Business / #ForbesBusiness

May 14, 2019,   9:58 AM

How This Ethical Fashion Startup Is Helping Egyptian Farmers

Nayera Yasser

Cairo-based fashion, culture and lifestyle journalist that believes in the underrated potential of regional craftsmanship and inspiring individuals who aim to create a better tomorrow. FULL BIO

ben rami mackenzie kotn

Kotn's Founders Mackenzie Yeates, Rami Helali, and Benjamin Sehl

Canada-based fashion startup, Kotn—meaning cotton in Arabic—has carved out a niche in providing simple yet stylish and reasonably-priced garments through its two stores in Vancouver and Toronto, and online to global customers from New York to Egypt and the U.A.E. But it’s something other than its designs making the fashion line stand out.

Over the last three years, Kotn has donated 1% of every sale throughout the year to educational projects in the local Egyptian farming communities where it sources the cotton for its clothes. In total it has raised over $136,000 and opened two schools in the Kafr El Sheikh district, catering to 70 students that previously had no access to education. Today it is putting the finishing touches to two schools in El Lebeidy and Fatthallah Ghazy, which are due to be complete in summer 2019.

The schools teach the core curriculum supplied by the Ministry of Education in Egypt, in addition to community and life skills that are directly applicable to the students. A 2:1 female to male student ratio is promoted in an effort to empower young girls to experience equal opportunity.

From the start, the Kotn co-founders wanted to move beyond ethical retail to create a conscious label, investing in the fight against Egypt’s illiteracy epidemic.

It was a hot summer in New York in 2014, when lifetime friends Mackenzie Yeates, Rami Helali, and Benjamin Sehl—all dressed in their white t-shirts—grew bored of the fashion options surrounding them. In a city where logo-punctuated runways were thriving with edgy apparel, the three friends were in search for simple basics. “The two options available to us were cheap, poor quality t-shirts that we would toss after a few wears, or good quality t-shirts that cost over $100,” says Helali.

The three friends decided to create a bridge between the two options—something that was not just good quality, but ethically-made and affordable. Inspired, the entrepreneurs began to develop their idea.

Originally from Cairo in Egypt, Helali packed his bags that summer and travelled home for a family wedding. While there, he learnt that the government was cutting subsidies to local cotton farmers; at the time, cotton production dropped to 7% of  what it used to be in 2001. “Egyptian cotton is the highest quality of cotton fiber in the world, so inherently, it is more expensive than shorter staple cotton,” says Helali.

When he returned to New York, Helali discussed the farmers’ situation with his two friends. Determined to balance quality and price, the three entrepreneurs decided to eliminate the middle men. “It was imperative for us from the very beginning to work directly with the source, the farmers,” Helali explains. “This allows us to have 100% transparency throughout our entire supply chain, right down to the seeds planted.”

While the three partners were exploring strategy and the logistics of starting the business out of their personal savings, Helali took a leap, quit his job in the U.S. and moved back to Egypt in 2015. He spent the next few months understanding the local agricultural market’s potential as well as the problems farmers had to face every day. While learning more about the source of their future fashion line, he also uncovered something unexpected.

“Before starting the brand, I lived on the farms for five months, during which I learned about the community’s way of life. One of the biggest issues they faced was the lack of education for their children,” says Helali.

Recent numbers shared by the government state that 25% of Egyptians are unable to read or write—70% of those are women. These statistics are particularly aggressive in the rural areas of the Nile Delta, where Kotn sources cotton.

According to the co-founder, in most cases, there was not a school within reach to attend, or the schools that were available were not in working shape. Therefore, the children instead went to work with their families. “It was important for us from the beginning to give back to the communities we worked within,” says Helali. “Building and funding schools was the best way for us to help create a sustainable future.”

Kotn launched in Toronto in 2015. At the same time the brand started to raise awareness regarding its developmental plans as well as involving a global audience in the building process of their first school.

“We worked with a local UNESCO prize-winning NGO, Misr El-Kheir, to find plots of land and the communities most in need, and then employ locals to actually build and work at the schools. The response has been overwhelmingly positive so far,” says Helali.

Kotn opened its first and second schools in Kafr El Sheikh in 2017. Between Black Friday in November and Cyber Monday in December 2018, the brand donated 100% of its sales to start work on its third and fourth schools, raising a total of $80,000.

As well as the school buildings, Kotn provides the infrastructure around the schools, including salaries for teachers, laptops, maintenance for the roads that link communities to the schools, books and supplies, science labs, water and electricity, furniture and technical training for facilitators. And of course, the co-founders continue to expand their fashion collection, planning to introduce new Egyptian fabrics and patterns in time for spring 2019.

Although the brand is based in Canada, with a strong base of clients around the world, the co-founders are determined to keep their production in the heart of delta. “We currently produce everything in Egypt. From the farms, we work directly with dye houses, yarn mills, and cut-and-sew facilities in the region to create the Kotn products,” says Helali. “100% of our products, from raw cotton to finished garments, are made in Egypt.”

By cutting out the middle men, Kotn has successfully managed to protect farmers from price fluctuation and pay them more. According to the founders, they eliminate fluctuation by paying their farmers a guaranteed price; something that translated last season to 35% above market pay. Meanwhile, they also work with the farmers to understand their needs every season, providing them with subsidies, such as fertilizer and agricultural consultants, which lower their operating costs during the past season by an average of 28% a farm.

Overall, the pioneering Kotn founders have found a model that enables them to offer customers a more affordable product—one that is also doing something to pay back the cotton community and contribute to its progression.

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