In this edition of Ye! Spotlight on Entrepreneurs, we sat down with the two founders of Kimuli Fashionability, Juliet Namujju (CEO) and Sairus Kiggundu (Director), to learn about their journey as change makers and entrepreneurs.
How did you develop your idea for Kimuli Fashionability?
Kimuli Fashionability is a social enterprise based in Mpigi Town, Uganda. We tailor plastic polythene waste and traditional African fabrics into beautiful and sustainable clothes and accessories. The word Kimuli means 'flower' or‘bloom, and Fashionability combines the words 'fashion’and‘ability, referring to the ability of people with disabilities. The idea of Kimuli Fashionability is to conserve the environment through the creation of employment for disabled persons, making waste bloom into something beautiful. The idea for Kimuli Fashionability was born from our painful early life experiences.
[Juilet] My father was badly injured in a cycling accident that led to the amputation of his legs. As a result of his disability, my father lost his job, and felt victimized and left behind in life. I became an orphan at the age of 6 and was raised by my grandmother. She was a tailor and could not afford to buy any toys for me. So, I started to collect the leftover fabric scraps, along with the plastic waste I found in the street, and sewed them into dolls, flowers and doll dresses. This greatly changed my mindset – waste is only waste if you waste it! After high school, I could not afford to go to university, so instead I enrolled in a short course in Fashion and Design. At the age of 20, I founded Kimuli Fashionability as a sustainable brand, aiming to address environmental issues, as well as to empower people with disabilities through meaningful employment.
[Sairus] When I was 7 years old, my father was disabled after a bad accident. He could no longer work as a farmer and was excluded from society due to his disability. I loved learning but could not afford to pay my schools fees. I began collecting plastic bottles and wild fruits to sell to raise money for my tuition fee through to high school. These experiences opened my eyes to the issues of poor waste management, deforestation, pollution and climate change, as well as the need to conserve the environment. Kimuli Fashionability is a way to transform my experiences into a business. I wanted to promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities into the workforce while raising awareness on environmental sustainability through up-cycling waste.
What do you do to keep on learning and developing as entrepreneurs?
We provide niche products and it is important to keep up to date with the world of fashion. We regularly monitor the updates on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and other sources, such as Fashion TV, to understand what is trending and how we can improve our product line. Listening to our customers is key. Fifty percent of our new products are developed in response to customer feedback. It is a dynamic relationship and we stay close to Kimuli clients. In addition, we believe social capital is vital to all successful entrepreneurs. We work to build and maintain relationships with other entrepreneurs, designers, social workers and communities like Ye!, around the world.
How do you transform waste into sustainable fashion?
On receipt of the plastic waste we wash and place the plastics to dry them in the sun. Examples of waste we collect are empty milk cartons, cement sacks, sugar and rice sacks. Clean waste is then taken to the production space and drafted into different pattern designs, depending on the product to be made.
As the base of our beautiful designs, plastic is durable, waterproof and works well when sewn together with African fabrics into Eco-products. Since we started, we have upcycled over 30,000kg of plastic waste into more than 10,000 sustainable products.
How does your business support the local community?
We employ local youth to collect the plastic waste in their communities, for which we provide them with protective gears, e.g. masks and gloves. This enables them to earn a living, and to thereby address the wider social concern of high unemployment in Uganda.
We run programmes in schools and rural communities to raise awareness about the protection of the environment, and about the importance of recycling, reducing and re-using waste. We also promote our message through our social media channels and events, i.e. fashion shows where people with different disabilities model our sustainable fashion on the runway.
We are inclusive and employ disabled persons. Their work challenges the social stereotype and shows that disability is not inability. In addition, we have trained over 75 disabled members of local communities in tailoring, so that they can earn a living independently and teach others these skills.
We use African fabrics in our designs, which are purchased from local communities and suppliers who respect sustainability standards. We also use locally produced sustainable Ugandan bark cloth. This is a fabric that is made from the inner bark of the famous Mutuba trees (Ficus natalensis).
What have you done to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic?
We have launched a campaign where,for each up-cycled product sold, 50% of the proceeds go towards manufacturing reusable, washable and biodegradable anti-viral face masks as an alternative to single use plastic face masks. We are distributing the masks to local community members who are at high risk of contracting Covid-19, such as health workers, market vendors and boda-boda cyclists (motorcycle taxi drivers) who do deliveries.
To learn more about Kimuli Fashionability and their initiatives, click here
What are your future plans for Kimuli Fashionability?
Our overall goal is to build Kimuli Fashionability into a leading African sustainable and inclusive eco-fashion label, creating both employment opportunities for persons with disabilities and youth whilst also promoting sustainability and eco-friendly fashion.
Currently, we are not selling much beyond the domestic market and we would like to sell more of Kimuli Fashionability products outside Uganda and Africa. US and Europe are target markets. The challenges to getting there include establishing new sales partnerships in those regions, resolving the method of payment, and updating our online shop. We are looking for a digital marketing supporter and an IT expert to work with us to achieve this goal.
What do you find most valuable about engaging a global community for young entrepreneurs, like Ye!?
Kimuli Fashionability won the Ye! Community award for Uganda in 2018. Ye! Community was the first organization to appreciate and recognize our social enterprise. The award was also an opportunity to interact with other fellow Ye! Community members in Uganda and build our network with other young entrepreneurs.
Check out Juliet discussing Kimuli Fashionability and the inclusion in fashion on CNN.
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All photos provided courtesy of Kimuli Fashionability