In the second instalment of our ‘Behind the Brands’ series, we speak to James Boon, founder of Elephant Branded.
See the full range of products here: Elephant Branded
Q: Where did the inspiration for Elephant Branded come from?
A: Well the story really starts with my degree and my studies. I studied Architecture, not the normal route to being an Entrepreneur but as I hope to show it is the reason Elephant Branded exists and I attribute a lot to that fact.
Unlike most degrees Architecture takes 7 years to complete. I am sure you can imagine my parents’ faces when I said I would be at University for seven years! However the Education is not all at University but involves a number of years working in Industry.
During my second year I was involved in a Project to design and build a Nursery School in South Africa as part of my degree. We spent 6 months designing the school and then went out to a small township called Jouberton about 2 hours from Johannesburg.
It was an amazing experience living in the township. It was the first time I had seen real poverty and it really shocked me. 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 as offered a job with a London Architecture firm in their Shenzhen office 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.
I would often go somewhere and as in Africa many of the schools would be built by NGOs etc however many lacked the basic school equipment, which makes a school a school. In the Philippines, Cambodia and Loas I was again shocked by this basic lack of school kit.
In Cambodia I met Pry and Mey, Pry had recently started to make products out of recycled cement bags. I saw the basic products and thought that if we developed the design further we could sell these to a western market.
The idea was simple.. Elephant Branded… by doing something as small and as simple as buying a bag from a store you have inadvertently donated a school bag to a vulnerable child in Africa or Asia, giving them an opportunity that they previously never had.
Not only does the sale of the EB bag give a child school kit but also all of our bags are ethically sourced, working with Village cooperatives making products from recycled cement bags. This gives the older generations the skills to get themselves out of poverty, while investing back into grass roots with our school kits. With these two simple principles Elephant Branded was born!
Q: What is your philosophy as a brand and how does Elephant Branded make an impact?
A: The philosophy behind Elephant Branded is really about keeping it simple and to our core values. With everything we do we first look at the reasons we started the brand and if the new idea aligns with that, then great we do it! If it doesn’t then we simply do not do it.
Q: As a brand, what is your biggest achievement to date?
A: 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 Bill Clinton to having him sign a bag, but we also had the opportunity to supply Google with bags for their staff.
This gave us the working capital to grow and expand as well as importantly it allowed us to make a delivery of over 500 school bags to a little school in Sierra Leone!
I think personally the best thing for myself from a personal level has been spending time with Pry and Mey in Cambodia and watching their family grow up and their children being born. It really has been amazing to have friends who I would never have met otherwise but we have been brought together through Elephant Branded and business.
Q: Do you think there has been a change in recent years as to how consumers understand the products they buy? (e.g. their origins, impact etc.)
A: When we first started there were not really many other companies doing similar things, however now there is a drive towards ethical consumerism, I think this is being lead by the customers and is growing for sure.
Q: Why did you choose to become a social enterprise and what does it mean to you?
A: We didn’t ever aim to set up a business or become an “entrepreneur” (a name I don’t really like) but instead simply fell into it. For me, business is one of the few things in life which transcends politics, race, culture and religion as it allows people around the world from all different backgrounds to work together and build a community. I would have never had met Pry and Mey or Alex if it was not for EB, something I am truly thankful for. I honestly believe that real business is about family and loyalty.
Q: Tell us how important your supply chain is to you and why?
A: Our bags are all handmade mainly in Cambodia, however we also work with organizations in South Africa and Colombia.
While the products have changed and developed since the originally ones our supply chain is fairly simple.
For instance, initially 7 + years ago, it was be quite difficult explaining apple laptop case sizes to a village in Cambodia, but Pry was, as ever, incredibly resourceful. I have pictures of Pry 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 when developing the supply chains, 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 enables a village in Cambodia to grow and develop without aid but through commerce, something I am passionate about.
Q: Where do you see Elephant Branded in 3 years time and what further impact do you plan to have?
A: The future plan is to grow EB 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 and Ethiopia working with new communities and organizations.
Focusing 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 Columbia or bags of coffee beans in Ethiopia – they will all have the little EB elephant 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.
Q: Are you optimistic for the future and why?
A: Of course – life is for living, so you have to enjoy it, same with business!
See the full range of products here: Elephant Branded
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