This week finds me in Kampala, Uganda for the 3rd annual Diaspora Home is Best Summit. It’s been a gathering of some of the most visible Ugandan Diaspora in the West. Among them is my favorite UK entrepreneur and resident, Ida Horner, founder of Ethnic Supplies.
I caught up with Ms. Horner earlier this year on Twitter and it’s been evident since our first conversation that we were destined to work together. (I’ll be posting my initial interview I did with Ida earlier this year if I can get some decent wifi to upload it in the next few days.) Ida has been sourcing hand-made crafts from various women’s groups in East Africa including Madagascar, Rwanda, and Kenya. It just made sense after our many discussions and collaborations that she should revisit sourcing crafts in Uganda from the women of Kireka. Ms. Horner has been buying hand-made crafts from the women in collaboration with Project Diaspora, in an all-out effort to help the women build marketable skills beyond crushing stones for less than a dollar a day at the quarry.
It was a welcome nugget of progress to not only have Ms. Horner come to visit, but joining us also was a Backpackers Kampala diaspora run-in of mine, John Kayongo. Mr. Kayongo is in the theater industry and does a lot of theater exchange between Uganda and The Netherlands, where he’s based. Additionally, John is a home-grown tee-shirt designer (and a worthy one too). I’ll get back to John a little latter.
We visited the women at the quarry on a gray and drizzly day for December in Kampala. The women gathered to see the client that, in the last few months, has been the sole source of creative inspiration (and additional income) on their journey out of the quarry.
The first order shipped out to the UK this past fall and PD personally picked up the payment for the women while we were in London for Africa Gathering. Similar orders have been trickling in from Ethnic Supplies that the women have been enthusiastically fulfilling.
Arguably the toughest part had to achieving the quality of finished product one would expect in the UK. Crushing stones isn’t a task that requires finesse per se; on the contrary, brute force is generally the order of the day. Making jewelry, requires a whole new set of talents that the women seem to be adapting to with cat-like flexibility. The process of approaching perfection and fit and polish isn’t instantaneous. If anything, it’s extremely situational and subjective. After all you are making jewelry. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but quality, polish and attention to detail are squarely in the hands of the women. Great quality means continued orders, shabby delivery could very well jeopardize a promising way of life.
Ms. Horner spent a good portion of the meeting with the women looking at new designs the women had come up with. It was strikingly visible that the women were taking quite well to their new promising profession. They presented what seemed like hundreds of new designs. There was a visible improvement in quality, style and inspiration, a clear indication that the women had a drive and initiative to work their way out of a life of crushing stones. Ms. Horner came away from the meeting with a positive outlook. “The work is fantastic. The quality of the necklaces were very good. Above all, I felt incredibly, incredibly privileged. They gave me an audience, and shared their life with me. It’s going to be a lot of work on both our parts.”
The meeting ended with Ms. Horner purchasing an armful of the new designs. “Yeah, there’s a future,” she said, “and if it’s going to be, it’s going to be up to us.”
Mr. Kayongo explored possibilities of having the women produce his shirt designs, with locally sourced materials from start to finish including the shirts, designs, and labor. Mr. Kayongo’s designs, based on traditional mask art and etched graffiti-style in leather sewn on organic cotton shirts immediately drew the attention of the women. Mr. Kayongo said that in-country value addition is something that is important to him because it allows the local individuals to use their ideas, skills and tools as a means to emancipate themselves.
“I think through sharing, we can create something. I see the local individual, how can they emancipate themselves. And I can look at their ideas. For me it’s about, let’s learn and let’s share, and then create something new and put it out there in the market. I can look at it as a European to see how could I put it in the market.”
The addition of Mr. Kayongo to the possible list of clients for the women is one step closer to the women realizing their dream of transitioning from quarry workers to skilled laborers. Project Diaspora will be releasing funds raised during our 2008 fund-raising campaigns earlier this year for the purchase of the first set of sewing machines. We will also be releasing funds to pay for the first 2010 school term for the women’s 45 children.
Ultimately, our goal is to help the women emancipate themselves by succeeding commercially so we don’t have to do any more fund-raisers for them. If you’d like to partner with the women in anyway, please do let us know. They’ll be more than happy to give you an audience.