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Tugende Design: A social Enterprise Uplifting Communities Through Selling Jewelry, Crafts & Bags

Meet Tugende Design, a social enterprise committed to act, and to help vulnerable children and women in  Uganda by designing and selling unique, colorful and bold products for women on the go. The entreprise also provides sustainable income to women in poverty and uses fair trade practices in order to uplift communities. This Is Uganda team caught up with Dr. Monica Swahn, the Executive Director and Creative Designer at Tugende Design for a chat.

What is Tugende Design?

Tugende Design is a social enterprise business. We want to uplift communities by creating, buying and selling beautiful jewelry, crafts and bags made by talented but vulnerable women who are seeking to support themselves and their families. We use fair trade practices and also plan to reinvest funds by supporting community projects. This business is an extension of my work as a professor of global health and fulbright scholar, trying to understand and prevent high risk behaviors such as alcohol and drug use and HIV transmission, primarily in the slums of Kampala.

I love the word “Tugende” and use it as a way to encourage us all to “let’s go”, let us make a difference, let us help people in need. We can all do something, we can all have an impact. I feel very blessed to support these creative, talented and hardworking vulnerable women, mostly in the slums of Kampala. We design jewelry such as necklaces and earrings and different types of bags to sell primarily in the US.

What are the items that you sell on Tugende Design?

We have focused mostly on jewelry and bags. In terms of our jewelry, we use the traditional paper beads in new and creative ways to make necklaces and earrings. As an example, we make beads out of old medical textbooks to link these beaded necklaces to my work as a global health professor. We also have many colorful bags including purses and shopping bags made out of the traditional African prints including kitenge and dashiki.

The social enterprise business sells beautiful bags in African print & necklaces made from paper beads to support projects in Uganda

How did you come up with the Tugende Design idea

As a global health professor, I have worked in Uganda for 7 years. My research on alcohol, drug use, violence and HIV in Uganda seek to strengthen communities and improve the health in vulnerable populations. However, this research takes a long time so I have been looking for other ways to support communities. When I discussed these ideas with my collaborators and women across Uganda they have told me they want to find a market for the products they make. They tell me they try to sell their crafts, jewelry and bags at various markets but that the demand is low and prices have decreased because of increased supply. So I have worked with many of these women to create new designs, and to use paper beads and African fabrics in new creative ways. The idea is to sell these new products in the larger American market and to expand to Europe when we gain momentum.

What were some of your motivations for starting your business?

The motivation is to give back to the communities where we work. My goal is to find ways to uplift and empower women who are creative, talented and hardworking but have difficulties providing for their families. But, I am also very excited about the beautiful jewelry and bags we have made. I hope people will buy them because they are unique, colorful and beautiful. However, because we are a social enterprise business, people will also buy our things because we support a larger cause.

The enterprise supports vulnerable women and children through products that are also made from recycled paper, textbooks and fabric scraps. (Photo credit: Tugende Design)

How long has Tugende Design been around?

We started the concept and began designing products a little less than a year ago, fall 2016. And, while we have sold products online since then through shared sites, we just started our own TugendeDesign.com website a few weeks ago.

How long has Tugende Design been around?

We started the concept and began designing products a little less than a year ago, fall 2016. And, while we have sold products online since then through shared sites, we just started our own TugendeDesign.com website a few weeks ago.

e-commerce is still a growing trend in Uganda and Africa. How do you get customers into your online Tugende Design shop?

Because we just started our own online shop a few weeks ago, we are still strategizing for how to find buyers and how to best identify our target groups. We have been fairly active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and are seeing results. But, we are still exploring and learning.

What were some of the ways that you dealt with the unique technical challenges of your target market?

I can’t say that we have figured this out yet. We spend a lot of time looking at other websites and social media of other businesses to get ideas, define target population and how to best present our products.

Dr. Monica Shawn, the Executive Director and Creative Designer at Tugende Design, also does global health research as a Distinguished Professor in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University and Makerere University

How often do you get offers by people who want to buy items on Tugende Design shop?

