Support Kyrgyz design!

(Update: Yay! The crowdfunding campaign was successful! Keep an eye on Kancha’s website for more information on how to purchase your own felt gadget sleeve if you’re interested.)

I am lucky to have made some amazing friends while I lived in Bishkek. One such friend is a German guy named Tobias Gerhard. When he first told me that he was starting a company involving Kyrgyz felt, I was skeptical (sorry Tobi!). Since felt is abundant in Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyz culture, I’ve heard of several foreigners who have moved to Kyrgyzstan to try and make a business out of exporting felt products to the US and Europe, but from what I can tell, none of them have ever succeeded.

But I have now rescinded my eye-roll, because Tobi’s business is different.

I’d like to introduce you to Kancha (which means “how much” in Kyrgyz). Kancha produces protective sleeves for gadgets (smartphones, tablets and laptops) made out of felt and leather. The felt is produced 100% in Kyrgyzstan, and I know from talking to Tobi that it was quite an ordeal to source the best Kyrgyz felt. Not to burst the bubble of other companies producing felt products, but apparently a large portion of felt products sold in Kyrgyzstan’s souvenir shops are made using felt from China. But Tobi and his partners worked diligently to find a supplier in Kyrgyzstan who could not only handle their orders, but who raised sheep that produced the right kind of felt they needed for their products.

Tobi is a good friend, so I heard all kinds of stories about what it’s been like to start this business from him over the past several months. Even when we were in Karakol together, he was leaving the ski base to rush off to meetings with felt suppliers or makers or leather workers. I’ve seen several rounds of protocol products, even lending him Farrell’s iPad to help him test that the sleeves fit their intended gadgets meticulously.

Now I have my own Kancha sleeve (generously provided to me from the company) and I am stoked to share my experience with it.

Things I love: first of all, the design. Personally, all the stuff about fair trade and sustainability and helping to support workers in Kyrgyzstan is worthless if the product isn’t something that I’d actually want to use on a daily basis. Kancha’s products are cool. They’re made with dark grey felt and light brown leather trim. My sleeve doesn’t come with any extra stitching, but they also have an option that has a dark grey, Kyrgyzstan-inspired design stitched onto the front, and a more colorful version too. I absolutely love the subtlety of the grey-on-grey. It’s modern and understated, but still fancy.

But like I said, the second greatest thing is that Kancha is helping to create jobs and entrepreneurship in Kyrgyzstan, while also taking care to sustainably source all of their felt and leather supplies. Like they write on their website, “In a way KANCHA is an experiment. We want to demonstrate that business and development can be combined without neglecting social and environmental aspects.” They focus on providing their employees with benefits that unfortunately aren’t always automatically provided if you’re living in a village in Kyrgyzstan; a 40-hour workweek, a secure workshop, healthcare, and information about workers’ rights.

On top of that, Kancha also pledges to place a portion of profits into a foundation that supports social entrepreneurship in Kyrgyzstan.

Kancha’s products are not only beautiful, but have function. Here’s how the gadget sleeves work: the gadget (in this case a Samsung Galaxy S3) slips in easily and leaves enough poking out that you can flip the top of the sleeve back, opening the top of the sleeve and effortlessly covering the phone.

Then, when you need to use your phone, you fold back the top, tuck it behind the phone and your phone is ready to take out. I probably did not do the process justice, but trust me, it’s easy.

Kancha is stylish and modern, it’s sustainable and environmentally friendly, it’s functional, it supports real people and their families with fair work conditions, and it supports even bigger goals for good in Kyrgyzstan as a whole.

So how can you get your own socially responsible, environmentally friendly, stylish and functional gadget sleeve? Currently, Tobi and his team are crowdfunding Kancha on the German crowdfunding site Start Next. Luckily for all of us non-German speakers, it’s already translated and works much like Kickstarter. The campaign is still going on until September 22, one more week! You can pre-order a sleeve to custom fit any of your gadgets (smartphones, tablets, laptops) or pick a bunch of other cool prizes.

I think Kancha is awesome; I’m completely convinced that Kancha has many good things going for it. If you agree, then please support them! If they reach their crowdfunding goal, then they can start producing sleeves, invest in their workshop, and start adding funds to their Social Impact fund. Much like other crowdfunding products, this is your chance to get the finished product at a discounted price; when they start mass-producing the sleeves, the retail price will be higher than the rates on Start Next. Maybe you’re wary of crowdfunding a product, worried that even if they meet their goal, they’ll run into obstacles that will delay production? I feel very confident in saying that Kancha won’t have that issue, considering how many sleeves they have already produced and how hard Tobi and his team have worked in every step of the production process to ensure that it works smoothly. The kinks have been worked out, all they need now is funding to move the company to the next level.

(And did I mention that the felt is naturally waterproof? Check out this video that they posted on their Facebook page!)