Throughout the years, Cotton Mill Nepal has transformed crisis into opportunity. The 16 hours of load shedding in their initial phase of operation led them to using hand printing. The 2015 blockade imposed by India on Nepal was also the turning point for Cotton Mill. After the resulting fuel crisis, the company started looking for alternative sources of energy and began manufacturing products in a way that consumed as little energy as possible and created minimum waste.
It was raining steadily when I entered the premises of Cotton Mill Nepal factory in Thecho, Lalitpur. Amid green fields and clump of trees from the forest visible in the background, the sloped roof of the factory building resembled the general features of a country home. The first thing I noticed was the rainwater from the rooftop being carried through the downtake water pipe to a harvesting system.
Based in Kathmandu, Cotton Mill Nepal is a company that offers home textile products—mostly linens and bedding such as bedsheets, pillowcases, cushion covers, khasto, table clothes and place mats, among others. Cotton Mill Nepal was set up in late 2011 by two sisters, Prasanna Basnet and Priyanka Basnet, whose mission was to produce something beautiful that represented Nepal. What sets them apart is the way they have incorporated sustainability into their production and processing. The company focuses on the reduction of water consumption through rain harvesting and the use of 3R (reduce, reuse, recycle) technologies, and has invested in renewable energy like solar, as well as in other ways often not considered as much: according to co-owner, Prasanna Basnet, "We have used minimum concrete in our factory to reduce the impact on the environment."
The tradition of arts and crafts is deeply rooted within the women in the village of Thecho, and Cotton Mill Nepal has helped them monetize their skills of stitching, cutting and painting. Only three employees in the company are men, while the rest are all women from the local community. Kavita KC is one of them; she lives in Thecho, has been working for the company for 14 months, and oversees the inventory management. "I look after the raw materials used to produce the finished goods, as they go through the production process."
The most experienced of the employees is Mamta Tavdar.
"After I completed my grade 12 examinations, I had a lot of free time so I decided to make the best use of it by joining Cotton Mill," said Mamta. Mamta supervises the women at the factory and oversees the production cycle. "The first stage in the production process is cutting the fabric by measuring the width, depth, and length, then the fabric goes for hand printing. After the paint dries, the fabric goes into the engraving machine. The next step is re-cut followed by stitching done by sewing machine. After finishing, the fabric goes for ironing and then it is packaged."
The company is a brainchild of the Basnet sisters. After completing their studies in Germany, they returned to Nepal and had started doing regular jobs but found they had a desire to do something on their own and produce something Nepali. So they quit their jobs and set out on a mission. They didn't have a business background, oo they had to do some research work. They discovered that most fabrics in Nepal are imported from China or India, so they wanted produce something Nepali.
They had no idea about what kinds of fabrics were available or how the printing worked and it took them three years to become professionals, according to Prasanna Basnet. "The Nepali fabrics have always been popular mostly among the foreigners but after a point, the designs became homogeneous and the use of repeated patterns meant the locals had enough of it. So we wanted to be more quirky, use vibrant colors and designs. We wanted to bring that Nepali vibe we were missing."
When the sisters went to China to import products, they visited some factories and realized that it was easily replicable and was no rocket science. "We started a small factory in Jorpati. Initially, it was just us and one more person to help us with the stitching."
They started making bedsheets, duvet covers, cushions, table covers and mats but didn't know where or how to sell their products. Participating in an exhibition in Bhrikutimandap made the sisters realize that people wanted Nepali products. The customers had accepted the quality of their fabrics which gave them more confidence. "We sold beyond our expectations! We were assured that we were doing the right thing."
After an initial phase of struggle, sales were increasing; there was a flow of customers and the business was doing something substantial. "We started hiring people. We expanded the factory, took a small space, then bought some land."
Throughout the years, the company has transformed crisis into opportunity. The 16 hour load shedding in their initial phase led the company to using manual hand printing instead of machines. It not only provided employment opportunities but also made the company realize that people prefer hand printing as they find it more authentic and beautiful. "People generally hire only men to do the job but we realized women could do it if they were given the training." Most of the women were already skilled in stitching and cutting, so only required training when it came to printing. The 2015 blockade imposed by India on Nepal led to shortages of fuel and other raw materials. It was also the turning point for Cotton Mill. After the crisis, the company started looking for alternative sources of energy and began manufacturing products in a way that consumed as little energy as possible and created minimum waste.
Rainwater harvesting was big part of the change. Nepal receives a good amount of rainfall during the June to September monsoon season, and during that period, the factory uses only rainwater. "The factory uses rain harvesting to minimize the water consumption. The water is collected, re-used and it is also recycled through water treatment. Rainwater is used throughout the monsoon season and up to three months in the dry period, too."
Since factories consume a huge amount of power, using renewable forms of energy like solar power can be very effective. It is not only environmentally friendly but also one of the best ways for factories to reduce operating costs. Cotton Mill Nepal has invested in solar power, which now supplies a large percentage of the energy it uses. The company has also banned plastics in its premise and outlets, using cloth bags instead. In addition, they plan to use bio-gas in the future.
A big factor is in a business of this nature is design, which involves making a lot of decisions. The popularity of the design and the customer's demands are taken into consideration, according to Kavita KC. "The most popular designs are floral designs. The animal prints are popular among the baby products." Customized designs are key part of the company's production too; hotels want to match their curtains and bedsheets.
The most popular product of the company is the khasto, or Nepali Shawl. The three layered fabric has been popular in the country since the 1800s. Damber Kumari Devi is credited with bringing the Khasto to Nepal. The daughter of Commanding General Jung Bahadur Rana was so in love with the block print khasto she saw in Benaras, India, that she brought it back to Nepal, paving the way for its production here. Cotton Mill has modernized the traditional textile by using different designs and sizes, including small sized khasto for babies. "Nepali people feel most comfortable wrapping ourselves in the khasto whether it is winter or fall. Even on cool summer days, the khasto is a Nepali go-to,” says Prasanna.
The biggest challenge in the market is imports from India and China. The products that come from these countries are very cheap since they can be mass-produced. "We import the thread and the paint, but because of taxes on these raw materials, the production cost becomes very expensive," she explains.
Despite various challenges, the sisters remain ambitious and aim to be a brand like Bombay Dyeing, one of India's largest producers of textiles. "We want to be a one-stop shop where you can buy everything related to home textiles. We want to inspire others by being environmentally conscious and eco-friendly. You don't have to destroy everything around you to make something beautiful.”