Kampala — TWO years ago, Mary Naiga, 27, was living in a mud hovel in a slum called Acholi Quarters in Banda, a Kampala suburb. She supported her four children by begging neighbours to let her do their laundry for a pittance.
Gaunt and weak, Naiga refused to take life-saving anti-retroviral drugs because she had heard that the drugs increase one's appetite yet she was already having difficulty getting enough food for her children.
Today, Naiga is one of the 200 women who earn a living by making beads out of recycled paper. Beads for Life, a community-based organisation, brings together women from war torn areas, and those who lost their husbands to HIV/Aids. The women earn a living by making and selling beads.
Torkin Wakefield, the director of Bead for Life, says she picked the idea from one woman, Milly Akena, whom she found by the roadside in Acholi Quarters, handmaking beads.
"I walked to Akena and asked her what she was doing. She told me she was rolling beads out of old magazines. I asked her to sell to me some and she agreed. I bought a bunch of necklaces and took them to America where I found a market for them," says Wakefield.
Akena had been making beads for a while but was finding it hard to market them.
"After identifying a market in America, I came back and encouraged more women to make beads, which marked the birth of the Beads for Life project.
Beads for Life's goal is to train and work with several groups of women and to graduate one group out of the programme after two years.
"You cannot be a beader forever. Once the members are financially secure and have their own successful cottage industries or places, which some already have, they employ others. In the meantime the next group is trained. We want to reach out to as many women as possible, especially those living in abject poverty. We want the project to be a conveyor belt out of poverty," says Wakefield.
Harriet Mucunguzi, the programme coordinator, says: "Creating jobs through local partnerships is a more sustainable approach to poverty eradication than providing aid. Rather than depend on handouts from abroad, the beaders acquire skills through creative work."
Other life-skills training sessions include creating and monitoring a household budget, writing a Will and designating a guardian for children and small business planning. An employment specialist is working with the members to help them diversify their income beyond making beads.
Mucunguzi says the project has so far created an income for over 200 families. The first one to benefit were women from the Acholi Quarters. "We have 90 members in this group. We put $8,000 (about sh13.5m) into the community every month when we buy their beads. The other three groups are: Nsambya Women, part of the Nsambya Hospital Home Health Care Programme, most of whom are widowed and have HIV, Kakwanzi Group based in Kawempe, and Kataza Group based in Mbuya."
She says the method for selecting women to be members of the project is not simple.
"We visit places around and especially slums. When we identify a woman, we interview her, interview the neighbours and some people who know her background and living conditions. We even reach where that woman sleeps and when we are convinced that she is living in abject poverty, we enroll her and train her," Mucunguzi says.
She says the beads are made out of paper, glue and varnish. When one qualifies to be a member, she is given these materials to start with. She later starts to buy her own materials.
When the beads are ready, they are sell to Wakefield (pictured right) who pays the women directly. She then exports the beads to America.
Wakefield says: "Bead for Life is a poverty-eradication project connecting people in Uganda and North America to work together for the mutual benefit. Bead for Life believes true and sustainable change can happen if we are willing to work together to find solutions to poverty."
"Our sales strategy is primarily woman-to-woman - at home, parties and events, supplemented by volunteer and web sales.Seventy-four percent of our profits are returned to the impoverished Ugandans through direct buying of beads and through our community development project."
Now over 95% of the members have personal savings accounts. They are saving a substantial portion of their earnings.
The women make necklaces which they sell at sh10,000-sh25,000, bracelets at sh5,000-sh15,000, earrings at sh10,000-sh15,000 and jewellery bags and beaded purses between sh15,000 and sh25,000
Wakefield says, the project together with Habitant for Humanity bought 18 acres of land in Taakajjunge near Mukono, where the beaders can build their own homes.
The houses are being built in groups of 6-10. Beaders choose from six house designs, depending on their needs and budgets. The houses are built in stages; if a beader can only afford a small house to begin with, she can add to it later. Each house has a ventilated two-pit latrine and bathing area.
Impoverished people worldwide are often the victims of poor health. Poverty forces people to live in poor sanitary conditions, with unsafe drinking water, and high population density. Malnutrition and lack of access to preventative health care make poor people, especially children, prone to sickness and death.
Naiga is one of the top savers among the beaders. Her dream was to own a house, which she now has. She continues to roll beads and she has started a small business, selling to other beaders. She is able to take her children to school, she takes her antiretroviral drugs and her health has improved drastically.