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Want to be inspired? Check out this trailer for a documentary on women-owned craft businesses. It focuses on two groups, one of which is Uganda Crafts. It’s a beautiful piece and really gets the ethos of Uganda Crafts down in just a couple minutes. Additionally, many of my Ugandan friends and co-workers can be seen throughout the piece. AND a couple of my basket designs make the cut too! 🙂

The filmmakers were planning to go on to Haiti to learn about and film some similar work being done there. These types of businesses are more important than ever after the tragic events of last week’s earthquake. Please consider checking out their site and donating to help them capture the story of women’s businesses in Haiti.

Enjoy the film!

Betty surrounded by baskets and artisans

Betty surrounded by baskets and artisans

Whenever I see Betty, usually seated outside Uganda Crafts with a line of visitors waiting to be seen by her, she greets me like this, “Banange, Nabukalu! Nsanuse okukulaba!” Which basically translates into “My goodness, Lauren! I’m so happy to see you!” I am the happy recipient of this warm greeting whether it has been a month since I’ve seen her, or just a few days.

Betty Kinene is a indeed a very warm and special person to me and to hundreds of other people.

Betty was born in the 1950s and contracted polio at the age of 3. As one of 35 children from her father (yes, THIRTY-FIVE), Betty struggled to pay for her schooling, but managed to get by, and was one of the top students in the country.

After schooling, she made a living as a shopkeeper in Kampala. She lost her husband during the Amin regime, but managed to continue working and caring for her children on her own.

In 1983, the president of Uganda, Milton Obote, allowed Indians who had been expelled from the country under Amin to return to the shops they had lost. Betty turned up to her shop one day, and found it locked and all of her merchandise seized. It had been an Indian shop before and was being reclaimed now. Shocked by her loss of employment and merchandise, Betty sat down on the steps to cry. A woman named Marilyn Dodge, who had been a faithful customer of the shop, happened by, and saw Betty crying. Marilyn, who was an American working with UNICEF, had an idea for Betty: start a new shop which employs disabled people through crafts. Betty and Marilyn began planning, and Uganda Crafts was born.

Uganda Crafts began as a small non-profit shop, which sold a variety of handicrafts to tourists in Kampala. Dozens of men and women, some disabled, some widowed, and some simply poor, began to sell their work to Uganda Crafts for money. The non-profit grew and grew, and in the 1990s, Uganda Crafts began selling baskets to Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade shop in the United States and Canada. It was then that Betty learned about the concept of fair trade and started incorporating it directly into her work with Uganda Crafts.

Today, Betty continues leading Uganda Crafts as the managing director. Uganda Crafts became a for-profit business in 2000, in an attempt to “stand on our own” as Betty puts it, and become self-reliant, not depending on donations or charity. It turns out that Betty was ahead of the curve as some of the current trends in the development world include social entrepreneurism and a backlash against dependence on aid. Uganda Crafts now exports crafts to numerous fair trade retailers in the US, Japan, Sweden, Austria, Canada, and beyond.

In addition to running Uganda Crafts, Betty is a counselor in her home district of Mpigi. She helps settle disputes between community members and even within families. She’s involved with many different organizations which work with people with disabilities. She also started Papula Paper in 2006, a community based organization which I’ve written about recently. Always an entrepreneur, she recently opened a hostel near her home for students attending a new art university.

In person, Betty is warm and funny. She loves teaching me about Buganda culture, and was quick to adopt me into the family by naming me Nabukalu (meaning either clever woman or difficult woman, depending on who you talk to). This name signifies that I am a member of a particular clan, the clan of Betty’s husband, making me a sister to her children.

Betty is one of the people I will miss the most when I am gone. She’s an inspiration to me and to so many women and people with disabilities working in Kampala today. I’m proud to call her a friend.

me, JJ, Joe, Jason, Rachel, July 2006

me, JJ, Joe, Jason, Rachel, July 2006

I have a problem saying goodbyes. My problem is that, pretty much no matter who or what the circumstance, when I say goodbye to someone, I usually end up crying. Sometimes it is more of a tears-rimming-the-eyes kind of cry, and other times it is a full-out bawl. Regardless, it happens a lot, too much, and I’ve been preparing for a lot of tears this month, as I say goodbye to my friends, my first apartment with Jon, and to my Uganda.

I began my farewell tour last weekend in the place where I first said hello to this country. Mbale, on the eastern border with Kenya, was my first taste of Uganda on my United Students for Fair Trade trip in 2006. During the trip, we visited coffee farmers in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda and wrestled with the concept and specifics of “fair trade”. We came to Mbale to learn about Mirembe Kawomera, the newly formed interfaith fair trade coffee cooperative that is just as inspiring in real life as it is on paper.

