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South African fashion start-up Utamu promotes universal education

Can business be a powerful and creative tool for demonstrating how social cooperation can lead to tremendous social, environmental, and economic progress?

That’s what Utamu, the new fashion start-up on the scene in Cape Town, has set out to do. It celebrates craftsmanship and supports children’s education simultaneously; when you buy an Utamu jacket, you’re sponsoring a term of English and Maths lessons for a young person in Masiphumelele, a small community in South Africa where more than 40,000 people live disadvantaged and poor by the legacy of apartheid.

Utamu’s background, principles and vision:

Utamu is a relatively new venture, founded in 2018 by Valentina Soldera and Diego Olaya. Valentina grew up in Italy, where her father owned a clothing brand, teaching her early on the importance of using sustainable materials to protect ourselves and the environment. She has a dual masters in law, entrepreneurship and technology at IE University, which has given her an international perspective of regulations and brought her closer to her aspiration of helping others on a global scale. Diego, on the other hand, is a social entrepreneur who founded his first business aged 15 and then studied Business in San Francisco before conducting blockchain research at an asset management company in USA and co-founding a volunteer programme for permaculture in Uganda.

This makes for a fairly energetic, accomplished pairing, particularly since both Soldera and Olaya also share a bigger vision: the desire to positively contribute to universal education. Soldera comments: “Naturally, in a world of automation, luxury seems to return to the fleeting authenticity of craftsmanship made possible only by human hands. From the artisans we work with, to the children we support, people are at the center of Utamu.

Ethical credentials:

Utamu’s organic cotton fabrics are plant-dyed and handwoven using centuries-old techniques by artisans in Mali, who receive training and dignified employment to help support their families and escape poverty. It’s a tradition that dates all the way back to 12th century, when artisans began to dye mud cloth in a bath full of leaves and branches from different plants: indigofera for blue, hibiscus flower for red and m’peku tree bark for orange.

Utamu believes that radical transparency is the only way to reinvent the fashion industry. That’s why it share its production costs and the story behind its clothes: because it believes that you deserve to know what you wear.

Next steps, challenges and how you can help:

So what are the next steps for Utamu? “We want to integrate blockchain technology into the supply chain for greater transparency and accountability, and to create smart labels and a mobile experience that shows customers the production story behind a garment.”

That’s not to say any of this process has been easy. “We’ve struggled to find partners and suppliers that use ethical and chemical free products and processes,” says Soldera. “It’s also been a challenge to determine the right positioning for the brand in the ethical and luxury space, whilst still making it accessible to young professionals with a strong sense of social and environmental awareness.”

If anyone can do it, we think this pair can. If you want to help them, check out the Mali Collection which launched on Kickstarter on 27 August (early birds get up to a 35% discount). To join Utamu’s community of Gamechangers, check them out here.