We have had a few sales since launching the website last month but anticipate getting new customers and steady growth over the next couple of months.

If you could give one piece of advice to Ugandan online shop owners, what would it be?

It takes a lot of work to get products listed and photographed to make a beautiful website that conveys confidence in the business and its products. Beautiful photographs and great texts that highlight the products well is the key to inspire potential customers to make a purchase.

If someone wants to get in touch with you in Uganda, where do you they find you?

I spend time both in Uganda and the US, so it is easiest to reach me by email TugendeDesign@gmail.com

Like this story? Or have something to share? Write to us: info@thisisuganda.org, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Unsung Heroes

Being HIV Positive, Diagnosed with Cancer & Tuberculosis Has not stopped this Superwoman From Looking After 150 Kids in Slums

“A strong woman doesn’t give up even though her heart may feel heavy. She courageously takes one more step, then another and then another.” –Anonymous

Stella Airoldi first met Susan laker in 2009 when she first came to Uganda while doing research about post war victims and witnesses.

“I visited her house, where she was living with her 3 teenage kids. Back then I was 24 years old and Susan 26 years, so just two years older than me.  But her kids were already 9,10 and 13 years old.” Stella says.

Because Susan got pregnant for the first time when she was only 13, her kids didn’t go to school and neither did she. A soldier was responsible for her first pregnancy while she was living in a military barracks which by then, was the only safe place for her to go to escape the insurgency caused by the Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda.

“Getting pregnant when I was 13 years old was so traumatizing. I lost my childhood life. I wasn’t able to go to school which made me lost my hope for living a good future. I hated my parents for forcing me in to early marriage, my growth was totally destroyed and I segregated myself from people because I felt inferior.”- Susan notes.

Susan with some of the beneficiaries of 22STARS. (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

When Susan was 15 years old, she conceived again but got a miscarriage when she received a message notifying her that her uncles, nieces, a brother and sister had been mutilated and killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.

“I was shocked and lost the pregnancy. After a few months, I conceived again and gave birth to a second child at the age of 16 and when the baby was 6 months, the father died and since I had nowhere to get financial help from, I was forced to  remarry another soldier from the barracks to get protection and when I was 19 I gave birth to the third child.” Susan says

In 2007, her husband was deployed to Somalia on a peacekeeping and never returned, a thing that left Susan very frustrated. It was shortly after that, that she found out that she was HIV positive, had cancer and Tuberculosis (TB). It was not until an organization called Reach Out Mbuya came to her rescue that she was able to start cancer chemotherapy and TB drugs for six months and now am on ARVs treatment for life.

She then fled with all her children to Kampala which were (and still remain) her main reason and motivation to keep going in life. Her kids were tested negative and she wanted them to go to school. She started making jewellery, which initially her kids would sell in the streets.

Susan and some of her children (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

“It was then my pastor introduced me to Stella. I was making paper beads jewellery and Stella decided to buy me jewellery on a yearly basis. At the end of 2012 when she came back to Uganda to see how I was doing, she was surprised to learn that I was going back to school by myself and I had improved.” Susan notes.

Susan has been able to buy land and built a bigger house for her family. She completed high school and did a couple of short courses to improve her skills and knowledge for example a  certificate in Clearing, Forwarding and Shipping management, Certificate in Electronics, Certificate in Counseling People Living with HIV/AIDS.

“At first, all my friends and family thought I was completely crazy starting with women who cannot read and write and I cannot even communicate with. So true, things didn’t go that smooth the first 2 years. So end of 2014 I came back to Kampala and since 2015 I am here myself 2 to 3 times a year and things improved a lot.”- Stella says.

Stella (left) and Susan during one of the jewellery making sessions (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

Susan is now managing the whole team of at 22STARS jewellery that comprises of over 20 women and supporting 150 children in slums. Thanks to recurring monthly donations, she (Susan) has been cooking in Acholi Quarter every Sunday since October 2016 ( so more than 14 months!) with the help of other 22STARS group members. The group started back then to cook for 50 kids and that is now 150. They get a hot meal with either fish or meat.

