BeadForLife: Fostering Female Entrepreneurialism in Uganda

The NextWomen Social Entrepreneurship Theme.

Joan Ahisimbwe sensed trouble when she heard her brother-in-law planned to inherit her. Her husband had died from HIV, which she’d soon learn he passed to her before his death. Following Ugandan tradition, his brother had a right to take a widow as a second or third wife. The idea of belonging to this alcoholic, abusive man was terrifying, so with her two small children she fled to a Kampala slum, where she struggled to provide even one meal a day.

Weak with HIV symptoms, Joan still mustered the energy to work tirelessly making mud bricks and earning less than $1 a day.

When BeadforLife met Joan, she immediately faced her destiny with the incredible opportunity and set an intention to change her life.

With her first income from creating paper bead jewelry, Joan bought a piglet she fed on scraps and sold later for a $50 profit. With her confidence and momentum growing, she gave up her tiny rented room and moved into a small storefront. During the day she sold rice, soap and sodas to the local community. At night, she would roll out a thin mattress behind the counter where she and her two children slept. She saved her money, studied hard to learn basic business principles and launched not only a second business, but also a third. 

Today Joan lives happily in her very own home in Friendship Village, where she recently added a master bedroom. She grows crops, owns a store and sells the freshest produce around. Her daughter is at University and her son has finished secondary school.

Joan is one of thousands of thriving entrepreneurs BeadforLife has inspired in Uganda.

BeadforLife embodies social entrepreneurship from top to bottom. The preliminary model is providing impoverished Ugandan women with a chance to earn money by creating jewelry with recycled paper. While most fair trade companies would stop there, BeadforLife is not content to work with one group of artisans forever. Instead they extend beyond the beads with a robust and integrative model. Once women begin selling beads and earning money, BeadforLife provides extensive business training and mentorship to help develop and launch small businesses. 18 months after joining BeadforLife, women graduate and focus exclusively on their businesses to generate a sustainable income stream into the future.

This creates women who are self-sufficient and not dependent on BeadforLife for their income.

We have found this to be an effective way for people to lift their families out of extreme poverty. It also allows us to enroll yet another group of impoverished entrepreneurs who are ready to become strong and savvy Ugandan businesswomen and leave poverty behind.

Turning impoverished women into savvy businesswomen in is not the only way BeadforLife is entrepreneurial. Our model is built on the notion that creating something sustainable requires skin in the game and earning your way. Unique amongst non-profits, BeadforLife is almost entirely funded by earned income, with grants or donations comprising less than 5% of revenue.  Not only do we grapple with best practices in international development, we deal with supply chain, inventory storage, quality control, shipping, fulfillment and marketing. We are truly a hybrid model of business/development, and believe this makes us more effective in both areas.  

BeadforLife was awarded MORE Magazine’s Job Genius award ‘Hire Calling’, based on our ability to create work for women. With the $20,000 grant we won, we launched a new initiative - the “Street Business School,” that will kickoff in March. Rather than an 18-month enrollment process, the Street Business School works with people who currently run very marginal businesses. 

By providing training, mentoring, and access to loans to expand their businesses, we hope to build a quicker pipeline between people and sustainable income.

In addition to the Street Business School, BeadforLife has expanded outside the urban hub of Kampala into two rural areas where our focus is helping people improve their agricultural-business.  In Northern Uganda, we provide groups of women with two oxen and a plow. They are able to triple their land reach, and increase their crop incomes seven times. One of our core beliefs is to provide opportunities, not handouts, so everything we do has a giveback element. In the case of plows, each group repays the direct cost of the plow and oxen over two harvest periods, enabling us to bring the next group of women into the program. This not only helps us expand our reach, but reinforces a central element of successful entrepreneurship – that anything worth having is going to take hard work. This is just as true for us as it is for the women we work with.

It has taken a huge amount of love, blood, sweat and tears to build this multimillion-dollar organization.

We have to earn every dollar we spend to help women change their own lives and we therefore have to be experts at several industries simultaneously. But sitting down with Joan, who represents thousands of other resilient women, is so incredibly inspiring, fulfilling and what keeps our energies and plans high. We invite you to join us on this incredible journey and learn more about BeadforLife.

Devin Hibbard is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of poverty eradication project BeadforLife. Devin has extensive experience in international development and poverty having lived and worked in India, Kenya, and Uganda on women's empowerment projects. In addition to co-founding BeadforLife, she also spearheaded an initiative to reach out to more rural women in Northern Uganda who suffered under 20 years of civil war. The BeadforLife Shea Project works with 760 women in war torn Northern Uganda who are paid a fair trade wage to collect shea nuts which BeadforLife turns into organic soap and lip balm. 

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