During the trip, we’d been making short visits to coffee farmers and learning a lot about the process of farming coffee and of the ins and outs of fair trade. In Mbale, however, we got to dig in a little deeper and actually live with a coffee farmer to better understand everyday life. My host father, (well, the host father for 14 of us!) was JJ Keki, the founder of the coffee cooperative. JJ, a very active member of the Abayudaya (Ugandan Jewish community) welcomed us into his home and allowed us all to feel like part of the family. We shared a Shabbat celebration with him, helped his children carry water up the hill (this was only slightly successful), and got to know the neighbors. When I left Mbale that July, I could have never imagined that I’d be back so soon, or that my relationship with the Keki family would grow as deep as it has.

In the years between the trip and my return to Uganda, JJ made several tours around the US. It was during one of these coffee tours last March, while driving JJ to the place he was staying in Chicago, that he claimed me as a part of the family. “You became my daughter that day that you carried the water up the hill for your bath,” he told me. “When I saw you coming up the hill, with the jerrycan on your head, I said to myself, ‘that one is my daughter now.'” I teared up a bit, caught off guard by the comment, and surprised that he remembered something that I’d almost forgotten.

When I returned to Uganda last July, JJ and the farmers of Peace Kawomera were my first stop. Since then, Jon and I have visited a number of times. Every time we visit, I remember my first time at JJ’s house, my introduction to Uganda. I think of how much more I know now than I knew then. I think of how much there is still left to learn.

On this, my last visit to Mbale, I tried to act like it was a routine visit and not my last. We enjoyed a lunch with Elias, one of the coffee cooperative’s administrators and farmers. We visited the bean fields that JJ’s son Maccabee was busy planting. We greeted JJ’s mother, Devorah, who has given us Bagisu names (Nafuuna for me and Wambede for Jon). I chased turkeys and teased the goats. It was like a routine trip… until we had to say goodbye.

JJ, luckily for my tears, had left a day before we did, bound for a meeting in Kampala. So our goodbye was small and to a few members of the family including JJ’s amazing wife Miriam. I tried to make it quick so I could avoid being seen crying.

And so, my first home in Uganda was also the site of the first of my long string of goodbyes.

JJ Keki, July 2008

JJ Keki, July 2008

creating recycled paper picture frames

creating recycled paper picture frames

On today’s agenda was a visit to Papula Paper, a fair trade paper making outfit that has a very special place in my heart.

Papula Paper was started in 2006 by the founder of Uganda Crafts, Betty. Betty wanted to start a fair trade project in her home district of Mpigi, and was given some startup money for a building. She chose to build a paper workshop and retail space just a minute’s walk south of the equator, a popular stopping point for tourists on their way to some of Uganda’s national parks. In 2006, my friend Muireann and I took a trip to the building site and helped design the building. We also brainstormed names for the new project. My suggestion won in the end: Papula Paper (from the Luganda word for Paper, olupapula.

Coming back to Uganda and seeing the success of Papula has been really exciting for me. So it’s no surprise that today’s trip and meeting with them was a lot of fun.

Lillian, one of Betty’s daughters and one of the managers at the Equator location, took the time to show us around the workshop and explained the paper making process. The papers that Papula creates are all made using recycled or natural materials. Farmers bring the tops of pineapples, elephant grass, and old banana fibers and sell them to the workshop. Individuals and organizations donate old printed pieces of paper. These materials are the basis for the paper, which can later be turned into a bunch of different products: stationary, greeting cards, boxes, notebooks, etc.

cute stationary in a pretty little box.

cute stationary in a pretty little box.

Papula’s products are beautiful and it’s cool to see how discarded materials can be put into use again. Papula is also notable for its commitment to the community of disabled individuals in Mpigi. Several of the full-time workshop staff are disabled, and many others from the community bring their work to the retail shop to be sold as well.

Having watched Papula Paper grow from just an idea to a successful project promoting environmental sustainability and employing dozens of local community members, I can’t help but be optimistic for its future.

lillian demonstrates for us

lillian demonstrates for us

hand loom at work

hand loom at work

Hand Loom Crafts makes gorgeous table mats and table runners.  They’re a woman-owned small business and have been very involved with the formation of the Uganda Federation for Alternative Trade.  I love this photo of an artisan hard at work over his loom.  You can learn more about Hand Loom Crafts here.


Last week, Jon and I got the chance to visit the Maganjo Progressive Women’s Group, a small group of artisans in the Kampala suburb of Maganjo. The group isn’t all women, but women definitely have a central role in the group.  Since 1993, they’ve existed as a network of about 25 active members. Together they make and market their crafts and support each other in a lot of quieter ways as well.  The group members who welcomed us to the homestead of  one of the members seemed as close as family.

