OXFORD, United Kingdom — Zena, a nonprofit organization making profound and long-lasting impacts on women living in poverty in Uganda, works in multiple regions of Uganda, including Kamuli, one of the most impoverished areas in the country.
Women in Uganda
Due to pervasive gender inequality, in Uganda, women are treated as second-class citizens. Women experience marginalization in many ways, whether it be through a lack of access to education, political underrepresentation or violating and harmful cultural practices like female genital mutilation and child marriages. Although overall poverty has decreased over the years, the rate of poverty is still high in Uganda, standing at 21.4% in 2016. Notably, high poverty rates disproportionally impact women.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Loren Thomas and Caragh Bennet, the cofounders of Zena, stress that the women they work with “are not beneficiaries but benefactors.” Entrepreneurial-minded women are enrolled in The Zena Launchpad program, within which they gain confidence, an education and a community, while simultaneously gaining an opportunity for apprenticeship/employment to create jewelry for The Zena Brand. This work allows the women to save up to start their own businesses and rise out of poverty.
Thomas and Bennet met in Uganda while volunteering during a gap year after high school. After active discussions on the best practice of providing aid, Thomas’s experience in developing a social enterprise program for women and Bennet’s dissertation research in Uganda, they agreed that “female entrepreneurs needed debt-free capital.” From this, the idea for Zena was born.
Zena has two bodies that go hand-in-hand. One is The Zena Launchpad where the focus is 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, featuring in Vogue Italia, Marie Claire and Harper’s Bazaar.
What makes Zena unique is that it is not a traditional charity. Zena is part nonprofit as it works with donors who invest in the women, desiring to make an impact rather than gaining a capital reward. Simultaneously, Zena is a social enterprise as the women access stable employment and gain skills and earned capital for their business ideas.
Thomas explains, “The Zena Launchpad hybrid model allows for women to access start-up capital without a loan and without a handout.” It is extremely important for fostering a sense of agency as this “allows them to start businesses from a real place of strength and confidence, knowing that they fully earned this opportunity themselves.”
The Model in Practice
The selection process is straightforward: potential program participants/members are women living in poverty in Uganda with viable business ideas. The women are an eclectic mix of backgrounds, all “from a variety of different religions, tribes and even countries” explains Thomas. Some were once refugees, others were victims of abuse, yet all the women enter Zena and find not just a new livelihood but a new supportive community. The women end up as each other’s customers and look after each other’s children.
Once selected for the jewelry apprenticeship program, the women receive business and literacy education and training. Each member is given a unique contract based on her business idea and the amount she needs to save up in order to create the business. Zena supports goals that are achievable so that the women successfully graduate and the next cohort can then be enrolled.
But, Zena does not stop here. Bennet and Thomas intentionally decided to only use recycled, locally sourced waste materials to make their products, believing in the power of the fashion industry to do good not just for the workers but for the environment too.
Education at Zena is extremely important. The program takes a holistic approach through three areas of learning: classroom education, work experience and personal development through mentoring. Zena considers literacy education crucial for changing the lives of women living in poverty in Uganda, existing alongside formal business education and leadership training. The women gain “experience in project management and communication skills” while working and discussing important topics, such as violence, family planning and mental health within a supportive environment.
Bennet and Thomas are continually looking for a way to improve their program. They are now planning a course in social media and smartphones after noticing during the COVID-19 pandemic that a lack of computer literacy can pose barriers to success.
Fighting Gender Inequality
In Uganda, there is a significant gender disparity in human capital wealth, with women accounting for just 39%, while men account for 61%. What is more, girls and women with lower socioeconomic status are the most affected by gender inequality. Therefore, The Zena Launchpad program, active since 2016, purposefully focuses on creating future female entrepreneurs by empowering women living in poverty.
The Zena team believes that these women will then also become leaders in their communities, advocating and supporting other women. Some of Zena’s graduates now only hire women in their startups, with a graduate called Susan going further, focusing on hiring single mothers. Thomas says that another graduate, Eva, “is currently working towards running for local government to better advocate for women in her community.”
The empowerment and social awareness gained from the model make a clear impact on the community, not just the women in the official program. This belief in solidarity is something that Bennet and Thomas champion, with obligatory weekly team bonding sessions for all Zena members no matter what the participant’s role is, from security personnel to board members.
An Exemplary Model
In its first five years, Zena has supported the development of 31 women entrepreneurs, with 19 graduates of its program. This impact means 200 people have risen out of poverty, 90 children are receiving 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 that the success of their model is proof of its potential for replication worldwide. Zena, a nonprofit energized by the power of community, is one to look out for in the future and derive inspiration from today.
– Hope Browne
Photo: Courtesy of Zena