Interview with Laura Rana of Khushi Kantha
How do you pursue a dream that will help make a positive difference in the world? Laura Rana's story insight insight into the transformative power of creativity. Read on to find out more about her incredible journey towards creating Khushi Kantha, an organisation that supports mothers in Bangladesh through the creation of beautifully vibrant Bengali "kantha" blankets.
What inspired you to start your brand?
I first moved to Bangladesh in 2009, and I’ve lived there on and off ever since. I’ve been inspired endlessly by the mothers I met, who do everything they can to give their children the best possible start in life.
When I became pregnant with my half-British, half-Bangladeshi twins while working in Bangladesh (on the humanitarian response to the Rohingya refugee crisis), the disparity between what I would be able to provide for my daughters, in comparison with the struggles of the mothers all around me, really hit home for me. I wanted to do something about it.
When my girls were born back home in London, my mother- and sister-in-law presented us with a beautiful collection of traditional Bengali ‘kantha’ blankets, which they had hand-stitched, with the support of neighbours and friends. They quickly proved to be useful for pretty much every task on my daily parenting to-do list, and people kept stopping me in the street asking where they came from! I realised there could be a market for them, and this was how I could create opportunities for mothers in Bangladesh to provide for their children with dignity….and the idea for ‘Khushi Kantha’ was born!
What is Khushi Kantha's mission?
All mothers want the best for their children – and will use every resource they have to offer them the future they deserve. Motherhood is the most rewarding job in the world – but it’s also the hardest. Every day brings new challenges. For some, these challenges include being able to meet basic needs, like food, clothing and education.
Khushi Kantha aims to create opportunities for mothers in Bangladesh to provide for their children with dignity. Our children will inherit the planet – we want to pass it down to them in the best state possible. Khushi Kantha promotes the circular economy – we want to promote a shift from ‘take-make-waste’ to ‘reclaim-repurpose-reuse’.
How did you start your journey towards creating your label?
I was really lucky to get accepted onto the Cambridge Social Ventures incubator when my daughters were just a few months old. The training and mentoring I received help me develop my initial idea, and I was excited to head to Bangladesh and set up production. Then COVID-19 happened – and I realised I wasn’t going anywhere fast.
However, I knew I needed to start testing the market asap. Having spent my twenties and early thirties living and working all over the world through my career in international development and humanitarian aid, I’ve encountered lots of well-meaning projects like mine that ultimately failed to become sustainable because there wasn’t enough demand for what they were selling.
We created a first, limited-edition collection of blankets in London, with support from an incredible group of volunteer stitchers (all mothers themselves) connected to the South London Scrubbers, with advice from local kantha expert Surjeet Hussain and brilliant pro-bono support from a product safety lawyer. Selling the blankets through an online auction in November 2020 gave me the funds and encouragement to keep going - and start figuring out how to establish production in Bangladesh. Five months later, we ran a rewards-based crowdfunding campaign, which launched on International Mother Earth Day, raising over £10,000 from 217 supporters to create our first collection of Happy Blankets.
It was through the Cambridge Social Ventures incubator that I met Sophie from Yodomo. I’d been thinking about other rewards to offer through our crowdfunding campaign – in addition to the blankets themselves – and various people had suggested they’d be interested in learning how to make their own Khushi Kantha. I was so honoured when Sophie suggested that Yodomo would be interested in hosting our workshop!
Can you tell us a little bit about the process behind your practice?
We’re reworking the traditional Bengali ‘kantha’ approach of upcycling old cotton saris into super-soft, multi-layered blankets, in order to meet global hygiene and safety standards, while keeping true to its circular principles of ‘reclaim, repurpose and reuse’, and bringing Bangladesh’s rich textiles heritage to a wider audience.
Our blankets are made up of four layers of 100% cotton fabric. On the outside, we use hand-dyed, traditional handloom fabric, sourced from Prabartana, and we’re partnering with sustainably-minded members of the Bangladeshi garments sector to breathe new life into what’s known as ‘deadstock’ fabric, by upcycling it as the inside layers of our blankets.
Our embroidery designs embrace a sense of ‘East meets West’, combining traditional Bengali ‘kantha’ stitching and animal motifs with geometric patterns and a modern colour palette.
How does your practice centre on sustainability?
My background is in the not-for-profit sector – I’ve worked for ‘big name’ charities like Save the Children and the British Red Cross, as well as tiny organisations doing incredibly things on shoestring budgets. Khushi Kantha is a social enterprise rather than a charity because I passionately believe that a social enterprise model is the most sustainable approach to achieving our goal of building better futures for the next generation.
I see sustainability as multi-dimensional:
Firstly, there’s our production approach, which is inspired by the Bengali ‘kantha’ tradition and its principles of circularity – and embraces the concept of ‘handmade with love’, to limit carbon consumption - from the handwoven, hand-dyed fabric we use for the outside layers of our blankets, to the hand-embroidered names the mothers stitch into each blanket they make.
Secondly, we want to enable the mothers we’re partnering with to use their existing skills and draw on their cultural heritage to earn sustainable incomes. From my many years of experience of working with struggling communities in Bangladesh and beyond, I’ve learned that families are only able to start making the kinds of decisions that will really lift them out of poverty if they are able to generate incomes that they can rely on, month in, month out. I’ve faced lots of ethical dilemmas along the way, but I’ve tried to make every decision with sustainability in mind. I’ve ultimately realised that we can’t rely on ‘pity purchases’ – rather, we want to reframe the meaning of the words ‘made in Bangladesh’, and turn them into a statement of pride and happiness.
What makes Khushi Kantha different from other labels?
We’re regenerating the beautiful Bengali ‘kantha’ tradition in a way that stays true to its circular principles, but also means we can meet product safety standards. Our blankets are safety-tested against the British and European safety standard BS EN 16779-1:2018.
We describe our Happy Blankets as ‘embroidered with empowerment, from mother to mother’ – and this phrase is more than just a ‘tagline’ for us.
For example, the labels we hand-stitch into our blankets feature the geo-coordinates of the village in North-West Bangladesh where they are made, along with the name of the mother who made the blanket, and the blanket’s unique number, both of which are hand-embroidered onto the label. Each Khushi Kantha comes with a packaging insert feature the photo and story of the individual mother who stitched it. These special touches have been lots of work – and very expensive, given the scale we’re currently operating at versus the minimum order quantities suppliers have in place! – but we hope that they’re helping to build a global community of mothers. As we wrap up our first collection, one of our next priorities will be to establish a process for the mothers who make our blankets and the mothers who buy them for their little ones to communicate directly with each other.