom we found engrossed in his stitching job.
Mr Okumu’s job involves stitching the pocket panels and ensuring that the pocket borders are in line.
It might seem like an easy job but Mr Okumu says it takes a lot of “concentration and mental effort” to get it done just right.
Mr Okumu has worked at the EPZ for close to three years and says he has become better with time.
“In the morning I start on a low note, with low production rates. As the day goes by, my concentration deepens and I find myself doing much more by the hour,” Mr Okumu said as he narrated his typical day.
“My job requires me to be very fast and keen with my hands and, therefore, I must concentrate.”
Once the pocket panels have been stitched together by Mr Okumu, they find their way to the workstation of Ms Loise Nyambura — yet another deaf worker.
Ms Nyambura, who has also worked at the EPZ for close to three years, has the task of binding the pockets that will eventually be attached to garments such as trousers and shorts.
She carefully places her fingers inside the pocket to ensure evenness and to give the pocket a shape before stitching it.
We also find Ms Linet Bosibori, a mother of two, at the stitching department, her eyes keenly trained on the sewing machine.
Ms Bosibori is sewing a pair of men’s Calvin Klein underwear — a job she trained in prior to joining Hela Intimates.
According to her line manager, Mr Indika Kapila, Ms Bosibori is among the star performers in her department, according to a standard measured value that gauges employee productivity by the hour.
“Her skill is superior. She is the best operator in this line. I think you can attribute her stellar performance to the fact that she is not easily distracted from her work,” Mr Kapila said.
Once the garments are sewn and checked for quality, the next stage is pressing them in readiness for packing.
Here we find Mr Geofrey Wakhanu, who is just six months into the job but is described as a fast and efficient worker by his supervisor, Mr Maoncha Mohammad.
“When I came to the EPZ main gate to look for work, I had nothing in mind,” Mr Wakhanu recalled.
“I wanted to do anything that would put food on the table. I love my job. I love the fact that I learnt it so fast and I do not like having a backlog of T-shirts to pack on my desk, so I ensure I work with speed.”
Ms Amida Waswa is based at the knickers section and her job is to pack the underwear into polythene bags.
It is a detailed process that involves putting hangers and labels to show the sizes before they are packed.
But Ms Waswa makes it seem so easy — perhaps because all her attention is trained on her job, so much so that she does not notice us walking towards her.
It is Ms Waswa’s job to ensure that every garment that lands on her workstation is rightly labelled and neatly packed.
The last stage the garments go through is the trimming department.
Here, you will find Ms Nancy Wakajiathi, whose task is to go through the garments with a sharp pair of scissors to trim off the extra threads that may have been left hanging.
“Mine is to ensure that you get a neat garment,” Ms Wakajiathi, a mother of two, said.
Hela Intimates CEO Wasantha Perera noted that the deaf employees are not only extremely focused on their jobs but also exceed their targets because they work with little or no distraction.
“They have shown a lot of keenness in their work. They are like raw gems and you can do so much more with them.
“We treat them well and we don’t discriminate against them,” Mr Perera said.