Inspired by travel #6: Elephant Branded

How witnessing poverty in South Africa and Asia inspired James Munro Boon to set up a bag production company to provide local children with school kit

Company: Elephant Branded
Founder: James Munro Boon
Started in: 2012

Every year, thousands of teenage students embark on gap years to exotic locations – bunking up in low-rate hostels and ‘finding themselves’ while volunteering in poverty-stricken villages – before returning to the comfort of their Western homes.

But when architecture student James Munro Boon experienced the shocking reality of poverty in Africa and Asia, he vowed to build a social enterprise that would make an ongoing difference to the lives of suffering villagers across the two continents.

Consequently, Boon developed bag production company Elephant Branded, which pledges an ergonomically-designed school bag and kit to a child in Africa or Asia for every product sold.

With production led by local villagers from developing countries, using locally-sourced, recyclable materials, the company ensures that individuals have the opportunity to earn a fair wage and learn a valuable skill.

Now retailing in John Lewis as well as boutiques in London, the US, Switzerland, Germany, Greece and Malaysia, Boon has used his desire for travel to fuel a commercially successful business and continues to make a tangible difference to impoverished individuals from overseas.

Here’s how travel inspired Boon to create Elephant Branded:

Where were you when you got the idea and why were you so inspired?

During my second year at the University of Bath, where I studied architecture, I was involved in a project to design and build a nursery school in South Africa as part of my degree. We spent six months designing the school and then went out to a small township called Jouberton about two hours from Johannesburg.

For a country such as South Africa, which is fairly developed, I was dismayed by the lack of basic school equipment the children had access to. The school opened and they were writing on old pieces of newspaper as they had no books.

After graduating, I was offered a number of jobs in London but in the end I won an international architecture competition for a job in Guangdong province in Southern China.

Having never been to Asia, never mind China, I had no idea what to expect but jumped on a plane and absolutely loved it! While working in China I travelled extensively through Asia during work holidays and in the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos I was again shocked by this basic lack of school kit. I decided something had to be done and consequently Elephant Branded was born.

Were you actively looking for a start-up idea or did it just seem too good to pass up?

I didn’t ever aim to set up a business or become an ‘entrepreneur’ (a name I don’t really like) but instead I simply fell into it. The original plan was to sell 50 Elephant Branded bags and donate 50 school kits. I started selling to a few friends in Hong Kong and then moved back to the UK in February 2012, that’s when things really took off.

Within two weeks we had people calling us up and saying, ‘How can I get involved?’ We grew to have 10 representatives in the UK and four overseas. I believe that has now increased to around 25 UK universities. It is the people we’ve met along the way that have made Elephant Branded possible.

How easy was it to start the business on your return?

Having never run a business never mind set up one, it was all new, but I loved it!

That’s the great thing about it, every day is different and I have learnt more in the last year than I ever would have doing a normal job.

I have a great team to support me: Tim my business partner who keeps everything in check;  Kate who is brilliant at running our operations and making sure everything gets to where it needs to be and Alex our web wizard, who we simply could not operate without. We are all very different and that is what makes it work!

What research did you have to carry out to learn more about the sector and the market opportunity?

Not much. Having come from a design education I have an eye for things which I like, and hopefully what other people like. In terms of the products, we often canvas on our Facebook page, and have recently had a desire for rucksacks to be introduced, which is something we are now working on.

I spend most of my time and effort in the villages we deal with, as to be honest that’s what I love doing! Every time I go back I see how it has grown and developed and that is the humbling thing. Many of the ladies we work with have lost their husbands to the fighting on the border with Thailand or the Khmer Rouge. They have these amazing skills but have never had the opportunity to use them. That’s where we come in and give them the opportunity to make a whole product and learn skills which they can take with them to get a better job as a tailor in the city.

Last month we took on a further 30 ladies. That is why I personally do what we do but at the same time, I understand the huge responsibility we have to keep growing sustainably.

How did you replicate what you’d seen overseas or use your experience there?

The products have changed since the original ones I first sold in Hong Kong but only through slight design changes, we have also developed new product lines, to suit the UK market.

It can be quite difficult explaining laptop case sizes to a little village in Cambodia, but they are incredibly resourceful. I have pictures of the villagers trying the cases on laptops in the Apple store, in the main city, to check they fitted, before they were chased out by security!

Little things like that people don’t normally think about but for me that is one of the great things about business. I firmly believe that business, although often seen as a bad thing, can be a force for good. It transcends politics, religion, culture and race. It enables a little village in Cambodia to grow and develop without aid but through commerce, something I am passionate about.

How much did you invest in getting started?

I started in Hong Kong with one month’s rent savings, which was around £600. Since then we have grown organically and have through careful management of cashflow been able to keep full control of Elephant Branded, allowing us to ensure that it continues with the aims and ideas upon which it was originally founded.

How quickly after starting did you experience what you’d describe as ‘success’?

Our first big success was winning Google young minds, which is Google’s world competition. Not only did this give us some great exposure, from meeting former US president Bill Clinton to having him sign a bag, but it also gave us the opportunity to supply Google with their VIP delegate bags for their conferences. This gave us the working capital to grow and expand as well as allowing us to make a delivery of over 500 school bags to a little school in Sierra Leone!

Where did you go for advice?

Friends and family, as a team we bounce ideas off one another and I use Tim my business partner as a sounding board, as we have a very different take on things which is important.

What advice would you give to others who travel looking for start-up ideas?

The simple answer is go for it! I think any experience outside normal daily life grows and stretches you as an individual, allowing ideas to form.

Technology has made the world a much smaller place – I can jump on a plane and be in Hong Kong tomorrow morning. I chat daily on email with our village in Cambodia, a couple of whom I would honestly consider as close friends – something which even my parent’s generation could never have considered when they were young.

Even if you don’t find that amazing idea, I still think a lot can be gained from going out and experiencing the world. Even if it just gives you a more holistic view of life when discussing world issues at the pub with your mates.

What are your future plans?

The future plan is to grow Elephant Branded sustainably, keeping the core ideas and beliefs on which it was founded at its heart.

We want to grow Elephant Branded organically and to work with new enterprises in countries such as South Africa, Colombia and Mexico and work with new communities.

We will continue to focus on providing local people with the opportunities to bring themselves out of poverty, using local materials and leveraging local skills. Whether it be knitted products in Colombia or bags of coffee beans in Uganda – they will all have the little Elephant Branded logo, our promise, that the product has been ethically sourced and that for every product sold a school kit has been donated back to a child in Africa or Asia.