22STARS is a team of artisans made up by strong women living in the slums of Kampala and Jinja in Uganda making jewellery for a living. The platform is giving women in slum areas like Susan to sell their jewellery on the international market and earn a living, and in addition war running small social programs on the ground.

“Our choice for environmentally friendly products is a very conscious one. By using 100% recycled paper, the jewellery you wear does not only look good, but it also feels good. Our beads are hand made from paper and varnished with natural products.  This makes each peace uniquely different, lightweight and waterproof.” Stella says.

Some of the 22STARS women that make jewellery (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

22STARS also uses education and entrepreneurship to empower children and their families to rise above poverty by creating long-term sponsorships for children in Uganda, and also run several community development initiatives including a nutrition program, basic needs program, small business training and micro loans program and our holistic educational program with extra-curricular activities.

“Without the help of Susan this all would not have been possible. As she knows how it feels like to sit in the stone quarry with your kids, crashing stones all day, not being able to send them to school, she is pushing very hard to help all the families over there to send their kids to school. She is so amazing how she is managing everything. Susan is a true superstar and really the strongest woman I ever met.” Stella concludes.

Stella and Susan at the 22STARS office. (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

Like this story or have something to share? Write to us: info@thisisuganda.org, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Collective Good

This Social Enterprise is on its Way to Providing 1000 Solar Lamps For Refugees in Northern Uganda

When Esteeri Kabonero got back to Uganda after being raised in the United States and working in Rwanda, her focus was on energy access for under served communities. She did not realize how badly refugees, especially from South Sudan had been living.

“Headlines throughout the world had been talking about how Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, one of the largest settlement in the world located in northern Uganda, was at a breaking point.” Esteeri says.

Bidi Bidi refugee settlement is home to thousands of refugees with 64% being children under 18 and 86% women and children benefiting from Uganda’s open refugee receiving policy that has seen her become one of the leading countries in the world with high number of refugees.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees by the end of May 2017, Uganda was home to 1,233,966 refugees, originating from South Sudan (947,427), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (204,413), Burundi (34,241), Somalia (25,321), Rwanda (13,907), Eritrea (4,310), Sudan (2,549) and Ethiopia (1,798).  Still, by the end of 2016, Uganda had the fifth-largest refugee population after Turkey (2.9 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1million) and Islamic Republic of Iran (979,400).

Esteeri during one of her recent visits to Bidi Bidi Refugee settlement

“Even when Uganda is one of the most hospitable countries for refugees, we do not have enough resources to provide to them. Families in Bidi Bidi for example live in huts or UNCHR tents and many are living in darkness, school children, that found a little bit of home in school, can’t study, hospitals are left in darkness. Thus, this is where I knew we wanted to start.” Esteeri explains.

This led to the founding of Powah, a last mile distribution and community development company with a mission to provide access to products and services that will better energy, education, health, and entrepreneurial activities in refugee settlements in Uganda focusing on Bidi Bidi.

“We went to Bidi Bidi Refugee settlement to understand how refugees live. I had told people I wanted to help the refugee crisis in northern Uganda, but how could I help if I had never been there. I think sometimes we hear about crisis but do not understand it. After visiting and seeing poor energy connection we came up with the PowahAll campaign.” She says.

The social enterprise is providing solar lights to school children in Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement, one the largest settlement in the world. This is being done through raising funds via crowd funding and a social media campaign (using the hashtag #PowahAll).

“The campaign aims to power 1000 refugees in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement giving them solar lamps. We have just launched our crowd funding campaign whereby anybody around the world can donate using mobile money or Credit cards at akabbo.ug/campaigns/powah/. “ Esteeri explains.

So far, the social enterprise has managed to raise 300 solar lamps out of the 1000 target that it seeks to deliver to the Refugee settlement in Northern Uganda.

But it has not been an easy ride for the team. The biggest challenge Esteeri and team has faced, is finding people that also have that motivation and vision, who are also looking to make an impact in the community.

“You can have the best idea in the world but if you do not have a good team to do it, it will never reach fruition. So, while I might have been the founder I have had a team behind me as well.” She notes.

