Finding themselves through business

Women of Kireka showcasing their already finished products
Women of Kireka showcasing their already finished products

Women of Kireka, a jewellery business run by refugees from Northern Uganda and based in the Kireka quarry in Kampala, was founded in 2008 when the world largely had its eye on the role of social media in helping raise awareness and donations through an international and often impersonal network.

Twitter, Facebook and easy to build web platforms such as WordPress were becoming mainstream. Communication channels were opening between continents. There was an opportunity to send out a regular stream of information at little to no cost to exponentially more people than traditional mail-fundraising methods allowed.

However, Women of Kireka’s initial aim of fundraising enough money through these new mechanisms to start a women’s cooperative soon floundered. We quickly learned that good intentions are not enough. We would be looking at a constant fundraising campaign – most likely exploiting the difficulties faced by the women rather than their accomplishments.

The huge amount of effort put into fundraising did not equate the minimal input derived from these activities. Most importantly, we soon realized that there would be no process of empowerment for the women. For far too long non-governmental organizations in the region had been operating on a hand-out system leading to immediate gratification and devoid of long-term planning.

Learning a valuable lesson from this experience and following developing trends in the old aid – versus – trade argument, Women of Kireka partnered with the online site Project Diaspora and began looking towards a new avenue – business and social entrepreneurship. What was stopping these women from expanding their sale of paper jewellery they did informally and individually at the time into a wider, more organized and profitable group? What was stopping them from raising their own money to expand their business through a new, formalized jewellery-making endeavour?

They found the answer not in handouts from the international community but in themselves, their community and in the knowledge of international consultants. A local designer from Northern Uganda has come to teach the women how to perfect their crafts; a business consultant has helped the women register their business and develop new skills in business management. The women themselves largely determine the direction of the organization and how they want to see it expand. Other partners, such as Solar Sisters, are helping the women sell solar lamps and find new income. Increased sales have offered capital to rent and furnish an office, bring in trainers and more.

Most importantly, the women understand they are capable of producing jewellery that can be sold internationally. As refugees from Northern Uganda, they had spent much of their lives crushing rocks at the Kireka rock quarry for $1-$2 a day.

They would find extra work here and there through some informal paper jewellery sales, but nothing consistent. What they were doing afforded little room for innovation, creativity or stability.

Now, with support offered by Project Diaspora and others, the women are navigating their own way off the Kireka quarry. Their eventual goal to be independent with the finances to care for their families and pay their children’s school fees is finally foreseeable. As we approach Women of Kireka’s second anniversary, we are seeing great changes both within the women and in the business itself.

Women of Kireka welcomes visitors at their office near the Kireka quarry. Please stop by and check out some of Women of Kireka’s beautiful new designs! For further information, email teddy@projectdiaspora.org or call +256 774 046 761.

By Siena Anstis