The model and activist is the new spokesperson for the Vita Coco Project, a social impact initiative that supports coconut farmers in the Philippines and Sri Lanka
halima aden
Credit: courtesy vita coco

When Halima Aden decided to quit her job as a hospital housekeeper to become a full-time model, she vowed to use her new platform for good by speaking out against injustice and promoting the causes she cares most about. And over the last few years, Aden, 23, has done exactly that.

The Somali-American model (who was born in Kenya at the Kakuma Refugee Camp) is a UNICEF ambassador and made history last year as the first model to wear a hijab and burkini on the pages of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, which helped shift the conversation surrounding traditional beauty standards. Now, the 23-year-old is continuing her activism work by partnering with a company that shares her authenticity, vibrant spirit and passion for giving back: Vita Coco.

Halima Aden Vita Coco partnership courtesy vita Coco
Halima Aden

As the leading coconut water brand's first-ever Chief Coconut Officer, Aden will serve as a global spokesperson and advocate for the Vita Coco Project, a social impact initiative that supports coconut farming communities in the Philippines and Sri Lanka. According to Vita Coco's website, these remote areas of the world face many challenges including "weak infrastructure, outdated farming practices and a shortage of schools."

Together, Aden and Vita Coco will work towards the company's mission to "positively impact one million people in coconut farming communities" from which Vita Coco sources its coconuts, a press release states.

halima aden
Credit: courtesy vita coco

"I remember my first meeting with my [modeling] agency, IMG. We sat down for four hours and we talked about how I didn't want to do fashion if it didn't have the activism leg. Ever since, we just made it our mission to partner with brands that are not just coming out with great, amazing products, but also have a social activism component to them," she tells PEOPLE exclusively. "Vita Coco is so in line with everything I value. I just fell in love with their 'Give, Grow, Guide' philosophy."

Through her Vita Coco partnership, Aden got the opportunity to visit the Philippines, where she saw the country's coconut fields and connected with the people who are directly impacted by the Vita Coco Project.

halima aden
Credit: courtesy vita coco

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model is especially passionate about helping fund education within the remote coconut farming communities because, as a child refugee, she understands the importance of having access to a "fun and safe learning environment."

"It's just so personal, because I grew up in one of the largest refugee camps in the world. So education was always something that was important to me, my mom, my family. My mom sacrificed everything to get us to this point, to get us educated," she shares, adding, "When we invest in our children, we will see a positive outcome and they will be part of the solution and that cycle of poverty can stop with us."

Now more than ever before, Aden is aware that as a consumer, she wants to "support companies who are not just coming out with amazing products that I love, but I also want to support [companies] who are doing good — especially with the communities in which they source from."

"In a lot of ways, I feel like the coronavirus pandemic made me appreciate things that, in the back of my mind, I already knew," she continues. "I feel like we're living in a world where everybody's remembering and going back to their values. I hope that that theme continues."

Meet Halima Aden, The First Burkini-Clad Model for SI Swimsuit Issue
Credit: Getty Images

The world may be on pause due to the ongoing pandemic, but Aden's schedule has not slowed down. Aside from announcing her Vita Coco partnership, the model has shot entire campaigns remotely, attended virtual speaking engagements and even found time to design face covering and hijab sets for frontline workers.

"I've taken acting lessons. I've taken swimming lessons, something that I've always known that I wanted to do. So I still kind of remain busy, even though we're not really traveling now for work," she says. "This is not the time to lose focus. You still have to hustle and be your best self."

As for the post-pandemic future of her industry? Aden is maintaining a positive attitude and says she's "excited" to see the creative way fashion designers and brands will overcome challenges caused by the virus.

"I feel like if I've learned anything the last three and a half years working in fashion, it's one of the most creative industries with the most creative minds," she shares. "I'm sure it's going to be amazing. And whatever they come up with, I'm sure it's going to be really good."