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Zena empowers women living in poverty in Uganda

OXFORD, UK – Zena, a non-profit organization with a deep and lasting impact on women living in poverty in Uganda, works in several parts of Uganda, including Kamuli, one of the most poor people of the country.

Women in Uganda

Due to pervasive gender inequality in Uganda, women are treated like second-class citizens. Women are marginalized in many ways, whether due to lack of access to education, political under-representation or the violation of harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation and marriage. of children. Although overall poverty has declined over the years, the poverty rate is still high in Uganda, rising to 21.4% in 2016. Notably, high poverty rates have a disproportionate impact on women.

In an interview with The Borgen Project, Loren Thomas and Caragh Bennet, co-founders of Zena, point out that the women they work with “are not beneficiaries but benefactors”. Entrepreneurship women are enrolled in The Zena Launchpad program, where they gain confidence, education and community, while simultaneously gaining a learning / employment opportunity to create jewelry for the community. Zena brand. This work allows women to save to start their own business and escape poverty.

Origin story

Thomas and Bennet met in Uganda while volunteering on a gap year after high school. After active discussions on best practices in aid, Thomas’ experience in developing a social enterprise program for women, and Bennet’s research thesis in Uganda, they agreed that “women entrepreneurs needed debt-free capital ”. From there was born the idea of ​​Zena.

Zena has two bodies that go together. One is the Zena Launchpad where the focus is on social impact. The other is the product line, The Zena Brand, which focuses on creating unique jewelry. The quality and style of Zena’s products make the brand popular, featured in Vogue Italia, Marie Claire and Harper’s Bazaar.

Hybrid model

What makes Zena unique is that it is not a traditional charity. Zena is partly nonprofit because she works with donors who invest in women, wishing to have an impact rather than getting a capital reward. At the same time, Zena is a social enterprise as women gain access to stable employment and acquire skills and earned capital for their business ideas.

Thomas explains: “The hybrid model Zena Launchpad allows women to access start-up capital without loans and without handouts. This is extremely important in fostering a sense of agency, as it “allows them to start businesses from a real place of strength and trust, knowing that they have fully earned this opportunity themselves”.

The model in practice

The selection process is simple: the participants / potential members of the program are women living in poverty in Uganda with viable business ideas. Women are an eclectic mix of backgrounds, all “from a variety of religions, tribes and even different countries,” says Thomas. Some were once refugees, others were abused, but all women come into Zena and find not only a new livelihood, but a new community of support. Women end up becoming clients of each other and looking after each other’s children.

Once selected for the jewelry apprenticeship program, women receive education and training in business and literacy. Each member is assigned a unique contract based on their business idea and the amount they need to save to start the business. Zena supports achievable goals so that women graduate and the next cohort can then be enrolled.

But, Zena doesn’t stop there. Bennet and Thomas intentionally decided to use only recycled and locally sourced waste to make their products, believing in the power of the fashion industry to do good not only for workers but also for the environment.

Education

Education in Zena is extremely important. The program takes a holistic approach through three areas of learning: classroom instruction, work experience, and personal development through mentoring. Zena sees literacy as crucial in changing the lives of women living in poverty in Uganda alongside formal business education and leadership training. Women gain “project management experience and communication skills” while working and discussing important topics, such as violence, family planning and mental health in a supportive environment.

Bennet and Thomas are continually looking for a way to improve their program. They are now planning a course on social media and smartphones after noticing during the COVID-19 pandemic that a lack of computer literacy can be a barrier to success.

Combat gender inequalities

In Uganda, there is a significant gender disparity in human capital wealth, with women accounting for only 39%, while men accounting for 61%. What is more, girls and women of lower socioeconomic status are the most affected by gender inequality. Therefore, the Zena Launchpad program, active since 2016, deliberately focuses on creating future women entrepreneurs by empowering women living in poverty.

The Zena team believes that these women will then also become leaders in their communities, defending and supporting other women. Some of Zena’s graduates now only hire women at their startups, and a graduate called Susan is going one step further, focusing on hiring single mothers. Thomas says that another graduate, Eva, “is currently working to run for local government to better advocate for women in her community.”

The empowerment and social awareness gained through the model has a clear impact on the community, not just the women in the official program. This belief in solidarity is something Bennet and Thomas stand for, with weekly team bonding sessions mandatory for all Zena members, regardless of the role of the participant, from security personnel to board members. .

An exemplary model

In her first five years, Zena supported the development of 31 women entrepreneurs, with 19 graduating from her program. This impact means that 200 people are lifted out of poverty, 90 children receive an education and 17 women are literate.

Zena’s founders are now looking to expand their program to help more women living in poverty in Uganda, believing the success of their model is proof of its potential for replication around the world. Zena, a community power-driven nonprofit, is one to watch for the future and be inspired by today.

– Hope Browne
Photo: Courtesy of Zena


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.