Namujju uses fashion to tackle discrimination, waste problem

Juliet Namujju is an innovation enthusiast using fashion to take on discrimination against people with disabilities and Uganda’s waste problem. PHOTOS | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Sustainable fashion brand, Kimuli Fashionability, distributes windowed facemasks out of upcycled garments and accessories out of plastic waste.

Growing up in poverty as an orphan raised by her single grandmother in a remote village in Uganda, Juliet Namujju knows what victimisation owing to disability can do to a household. As such, she valued even what others considered as waste to make her own toys. 

“My grandmother was a tailor and she inspired me, as a child, to use cut-offs and plastic waste as available resources to create something. This changed my mindset towards waste and I started to see the value in protecting the environment,” Namujju says.

At 20, in 2017, Namujju and her team founded Kimuli Fashionability, a sustainable fashion brand to fight for the conservation of the environment and inclusion of persons with disabilities. 

“We produce fashion and accessories, hand-made by our tailors with disabilities, whom we train and employ to creatively up-cycle plastic waste into beautiful products with a purpose for awareness about the underestimated global plastic waste crisis. Depending on the product, each tailor bags between Shs40,000 and Shs80,000 per product,” she says.

Namujju, who says waste is only waste if you waste, it turns plastic waste such as used cement bags, milk packets, sugar sacks, and rice sacks into designer products. 

They work with homeless and youth who collect and sell the waste materials at Shs2,000 per kilogramme. The waste is then washed, dried and cut depending on the design of the product to be made. The pieces are then blended with African fabrics such as kitengi, sisal, and bark cloth and made into unique fashionable garments (raincoats) and accessories (shopping bags, wallets, and laptop cases).

At Kimuli Fashionability, disability is not inability so they seek to empower them by organising fashion shows where their employees showcase and model their work. “This is to raise funds and change people’s mindset towards disability.  In addition, we organise sensitisation programmes in schools, children camps, and rural communities to support reducing, re-using, re-cycling and up-cycling waste.”

Unlikely start

The journey started by Namujju getting tailoring skills from her grandmother in whose business she thrived. 

“Thereafter, I started working on my idea of supporting persons with disabilities across Africa,” she notes.

Namujju displays the windowed face masks made from plastic waste. PHOTO | COURTESY

Many doubted that she would make an impact on the environment and society but that only motivated Namujju to make her dreams a reality. 

“In 2016, I joined Social Innovation Academy (SINA) whose vision is to turn around sorry life stories into positive catalysts for social change. Here, I fine-tuned what people termed as madness into an amazing idea. The academy also gave me my start-up capital (Shs50,000) to buy materials such as kitengi, bark cloth, sisal, and waste material that kickstarted the production process,” Namujju says.

With that skill, she now employs both 96 women and youths, from different backgrounds in a bid to change their lives to become self-reliant. 

Setting off

The dreams were feasible and attainable; however, Namujju and her team were yet to understand more about the dynamics of business because they learned some bitter lessons in the beginning. 

“Our first order, in 2017, was from Berlin Germany a connection through Social Innovation Academy for more than 200 up-cycled makeup and cosmetic bags. The excitement was blinding that when one team member suggested we follow a prototype approval process, as the lead, I neglected the idea. My focus had been swayed by the numbers and money needed that we did not focus on quality and customer needs,” she says.

While they worked tirelessly with their disabled tailors to accomplishment, the customers did not like their colour selection, designs and product quality so only two bags were bought. Disappointment and regrets filled the atmosphere owing to the immense losses because part of the capital was borrowed.

Since then, the team has introduced a management system which distributes roles giving space for growth and decision making of all members. 

Marketing

Though situated in Maya, Mpigi, Kimuli Fashionability reaches customers who are far and wide with their online marketing strategy.

“We use the Kimuli Fashionability online shop and digital platforms such as Etsy, and Amazon and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Whatsapp. We also leverage tourist centres such as Equator, exhibitions, fashion weeks, tourist hotels, as well as craft and eco-fashion shops as sales channels for our artistic products. This is a good way to reach our core target market: tourists,” she says.

Through partnerships with sales partners and different outlets, Namujju says Kimuli Fashionability sells its up-cycled products without high renting costs but rather percentage commission of between five and 10. With a wide product range, prices depend on the cost of production, among other factors.

Save the SINA training, she and the team have received trainings and support from other places such as the Tony Elumelu Foundation whose start-up toolkit helped them understand their customers better. 

She says: “during the programme, I also wrote a business plan for the first time in my life. The lessons and support have led to the success of Kimuli Fashionability.” 

They also received support and training from Greenpreneur online acceleration programme which helped them to really understand more about our mission and vision. 

All the trainings have been for free because of their innovative work.

Challenges

Inasmuch as they feel the world is theirs for the taking, the team has encountered several hiccups. Their biggest struggle is the market expansion owing to a significant skills gap in understanding their market demographics, trends and expansion factors. 

Limited working space is also not conducive for their beneficiaries as it slows production. 

“While we battle with limited capital, there is also ignorance about proper waste management and disposal in Uganda,” she says.

Victories

Despite the bottlenecks, Namujju and her team have organised an inclusive and sustainable fashion show on November 29, 2020 which attracted 500 people and exposure through international media houses that led the company to gain contracts with seven international fashion houses. 

“This will lead to the up-cycling of over 50,000 kgs of plastic waste by December 2021,” she says of the impact.

Being awarded the ‘Global Greenpreneur Award’ in 2019 in Seoul Korea by Ban-Ki-Moon was also an amazing moment. Other awards include the ‘Weare’ Award for ‘Best Young Employer of the year’ (2019) in Uganda, becoming runners up in the Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF) Awards and being named Goalkeepers by the Gates Foundation as part of Global Citizen Festival.

Kimuli Fashionability’s up-cycled rain jacket from old sugar sacks was also selected for display at the UN Global Goals Week during the 73th UN General Assembly. 

The team also made it to the Tony Elumelu training and their work was published in the Africa’s Education Innovations’18 by the African Union. 

They also innovated inclusive-masks with a transparent medium to enable the deaf lip-read during signing for effective communication yet still be protected from Covid-19. 

“The innovation helped us get the Adamstart Covid-19 challenge with a BBC-World News broadcast. We used 40 per cent of the profits from the sales to help more than 500 deaf and mute with free inclusive masks,” Namujju explains.

Looking back, Namujju is thankful that she stuck with her idea because relatives and friends gave up on her. 

“I discovered that victimisation affects many people and oftentimes, I felt demotivated whenever they criticised me with negative feedback; at a certain moment people thought I was crazy. Nonetheless, I insisted with an intrinsic motivation of my dream to see the disabled persons working and respected in our society,” she shares.

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