A while back I spotted a little boy vending colourful cloth rucksacks and shoulder bags in the environs of Kkungu, in Kira District and I bought one up with glee. I used it so hard that it got stolen at the Village Mall in Bugolobi but not before I had spread the word about his grandmother Rose Nakitto, who makes the bags (she was on 0777 460 854).
In the same breath I mentioned another discovery – a little shop called Ricci Everyday operating out of Prunes Cafe on Wampewo Avenue.
Ricci Everyday sells the same type of Kitenge or ‘African cloth’ bags of varying styles and quality levels, at vastly different prices. Nakitto’s were going for about Ushs35,000 a bag while Ricci Everyday sold theirs ranging from Ushs200,000 to more than Ushs1million!
Two weeks ago I chanced upon an article online about Ricci Everyday in Japan, and my heart applauded them. This outfit had taken Uganda to the first world whole sale and was bringing money here to pay the people, presumably women, who do the actual work stitching the bags!
And they’ve been doing so for YEARS! In 2016 they exhibited these Ugandan-made bags at a premier fashion show in London and have done so consistently ever since.
Three weeks ago the Ricci Everyday proprieter, Chizu Nakamoto, was featured in the Business section of The Japan Times in a story titled, “Startup’s colorful Ugandan bags take off in Japan, lifting the women who make them”. In Japan the popular Akello bag goes for about US$93 – and the entire range is doing extremely well.
I haven’t yet stopped Chizu or her mother, Ritsue, to thank them for the great work they are doing for this country. Even when I do, my word of appreciation won’t be as valuable as a medal from a national authority or some big incentive from the Uganda Export Promotion Board, Uganda Investment Authority or one of our Ministries of Trade, Investment and so on and so forth.
I was full of wist over this many days later when an email came to me promoting a Mother’s Day online purchase.
The day I signed up for updates from ‘Rose & Fitzgerald (Est. 2013)’ has long faded out of my memory, so when I saw their offer I had to stop and think.
“Win the Ultimate Mother’s Day Ethical Gift Pack – valued at more than US$1,000!” read the banner.
I love my mother more than US$1,000 but I don’t normally have that amount of money on hand to prove the point, so who were these Rose & Fitzgerald who believed this kind of email warranted an exclamation mark?
Besides, I wondered, what kind of “Ethical Gift Pack” was this and how did it link to my beloved mother?
I read the email further, past the pretty images, and one word stood out: “Mugave”. One of the gifts was described as a “Mugave Geometric Bottle Stopper from Rose & Fitzgerald”.
This isn’t the one, but I found that they have made and sold many other such pieces in the years they have been in business:
Those two are not Ugandan names but it was difficult to imagine that Mugave was a word in common use outside of Uganda.
So I headed to their base site and found that their main outfit is called ‘Thirty One Bits’ (www.31bits.com), offering many nice-looking items that I couldn’t recognise from my many years in Uganda.
So I went to read their story under ‘About Us’.
These three white women, from the photograph, included one Kallie Dovel who came to Uganda for a bit as a university student and went back with stories that blew her friends away.
“She met women who grew up in a war and had nothing. They were single moms with no education and no job, and they were our age. OUR AGE. Our lives couldn’t look more different,” they write.
And then, they continue writing with a perspective totally lacking among US – the Ugandans who live right here with and amongst our fellow Ugandans:
“The women may not have had an education, but their skills and resourcefulness were astounding. They were making incredible jewelry out of old posters. Kallie brought a box of jewelry back, and we fell in love instantly!”
These were Caucasian women from America who met Acholi women in Gulu and created an enterprise.
They sold out within a short time and voila! There a business was born selling small pieces of jewelry and decor at pops of anywhere from US$15 upwards of US$80.
The girls came to Uganda and spent time with six ladies developing products and living together in their homes as they built up Thirty One Bits. Today, they are in “hundreds of stores across the United States” and have endorsements from names such as Sophia Bush, Candace Cameron Bure, Jessica Alba, and magazines like Forbes, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle.
PLUS, they built an entrepreneurship training element into their business so that the ladies creating these jewelry and art pieces don’t rely on just being suppliers, but develop their own businesses.
The girls of Thirty One Bits have graduated 100 artisans over five years, says their website, who have started additional businesses doing poultry, tailoring, agriculture and “One woman even opened her very own restaurant, called none other than ’31 Bits’!”
Not only that – using this experience they found themselves doing the same in Indonesia (which is why I couldn’t recognise many of the items on their online store).
That Indonesia bit is what worries me now. If we don’t have more and more Chizu Nakamoto’s and Kallie Dovel’s coming in from Japan and the United States to discover highly creative and hard working women in Uganda like Rose Nakitto and those unnamed jewelry designers in Northern Uganda, are we ever going to have more superb, high quality products than the Indonesians filling up shelves in foreign countries?
Besides that, how many of us in our twenties (that’s how old Chizu and Kallie were when they started) and thirties and forties are out there creating businesses like this or, at the very least, supporting them by buying their products?
Sadly, not enough to change an entire economy just yet; even more sadly, so few that the Nakamoto’s and Dovel’s will deservedly continue standing out. Thankfully, they do so while putting quality Ugandan products on international shelves to great acclaim, and for that they will be greatly applauded.