Micro-enterprise, macro hope

Uganda 2008

By Donald MacGillis

June 10, 2009

Published in The Boston Globe

KAMPALA, UGANDA- FOR MANY of the very poorest in this city, the way out of poverty begins by rolling thin strips of recycled colored paper into beads that are glued, strung on fish line, and varnished. The bead makers - mostly women but some men - sell their necklaces and bracelets to BeadforLife, a nonprofit started by an American woman, Torkin Wakefield. BeadforLife sells the jewelry overseas, helps the bead makers open bank accounts and get home mortgages, and - most important of all - steers them out of bead-making and into other businesses or vocations. "Poverty eradication is the goal, not beading," Wakefield said earlier this month.

I visited BeadforLife here on a sale day when bead makers present the fruits of a couple weeks' work to BeadforLife's buyers, who would check the jewelry for quality and purchase up to $125 worth of items.

Before the selling began, the bead makers formed a circle to dance. Many of the bead makers are refugees from the 20-year guerrilla war in the north; many are HIV-infected.

The $125 is not all profit. The bead makers buy their materials and are encouraged to save 25 percent of what they earn. Eventually, BeadforLife provides a grant, matched by the bead maker, to assist in the start of a business or vocational training. Thirty-year-old Pamela Layet said she planned to lease acreage and raise sugar cane. She has already moved into one of the solid new brick houses with concrete flooring that BeadforLife and Habitat for Humanity have built outside the city.

BeadforLife sells most of its products through Tupperware-like house parties or community events in North America, Mexico, Australia, and Europe. Wakefield says she likes this marketing method "because it preserves the story." The story is a hopeful antidote to the poverty, disease, and strife that mark so much of Uganda life.