Financing the project also remains a big challenge- which many entrepreneurs have face. Esteeri notes that many grants and funding opportunities are based in western countries, until Uganda can create funding opportunities and angel investing a lot of entrepreneurs will never see growth.

But despite the challenges, Esteeri has a vision, which is a message she wants every young person to know and believe in.

“What discourages people (especially young people) is a short term focus. If you have a vision or purpose, an end vision you want to achieve, you can create mini goals to get to that vision. If you have a purpose even when things go wrong those failures just teach you to take a different road or strategy.” She says.

Powah believes in an access to renewable energy for all. (Photo credit: Powah)

Esteeri also believes in the need to have many more female entrepreneurs to change the narrative- the few numbers of women in business. According to her, its hard being an entrepreneur in general, but when you are in the minority it’s even harder. Entrepreneurs solve problems in our communities, if we do not have females solving problems we miss out on innovations, new ideas, women centered problems that men may never realize need to be solved.

“Uganda has supported refugees from all over the world, its time the world supports Uganda. How? We must engage and support those that are making an impact and changing the face of the country.” Esteeri concludes.

Like this story or have something to share? Write to us: info@thisisuganda.org, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Uganda Innovates

Athieno Mary Lucinda is changing girls’ lives one sanitary pad at a time

She stood up in class, her classmates laughed at her. The boys said that she had slaughtered a chicken. They made fun of her for a long time. She couldn’t afford sanitary towels, the anxiety of the monthly period coupled with the embarrassment she had faced which would have destroyed her self-esteem as a young girl instead stirred her resolve.

Meet Athieno Mary Lucinda a YALI fellow, the founder of Eco-Pads a social enterprise dedicated to the production and distribution of reusable pads and environmentally friendly to girls in Uganda.

“That experience kept me wondering what I would ever do to save a girl the embarrassment I had gone through. While at university, I went to volunteer with Kadama Widows Association where I am the Executive Director now and as I interacted with the girls, they had similar challenges. I then started saving part of my stipend to make the pads and that was my aha moment.” Lucinda says.

The sanitary pads are distributed to young women in rural Uganda. These Eco-pads are Menstrual Kits that are made from very high performance fabric and provide comfort and supper protection for a period up to 12 months.

“The Eco-pads project started in 2008 as a local thing trying to just help girls in the community. In 2014 we realized we can improve on quality and start selling for sustainability and we have been growing daily from just the local community to many parts of the country with over 20 full time  and 35 part time employees.”

“I am most proud of last year when we reached 50,000 girls with Eco-Pads, the feedback from the girls attending school daily is heart-filling. The involvement of parents and the whole community in the cause is great. We have reached over 75,000 community members on Menstruation being an issue and how they support. Mentored over 10,000 girls” Lucinda says.

There are challenges that are still to be overcome. Being a local product, Lucinda’s biggest challenge has been in marketing and getting the product to be known, convincing the clients that it is a good product since it is new. The very first money that they used was grant money that they used to buy equipment and set up and buy some few materials.

Despite the challenges, she has mentors that encourage her when things are going down hill. my “Atuki Turner the ED of Mifumi, Tracey the founder of glad rags U.S, Mary Mosinghi the ED of KwaAfrica. They remaind me that I need to remain a learner and humble in whatever I do.”

At the heart of this project is the desire by Eco pads that every girl child remains in school. Eco-pads give affordable sanitary pads for girls, because many miss out of school during their menstruation. They are competing against appalling statistics 80% of Girls in Uganda are absent from school during their periods. 70% of female students reported difficulty of attending class attentively due to menstrual related problems. 90% of the poor women and girls do not use (off-the-shelf) sanitary pads, but instead improvise with unsanitary materials. Prior to their first period only 51% of girls had knowledge of menstruation and its management

“We educate girls on MHM, conduct mentorship sessions and educate the parents and teachers on the need to support girl child. We shall continue to do something regardless of the tide. One sanitary pad at a time.” Lucinda says

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