In a time when corporate pursuits often seem at odds with social and environmental concerns, a new breed of entrepreneurs is rewriting the narrative. Salima, co-founder of Soular Backpack and Samara Bags, is one example. Through her work, she has crafted an altruistic path by intertwining business acumen with a commitment to generosity and sustainability.
“From a really young age,” explained Salima, “my sister and I realised we had access to good education, food on the table every day, water to drink. But just outside, life was so different for a lot of children that lived there,” she adds. “We always knew that as we grew, we wanted to give back to the people around us.”
Along with her siblings, Salima moved to Canada for university, where she took classes in social business and entrepreneurship, and realised how many different ways there were to help others in a sustainable way, through product design, team-building, and supply chains.
“I got intrigued by brands and how much power they have to do good in the world and to make the right choices,” she said. Salima wondered how she might apply these learnings to help communities and society back home in Kenya.
A major problem in Africa is secondary school enrolment among children — especially girls. This is largely due to a lack of electricity in their homes, which provides the light to study at night. More than a billion people use kerosene to light their homes, which is expensive, bad for the environment, and harmful to human health.
As part of her university courses, Salima began to research ways to begin solving the problem. Solar panels were becoming increasingly popular in Africa, but children didn’t have access to the energy they produced, since parents often prioritised it for income-generating activities or cooking.
“We wanted something that was child centric,” explained Salima, “that stayed with the child, that would go to school with them, come back with them, so they were almost empowering themselves with their own education.”
Thus the idea of the Soular backpack was born. Salima designed a special bag for children in Kenya to carry their school books to and from school every day. The bags were each fitted with a mini solar panel, with the ability to absorb sunlight during the day and provide the energy for several hours of light at night.
The backpacks soon became a success, but were expensive to produce, and since they were given away to poor children free of cost, the project was reliant on donations.
“I realised that it was one thing to run the project as a not-for-profit organisation, but it would be really cool if I could find ways to make it self-sustaining and without being reliant on other people's money. And that's how Samara came about.”
The for-profit venture was founded by Salima and her younger sister, Samara (who the company is named after), as a way to fund the Soular Backpack project. It took the form of a fashion label selling handbags and accessories made of vegan leather. The aim was to promote conscious consumption along with aspirational designs.
“When we first started, it was just our goal to keep Soular going and to find the best materials we could in order to make an impact in the fashion industry,” said Salima. “I think we know so little about what goes into the products we wear and the things we put on our bodies all the time. So we started with $500 in our little apartment in Toronto and have just been growing ever since.”
Every thread and every stitch carried their commitment to sourcing the most eco-friendly materials possible. Rather than manufacture products with cheaper materials like leather or vegan alternatives — which are usually made of toxic PVC — Salima and Samara experimented with recycled ocean waste, plastic bottles, castor seeds, flax, bamboo, and apple skins discarded by the juicing industry. Samara's design background (she studied Environmental Design and Architecture at university) came in handy — she now inspires the design choices of most of their product line.
The simple yet elegant designs quickly became popular with barely any marketing, and soon the company was selling multiple products per day. It later expanded into clothing items and other accessories. Today, its products are manufactured in Italy, China, Taiwan, and India, and sold all over the world.
In contrast with today’s large ‘fast fashion’ brands, Samara products are designed to last a lifetime, which helps to reduce waste and encourage a thoughtful approach to purchases. What’s more, every product sold contributes to providing Soular backpacks to African children. The company has succeeded in its aim to fully sustain the production of Soular backpacks for children in need.
Making it work
But it wasn’t easy to set up the business, especially so far away from home, and without a support network: “We didn't really know anyone who would be able to tell us ‘this is what you need to do’ and, ‘you need to register it this way’ and ‘you need to go to this person.’ We had to create those connections ourselves.”
The global search for sustainable suppliers, obscured by language barriers and geographical divides, added another layer of complexity — along with the aim to offer fair wages and working conditions.
“I think everyone throughout the supply chain should be compensated fairly for their time and their work,” said Salima. “And when you're trying to figure out who to manufacture with and who to scale with, it's really important to find the right partners, and to work with people you trust.”
The sisters persevered in the face of challenges, and stuck to their principles throughout. It’s an important lesson to anyone starting out in business: With the right intentions, the passion to do good in the world, and with persistence, the odds are likely to be in your favour.
“It's just a matter of pivoting here, pivoting there until you find the right way to go. And it's also how long you can keep trying. Eventually you will find something that works and it's just a matter of how many shots you're willing to take.”