By Aswasan “AJ” Joshi
The story of Cotton Mill is one of resilience and empowerment. Founded in 2010 by two Basnet sisters – Prasanna and Priyanka, Cotton Mill aspired to become a leading household brand for home textile in Nepal. Their home textile is made of 100% cotton fabric woven in Nepal by local community women. As a social enterprise, Cotton Mill is committed to “the principles of creating value, sharing knowledge and innovation.”
The Basnet sisters saw a need for home-grown textile since only a meager 5% of the country’s fabric demand was met by textile produced here in Nepal. What is more, they realized that the quality and design of the imported products were not up to par. Seeing the gap in the market, the company audaciously set out to capture at least 1% demand of textile in its first five years of operation. Staying true to their ethos of “using renewable energy to make production environmentally friendly”, they made a conscious choice to operate in a sustainable manner. In their factories, they not only run on solar energy, but also harvest rainwater and have installed water recycling system. Their exquisite line of azo-free paint linens has received encouraging response from middle to upper-middle class Nepali, tourists and boutique hotels and restaurants.
Cotton Mill has had seen its fair share of challenges though. The 2015 earthquake slowed down its operation for more than three months. Production halted completely for at least two months. Similarly, the 2015 border disruption added to the growing uncertainty. But the predicament brought by current pandemic has been the toughest so far.
Before the pandemic, the business had almost 40 local women working in its factory and had three brick-and-mortar stores. Reacting to the pandemic, they cut down on the staff not knowing how the sales would be affected and if customers would still buy high-end bedsheets and pillow covers. After which, Cotton Mill reluctantly closed two of its brick-and-mortar shops. Seeing a need to take some prudent measures, the Basnet sisters bravely decided to pivot and start manufacturing masks. That is how they sustained their business for almost three months. Cotton Mill soon realized that people were ready to shop online and were looking for high quality masks. One and a half months into the pandemic, Cotton Mill also started delivering masks themselves and things started rolling shortly after. Through the existing online sales channels, the company was also able to sell its home textile products. Cotton Mill now sells its products through not just Facebook and Instagram but also a number of online platforms. Going online, Cotton Mill was able to pretty much bounce back.
During the pandemic, Cotton Mill did not have any pay cuts while only working part-time. Prasanna Basnet recently shared on OTW’s COVID-19 Fund Webinar that “while most of the husbands were jobless, our women workers still had jobs”. Prasanna added, “that way everyone was motivated, and they actually wanted to work.” Cotton Mill landed equity investment in 2017 from a Dutch fund managed by One To Watch. OTW continues to help Cotton Mill scale their business. Kabita K.C., dispatch and inventory worker at Cotton Mill for almost four years now, agreed that “Cotton Mill has been taking great care of its workers.” She added, “while all other places are laying off their employees, I am so grateful to keep my job.” Cotton Mill has been taking all the safety measures necessary to make the workers feel safe at work. So much so that all the workers were given free COVID-19 tests. As work picks up, Cotton Mill intends to bring back the staff they initially let go.
Call it blessing in disguise or simply good management, the company still intends to have physical stores very soon but believe that online is the future and they will pursue that channel vigorously. What Cotton Mill has accomplished during the pandemic, tackling challenges in its way, should be empowering to all the entrepreneurs out there.