Noticing Neighbors Kufukaa
Kufukaa creates premium aprons while staying true to three core values: sustainability, eco-consciousness, and empowering local refugee immigrants. Anita Koul is the founder, and her company gives employment for local refugees to create using their seamstress expertise. The sustainably sourced fabric is purchased from vendors in town, and the packaging is intentionally chosen for a quick decomposing turnaround. The team has provided aprons for both private chefs and restaurant teams. Swetha Newcomb, the private chef pictured in the cover photo, shares her experience using the aprons:
“I absolutely love Kufuuka’s aprons. They’re perfectly tailored for any chef in any type of kitchen. I use mine religiously and you would not be able to tell how often it's been washed because of the amazing quality. Love that the fabric is locally sourced— it makes wearing one feel all that much better!”
The company’s success came out of some meaningful pivots during the pandemic, and Anita sat down to share the stories behind her business.
Hayley: For readers who may not know, can you introduce Kufukaa?
We are an award winning eco-conscious and sustainable clothing brand in Kansas City, and we focus on three core pillars. First is sustainability, second is eco-consciousness, and third is supporting and empowering refugee immigrants by responsibly sourcing all our fabric material. Whatever we use for our product is all native, and it's all made in America. We want to focus on our economy, and we are doing that. We also recruit only refugee immigrants to work with us. So we have collaborated with a few local NGOs and church organizations who help us to find people to join our team. Hayley: How did you start the company? Anita: I originally started Kufukaa as a marketplace for international artists. I started it in September of 2019, and then launched when the pandemic started. I didn't sell a single product when I launched because the first thing which got impacted was shipping. Airlines were closed, and I didn't know what to do. I was just sitting and thinking: Now I started something. I invested my money in this. What is next?
Hayley: I can’t imagine. Anita:
Then during the pandemic, Kansas City was one of the cities which did lockdown to prevent the spread, which was really something great the government did in Kansas City.
I used to have a helper who would come once a week to clean our house and help me. Suddenly she said, “Now I cannot come because we are in a lockdown.” And I was like, okay, no worries, let's see how it will go.
Then I realized that her income is based on if she will go to work, she's going to earn. If she's not going anywhere, then she's not going to get any income. But she refused to take money. I told her: you don't have to come, but I would love to pay you once a week, and she said no. And I was like, okay, let's start something. Hayley: So that influenced Kufukaa? Anita: That is how my business model started. I thought: Why don't I do something for them? Why don't I just create something where they can earn? That is how I started finding local people who are out of job, and I found a few. There were some nannies who used to go to someone's place to take care of kids.
Hayley: Oh. They couldn’t go. Anita:
They couldn't go. So that is how it all started. Hayley: What were some of the first products you made? Anita: I started buying fabric from local retail, and we started with making masks. We donated many masks to New York and here locally to our hospitals. And then what is next? Mask is not a business, right? Everyone is making masks. So that is how I came to know about this NGO. They told me they had heard about what I was doing to give people jobs. They said: You are helping people, and we have people who would love to work with you.
I said yes. So that is how I got connected with this refugee immigrant group, and it started working. So we started small, with making masks. But what is next? Hayley: Right.
Anita: They started asking me, “Anita, we need to keep rolling because we need to have something to work on.” Then I just thought about what I love. At my home, we cook. Everyone at my place cooks. That is how this idea started coming: Why don't we start making aprons? But not a simple apron. It should be premium, and I wanted to buy quality fabric locally. So that is how I started my research.
I called so many denim mills in America, but most denim mills told me that they have only one color, and that is blue. I didn't want that. I wanted more than one color. Everyone knows that denim is blue, but not many people know that denim can have other colors also! So that is how I found one denim mill. They are in Pennsylvania, and they actually make organic and sustainable denim fabric. That's how I got started.
Hayley: So that’s where the first apron came from!
Anita: That’s right. I can just show you one apron: This is the first one which we started doing. It is organic, and it's adjustable. You just wear it, and on the waist you have a strap to hold your tongs, and a ring to hold your napkin or towel. You can adjust it around the middle, and then tie it right around the front.
You have these two pockets down here, and the neck also adjusts based on your height. Hayley: It looks very durable. Anita: This is pure denim. It will last more than ten years. You can wash them in a machine.
Hayley: This is amazing.
Then we started a few different designs. This is the Pinafore. You actually wear it with no ties. It's kind of a dress.
Hayley: With pockets! Anita: This pattern is actually one of the best selling items we have. Then we have many other different styles.
We started creating aprons for many local restaurants: Fox and Pearl, Grünauer, The Antler Room, and many top US restaurants. We started creating custom fabric aprons for chefs in Atlanta, and in California. I call Kufukaa a premium brand, but premium does not mean that it needs to give fancy packaging. I want to change people's mindset around this idea. When you're buying something premium, the quality doesn’t need to be in fancy packaging. So what we started doing, is using this material that is a compostable bag, and will disappear in 150 days. That's something very important for me to show people: You can have quality, American products, but in the end, you are actually contributing something where you're not trashing materials.
Because it decomposes in 150 days. Great point.
There's nothing in our product that goes to trash. We actually won a Ford Foundation Award last year, and we also won the Community Business Award. Once we won that Ford Foundation award, the main thing was I really wanted to purchase were organic labels. Hayley: So these are organic labels on the aprons? Anita: Yes. We cut it and put it on our apron so that you can read the details. It's made in Kansas City, using locally sourced fabric crafted by refugee artisans. They also give details about it being machine washable and everything.
We are trying to kind of open people's minds that if you really want to buy in America, you might have to spend some money on it. Hayley: That is very important to you.
That is what people might not get. I mean, yeah, if I get all these things made in other countries—it may be able to cost $20. But we are getting fabric from America. We are actually supporting them. And we are paying people here who are actually living in Kansas City.
There are some values which we have to follow, and we cannot underpay them. Hayley: Right. Anita: I don't know. This is something that comes up. When people ask, “How much is this apron?” I'll say $55. Then they say, “Wow, what does it do?” It's like this many times, and I don't understand this language. I say: “What do you mean what does it do?” They mean it in actually a sarcastic way, like: Why $55? Does it cook? Hayley: Wow. They say that to you? Anita: Yeah. Someone told me that last week when I was in a pop up, but I don't know. I don't feel it's expensive, to be honest.
Hayley: Well there’s the value side of it. Like you're saying these are your ethics, and this is how you want to run it. But then there's also the fact that this is a product that's going to last ten years because of the quality of the material. It’s $55 for something that you're going to use for that long, and is that durable. It makes total sense to me.
We hope we find people who appreciate it.
I really admire you for trailblazing a new space and changing people's minds about what’s possible. That's really brave and I really admire that.
Also the fact that it's sustainable, and you thought about the materials, the packaging, and how it's going to compost. Can I ask why that's important to you? Because that's beautiful.
I'm always like that, actually, if I'm at some place. I have been in Kenya many times for my work, or India, or wherever I am. I believe that if you don't help your own people who are around you, then what's the point? That's what I believe in.
I have a four year old daughter. She also knows Chichi and Than, two of our seamstresses, and she knows that I pay them money to make the aprons. I want her to know that.
I'm at a very happy place where I'm lucky. I have my home. I have everything. I can't complain. That's the gratitude I have. But if we can help other people, then why not do it?