Apart from their handicrafts, which run the standard gammut of recycled paper beads, woven mats, and hand loom cloth, the group has a number of little innovations which they use individually and spread to their community.  Jon and I were quite dumbfounded at all the little things this group has invented or adopted to make their lives a little better.  The house we visited seemed to be home to about a million little innovations.

First, there was the solar cooker.  This little contraption dries food using just the heat of the sun.  Inside they had tiny eggplants (which are a bitter, but much loved, food here) that get mashed up into a paste.  I also had the chance to have a little bit of dried cabbage, which they also use as a condiment.  Mmm. 🙂

solar cooker

solar cooker

Next, the refrigerator.  This was a small box with charcoal walls.  There were banana stems on a small shelf inside near the top of the box.  Sitting atop the box was a plastic basin filled with water.  Apparently, to keep the contraption cool, you just pour water into the box from the top.  I have no idea how this has a cooling effect… but it does!



To improve sanitation, the group invented a sink using a jerrycan and some wood.  Now when people are done in the bathroom, washing hands is simple and clean.



This group did not stop there.  They even came up with their own form of coffee or tea… crushing small seeds from a local plant and then adding hot water and sugar.  They let us try this too… and it was quite delicious!

seeds for tea

seeds for tea

Jon and I left feeling quite energized by the ingenuity of this group.  Not only have they come together to do craft work and market their products, they are constantly innovating and sharing ways of making their lives better.  This kind of “development work” hardly gets any play… local, smart, inexpensive development happening under the radar so that it rarely is seen.  It made me wonder how many other cool, innovative things I’ve passed by in my time here…

The main purpose of our trip west was to meet with two fair trade farming cooperatives that have been participating in the Uganda Federation for Alternative Trade (UGAFAT). As part of our research for Assetmap, we wanted to know how these two groups use technology, how they access markets, how they form partnerships both within Uganda and abroad, and a host of other things.

The two groups we visited were called “Mubuku Vanilla Farmers Association” and “Mpanga Tea Farmers Cooperative.” Both are located outside of Fort Portal.

Mubuku Vanilla is comprised of over 1,000 farming families located in the Mubuku sub-county. 14 primary societies–or groups of farmers–come together to form the larger organization. Many of the farmers grow an array of different crops including banana (matoke), maize, cocoa and coffee, but all commit to harvesting at least some vanilla, which the organization then sells to a processor in the area called Ndali, which in turn sells the processed vanilla on the global market, both to conventional buyers and “fair trade buyers” (such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, we discovered) who pay a higher price.

During our visit to Mubuku we chatted for a little over an hour with the General Secretary (Israel) and Sales Manager (Andrew) of the organization. After the interview, Israel and Andrew took us on a tour of a few of their members’ farms to show us how vanilla grows. Although Mubuku is a young organization (2 years old) with modest resources (headquarters is a small one-room office with two wooden desks and a bookshelf), its clear these guys have their act together. On the day we came, Andrew was sorting through piles of material about how to get their farmers certified organic. The walls of the office are covered with organized charts, timelines, and plans written neatly on butcher-paper.

Mubuku’s key challenge, as is the case for most of the groups were meeting with, is the lack of a sufficient market for their product. Currently, Mubuku sells about a third of its total vanilla crop to Ndali, who is their only buyer at present. The rest lays fallow and basically goes to waste. The challenge of finding additional buyers isn’t helped by the fact that they have very little access to technologies that would help them connect to the outside world. Israel just recently started an email account, but has to travel about an hour to Fort Portal or Kasese Town to use the internet at unreliable and costly internet cafes. But, with their dedication, strong organizational skills, and unique product, it seems that Mubuku has a bright future–or so we hope.



Mpanga Tea, in contrast to Mubuku, is a twenty-year old organization located on a large compound complete with its own tea processing plant. About 800 tea farmers contribute to the Mpanga cooperative. Mpanga has established customer relationships with large fair trade buyers, such as CafeDirect, in addition to doing regular business on the conventional market. And, as you might expect, access to internet is no problem for them! It was interesting to talk with Mpanga’s General Secretary Rogers and imagine what 20 more years of development might do for the Mubuku people. Rogers explained in detail how tea exporting works–a complicated auction system that, for African tea farmers, takes place in Mombasa, and is largely a relic of British colonial creation. Our meeting with Rogers was especially encouraging for the Assetmap project, because he spoke emphatically about how it was important for different groups around Uganda to share information and skills with one another for the purpose of national development. After the meeting, Rogers took us on a short walk into the beautiful tea fields where we also saw a clinic Mpanga has started for local farming families to sue, paid for by the “social premium” provided by CafeDirect as part of its commitment to fair trade.


For me, these farm visits were particularly enjoyable for a few reasons.

