You know what shits me about airports? Having to sacrifice water at the customs line. So much so, in fact, that I’ll welcome a weak bladder just to harness every last drop.
But looking at the assortment of half-full (or empty, if you’re that way inclined) bottles at the screening process, it seems most people are happy to say a nice lil’ au revoir to their costly hydration and be on their merry ways.
We clearly give very little shits about h20 and like, why would we when it’s all so easily accessible? The supply meets the demand, and seeing as we’re buying so many of them while out and about during our lives anyway, it makes sense to make conscious choices when doing so.
That’s where Cotton On comes in.
If you didn’t already know, 100% of proceeds from their water, as well as these products, go straight to the Cotton On Foundation (COF), the retailer’s philanthropic arm, and their admirable projects across the world. That’s an impressive number, and a transparent one in an industry that’s surrounded by so much cynicism. (You know what I’m talking about, so many people are untrusting of charities and how their donations are actually spent after the fact.)
This transparency, along with an actual need for the charity products at the counter, is what sees one of ’em sold every three seconds, and what has enabled COF to raise upwards of $66 million in the last decade. Whether people are buying a water incidentally or not, there’s no fighting that this in an effective as hell fundraising model.
So, how are the 100% of proceeds actually spent?
After being invited by the retailer to go a recent trip to a small, rural village in southern Uganda, called Mannya, I was able to find out firsthand. To relay it to you guys, you first need to understand what made Cotton On start their work here. The pocket of south-east Africa had been devastated by the HIV epidemic, almost wiping out an entire generation, and many of the effects are still evident today – children without parents, famine and major economic downfall. The list goes on, and it’s not a particularly pretty one.
It was the state of this community that made Cotton On Group’s Founder, Nigel Austin, start up COF back in 2007, beginning work alongside the local parish’s priest, Father Nestus. It was all about just figuring out where to begin. What was in front of them was so confronting – the task at hand so massive – it all seemed almost impossible. But now, 10 years on, their mission of empowering youth through quality education is working (life-changing) wonders.
While it’s a clear mission, it’s simultaneously a complex one. You hear “quality education” and you think infrastructure, teachers, books. But it’s so much more than that. These children need to be healthy enough to attend classes – that means nutritious food, clean drinking water and medical assistance are all vital to the undertaking.
These things cost money – money created through employment in an economy that’s basically non-existent. It’s a kind of vicious cycle that needs close monitoring. You see the predicament, and how a holistic approach to such objectives is needed.
“We thank Cotton On for finding us and our pupils they are good, they are healthy,” Teacher Benedict of Kasomolo Primary and Secondary School told me. “They are providing them with health and everything – especially the food. Now they are lining up to get their lunch. That’s why you can see some smiles on them!”
While witnessing the happiness of these students is enough to make anyone’s heart full, it just as easily breaks when you see them head back to class – a corrugated iron shed with holes for windows, not a desk or pencil in sight. Crazily, this is an improvement to what they had before COF intervened.
It’s not unusual for schools in rural parts of southern Uganda, like Kasomolo, to use underneath trees as makeshift shelter for a classroom. The sheds are a temporary solution until the legitimate buildings – made of bricks – are finished.
So, when a Cotton On sales assistant tells you that one bottle of water equals seven bricks for a school in Uganda, this is what they’re talking about. Of the two bucks you drop for it (which is less than a Mount Franklin or Pump, mind you), 36c is spent on production. $1.64 goes straight to the foundation.
Then you see the other end of the spectrum, with schools like Mannya’s St. Bernard’s in excellent condition. They’re equally as grateful and overwhelmingly joyous, with packs of laughing children running up to you, or a local teacher grabbing your hand, looking right into your eyes and sincerely thanking you for the help. COF has brought ridiculous amounts of happiness to a region faced with so many obstacles, and if I came to Uganda for perspective well, by god I got it.
We all grow up complaining about how school’s such a drag (guilty), as if it’s an inconvenience in our very, very privileged lives. On the flip side these kids will walk kilometres just to attend and even study on Sundays because they bloody love it.
At Kyalulangira Primary and Secondary there were students as old as 20 in Grade 7, hoping to become things like engineers, teachers and soldiers, only deciding to attend school once Cotton On came in and made it worthwhile. That there, is something outstanding in and of itself.
The beautiful part was seeing how much work has been done. The sad part was seeing how much work is yet to be done. COF has a mission to create 20,000 education places by 2020, and has 5,800 currently. That’s no easy feat but, if you ever see the passion and determination of their team, you wouldn’t doubt its potential for a second. This is thanks in no small part to COF’s General Manager, Tim Diamond, who has been there from day dot.
Tim’s someone who makes you wanna blast MJ‘s ‘Man In The Mirror’ (and make that change) because he’s legitimately making the world a better place – something that’s hard to ignore when you witness how excited the kids are to see him, even addressing him by name. These children aren’t just people Tim helps support; they’re his mates.
This interaction is an extension of how closely he and the team work with the local communities in southern Uganda to create sustainable solutions, avoiding any dependency on COF’s presence.
“We know the kids, we know the families. We know the people we work with,” Tim tells me.
“That’s the thing that I want to be able to make sure we sustain. There’s a westerner here in some capacity all the time. We’re here to support and we have to be really disciplined about that. They’ve got to make their own decisions on where they want to go and what they want to do.”
It’s a stunning execution of empowerment. Of Cotton On Foundation’s 45 team members globally, 19 are Ugandan and based there as well. As noted before, it’s not just about giving these kids decent learning facilities, it’s about helping out the communities as a whole. Not all domino effects are negative.
When Tim sits down on a hospital bed at a health centre, close by one of their schools and also funded by Cotton On Foundation, he shares a story of spending the night with a girl suffering from Malaria, a disease that’s sadly as common as the flu here. By the next morning she had passed away.
Fighting away the tears, he said something that won’t be leaving me anytime soon.
“We’re not just changing lives, we’re saving them.”
Keep that in mind next time you’re parched.
This writer travelled to Uganda as a guest of Cotton On Foundation.