This Ethical Jewellery Small Business Is Radically Changing The Lives of Ugandan Women


Just over a year ago, Ugandan mother of four Kevine Ochola felt powerless to change her future -- and it was looking pretty bleak.

Six days a week she spent up to 12 hours breaking up rocks in a hot and dusty quarry, before returning home to cook and care for her children, and grab a few hours of sleep.

On the one day a week she wasn’t at the quarry, Ochola went to a local artisans' market to try and sell beaded jewellery she had made from rolled-up pieces of recycled paper.

Ochola was just one of many women in Uganda desperately trying to forge a living to provide a better future for themselves and their children.

Many learn the skills they need to help pull themselves out of poverty through the work of organisations such as The Hunger Project, a global, non-profit organisation committed to building sustainable community-based programs to bring an end to poverty and world hunger.

For those creative women though, having skills isn’t enough -- finding somewhere to sell their wares on an ongoing basis is what can make all the difference.

And that’s where Australian entrepreneur Patrice Gibbons came in.

Back in 2013, along with 15 other corporate Australian women, the then communications director of Roses Only raised $10,000 to take part in a leadership program to Uganda, organised by women’s networking movement Business Chicks.

“Everyone had to raise $10,000 in a six-month campaign, and then you basically go and see that money at work in that community and that year they were going to Uganda,” Gibbons told The Huffington Post Australia.

“I ran the City2Surf to raise money, and I’m someone who wouldn’t run across the road to catch a cab.

“It came about because a girlfriend of mine said ‘Patrice, I’d pay money to see you run and other people will too'. $5000 later it turns out everyone thinks I’m a bit lazy!"

Patrice Gibbons visited The Hunger Project's Iganga Epicentre to meet some of the people she would be employing through Zurii.

“It was so hard! I’d had visions of coming along the home stretch hearing Chariots of Fire, thinking I’d be so empowered -- but it wasn't like that at all, I was nearly crawling, and crying. It was hilarious. Well, now it is. Then I retired on a high and I’ll never run again.

“It was so worth it though -- the idea of the leadership program is that women in corporate leadership positions gain practical leadership experience by meeting women who are leaders in their community with none of the opportunity or skills that we had.

“On that trip, standing in the middle of a village in Uganda, we met a number of just incredible women who were going through training programs with The Hunger Project.

“Some were agriculture-based programs, some were microfinance-based, others were health-based and there was one particular program where they were learning how to make jewellery from recycled paper. Then this lady pulled out five necklaces she’d made from this recycled paper.

The beads are made from recycled paper. This bead was made from directions to install a wireless router.

“She was so proud of what she’d made, and could see an opportunity to sell them to us. We desperately wanted to help and help her feel empowered and I remember thinking in that moment, ‘This is great, the program is fantastic, they’re doing a really good job, there’s a real opportunity for these women to make an income, that’s all great, but there’s no market’.”

So Gibbons created one.

In mid-2014, she ditched corporate life, refinanced her house and founded Zurii -- a socially conscious and ethical fashion accessories label.

“After so many people commented on the jewellery I brought back, it dawned on me -- I could be the marketplace,” she said.

“I could be the one to source from them directly, pay them and give them financial independence and, on the flipside, help women here be able to choose something that looks great and makes us feel good, and know it’s doing something positive in the process. I liked both sides of that.

“And in that moment, Zurii was born.”

When she knew she was going to go ahead with Zurii, Gibbons and her husband went to Uganda to again meet with the women and set up the business.

They set up two partnerships -- one with the women based at the Epicentre, a creative hub at The Hunger Project in Iganga, and another in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

She employs a production manager for each to ease the proximity and communication barriers, and regularly orders jewellery from both.

“Watching them make the jewellery was so important for me then,” she said.

“It really informed how I defined them, how we packaged them, how we shipped them, everything.”

Some of the jewellery in Zurii's beaded range.

Gibbons pays the women upfront for their work so they can afford to buy supplies to make her products as well as food for their families.

“The partnerships are based on paying per item,” she said.

“We have set prices for the items we order and those prices are above market as we’re paying for quality, we’re paying for time, and I’m happy for the profit margin to be slightly lower than it would be in standard fashion industry.

“I want it to be really ethical in terms of what they’re paid, but I also want products when they get here to be reasonably priced so women here can make a responsible choice.”

She said the women quickly found a way for the work to benefit the wider community.

“When I put in an order, they spread it over their friends and family, there could be 20 women at any one time working on one of my orders,” she said.

“It’s a great example of community -- they just outsource it. As someone starting a new business, you realise you’ve got to be everything from the CEO to the secretary to the cleaner, and letting go of that control can be so confronting; it’s your money and your dream.

“But watching these women, when they see an opportunity, they know they need to get it done, so they outsource it to their friends and family.

“It’s very entrepreneurial.”

Gibbons also sources leather goods, scarves and silverware created by family units in Indonesia.

“My original vision was to have only women in developing nations making the products, but what I discovered quite quickly when I realised we needed to branch into new accessories was that women aren’t as involved in making those leather or silver products as much as the men.

“So I find family groups where the women are very much a part of the process.”

Through Zurii, Patrice Gibbons employs Ugandan women including Kevine and Eugenie, who no longer have to work manual labour jobs.

Gibbons said she also runs a communications business in Brisbane to help fund Zurii, and even though it’s only been 15 months since she founded the small business, it’s already making a difference.

Ochola has left her job at the quarry and with the money she saved making jewellery for Zurii, has opened a general store, and has plans to also open a second-hand clothing store.

“She’s really typical of all the women we work with in Uganda,” Gibbons said.

“She was in 40 degree heat, 10-12 hours a day, breaking up rocks with a hoe. But she saw an opportunity here and she ran with it.

“She’s started a general store with the money she’s made from the partnership -- she still does the beading and is a leader in the community, teaching other women how to bead, but she started the store, where she’s selling flour and fruits and veg and she’s starting a secondhand clothing store.”

“Zurii isn’t a big brand yet, and I’m not ordering thousands of pieces, when you look at this in relative terms, I’m shocked and surprisingly amazed at the massive impact we’ve been able to make in one person's life, with a relatively small amount of purchase.

“I hope we can expand and have that impact on the lives of so many more women in so many more countries.”

Gibbons also donates 10 percent of Zurii's net profits to The Hunger Project to help fund training and education programs for disadvantaged women.

Zurii also employs family artisans in Indonesia to create leathergoods.

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