For one, I’m am learning a ton about the world of ‘fair trade’. Up to now I had a surface level understanding of why it is important, but I left the details to the expert in the family–Lauren. But, walking vanilla and tea fields as Israel, Andrew, and Rogers explained the miniscule prices paid by transnational corporations, and the opportunity fair trade offers for achieving a sustainable livelihood as a farmer made it come alive for me.

Secondly, walking those fields turned on the part of me that longs to retire at 40 and spend the rest of my days tilling a few acres in the quiet company of a few good thoughts. I like to think farming is in my blood, even if I have been a city/suburb kid for my entire life.

Lastly, I gained some new confidence in the usefullness of our work with Assetmap. In virtually every instance, the groups we have visited with testify that the people who buy their products found them through informal, social means…person X knows person Y who knows about organization X that makes so-and-so product. By simply mapping out fair trade organizations and some basic information about them, and posting this information online in a dynamic searchable format I think we will have done a great deal to improve the ability of fair trade producers and consumers to connect with each other and advance the cause….or that’s the idea, at least.

After our weeklong radio silence, it’s time we get back into writing. We just returned back from a trip through western Uganda, mostly for work but also for a little play. We had a hard time with internet, so excuse us as our many stories from the week trickle onto the blog, probably in no real order.

Stop one on our trip was to Kakuuto, just a dozen kilometers away from the southern border with Tanzania. Kakuuto is the home of Ostrich Eco-Tours, a small ecotourism outfit that has been a part of the newly formed Uganda Federation for Alternative Trade since the beginning.

Ostrich Eco-Tours is the only place in Uganda which has ostriches – 9 of them, in fact – and in addition to visiting with a peacock, horses, guinea fowl, etc.,  you can ride the ostriches if you are so inclined.

Obviously, this was the chance of a lifetime for me, and for a mere 15,000 Uganda Shillings ($8), I went for a ride.



Jon decided to take a ride as well…

holding on tight...

holding on tight...

Apart from running the eco-tourism center, the project makes crafts and sells them onsite. In addition to some of the more basic Ugandan crafts, like barkcloth items and woven mats, they make Ostrich-related products, such as feather dusters made from ostrich feathers and painted ostrich eggs. Unique stuff, and admittedly a little strange, but we did buy a feather duster in the end!

After ostriches, we took shared taxi cars back to Masaka. During this 70 km trip, we were crammed into the car with the most people I’ve ever seen in a little sedan… ELEVEN total. On one occasion, there was the driver sitting on someone’s lap in the driver’s seat, me, a mother and her two children in the passenger’s seat, and 6 people in the back seat. The second time it happened on this journey, it was Jon and I in the passenger’s seat, the driver on someone’s lap in the driver’s seat and SEVEN PEOPLE (!) in the back. Unbelievable… and lucky to be alive. 🙂

Today I visited a fair trade producer group in Kampala as part of Lauren and I’s research for the work were doing with

The project, called Agape Shoemakers, is located in the Makindye Hill area of Kampala, not too far from where Lauren and I lived for a month when the Northwestern study abroad students were here last summer. But, this part of Makindye couldn’t be more different than where we stayed. As with many of Kampala’s hills, one side is full of middle and upper-class compounds, and the other side is a slum. This area is filled with small mud/brick buildings smashed together and is divided by a small stream filled with garbage and who-knows-what-else.

Agape Shoemakers occupies one small room about the size of Lauren and I’s bedroom. Inside the room are piles of leather scraps, an old foot-pedaled sewing machine, a radio, some tools, and “the four boys”.

As the title suggests, Agape makes leather sandals. As soon as I walk in to their tiny workshop, though, I realized that they aren’t just any sandals. With their limited resources Agape produces sandals that could easily be sold in J-Crew or The Gap. I bought some to prove it.

The employers of Agape are four young men in their late teens and young twenties. They met as teenagers when they formed a musical group called “The Four Boys”. (They gave me their CD as a gift for coming!) After one of the members traveled to Nairobi two years ago and stumbled upon an Arcade where leatherworks and other supplies for making the sandals were sold, the group got together to start their business. According to them, they are completely self taught, using trial-and-error to get it right. One of them makes the 12 hour bus trip to buy supplies every month or so. Its cheaper to make that journey than to have them shipped, or to buy them in Uganda.

Their leader, Stephen, graduated from Makerere University but failed to find a job upon graduation. He tries to find customers for the sandals mostly by going to trade shows around the country and searching on the internet. Needless to say, his ears perked up when I told him about the work were doing with UGAFAT to build an online tool for connecting producer groups to each other and to new markets.

It’s the type of talent and potential demonstrated by Agape that were trying to highlight with this project, albeit in a very small way. And, I got some new shoes out of the deal….not a bad gig.


The New York Times has a great article about Ela Bhatt, the founder of a women’s group called the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India.  In addition to a million other projects, like running a microfinance institution, SEWA also makes fair trade crafts which are sold all over the world.


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