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BeadforLife Program Helps Lift Ugandans Out of Poverty

April 16, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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A program that helps Ugandans sell beads in America has brought hundreds of families out of extreme poverty through a woman-to-woman network focused on sales at house parties and a Web store. Spencer Michels reports on the program and the people it helps.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, how women in North America have changed the lives of hundreds of women in Uganda. Spencer Michels narrates our story of a group called BeadforLife.

SPENCER MICHELS, correspondent: For five years, women in Uganda have been excited about BeadforLife. Co-founded by American Torkin Wakefield, this nonprofit has brought hundreds of people out of extreme poverty. It’s all been done with beads, rolling them, stringing them, selling them.

UGANDAN WOMAN: BeadforLife!

SPENCER MICHELS: Before Wakefield came along, many of the beaders earned less than $1 a day breaking rocks in a gravel pit and lived in malaria-infested slums.

TORKIN WAKEFIELD, Co-Founder, BeadforLife: Look at your baby. She looks really healthy!

Hello, Moses, yes, the proud papa.

SPENCER MICHELS: So how did BeadforLife help Moses Kwanze, his blind wife, Ruth Machala, and others earn $280 a month and own their own homes? Social entrepreneur Wakefield says it was one step at a time.

TORKIN WAKEFIELD: I think, for me personally, that I never understood where we were going. I never had a clear vision, and even yet for BeadforLife. It’s you start, you take a step, and you pay attention. And as you see what options you have in front of you, you make the next smart decision.

Tapping into a market

SPENCER MICHELS: The first step happened near Kampala, in a place called the Achole quarter, the crowded home to some of the 1.4 million people displaced by the decades-long war in the north of the country.

TORKIN WAKEFIELD: Look how skinny these cattle are.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wakefield, a psychologist from Colorado, was in Uganda with her husband, an AIDS doctor. There she met Millie Grace Akina, who was rolling beads out of paper. She had 400 necklaces, but no market.

Wakefield started buying her beads and then trained more people to make them, women like Achan Grace (ph), who three years ago lived in the Achole quarter.

WOMAN: Achan Grace seems to float when she moves, despite the fact that she's usually toting her 1-year-old twins. This graceful young woman is the mother of five children.

SPENCER MICHELS: BeadforLife brought her story and her beads to North America to create a woman-to-woman network. Last year, more than 100,000 people attended almost 2,000 BeadforLife house parties. One-fourth of the money raised goes back to the beaders; half to develop projects in Uganda; and most of the rest to education and sales events.

In order to make it all work, the group has to take in $250,000 a month, with almost all of that coming from house parties and online sales.

WOMAN: This one is $20, and each one of those is $5, so that's $15 and $20. It's $35. Do you have cash?

SPENCER MICHELS: The next step was a giant one. Two years ago, BeadforLife bought land, built houses, and sold them for around $2,200, payable in beads, not cash.

TORKIN WAKEFIELD: They're paying in beads, and they're rich in beads, you know? It just depends what the currency is, whether you're rich or not.

SPENCER MICHELS: Achan Grace rolled over 1 million beads in three years and will fully own her own home and the land by this spring.

TORKIN WAKEFIELD: She's come from in danger of dying to self-sufficiency and ownership. When you think about eradicating poverty, this is what the goal is, someone standing on their own feet.

Families become home-owners

SPENCER MICHELS: There are now 106 houses and more than 600 people in what is called Friendship Village.

TORKIN WAKEFIELD: Finding an option for the landless of the world is an important piece of stabilizing, because when you own a piece of land and you have a house, you protect it, you make it beautiful, you make it productive, you invest your own passion in it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sissy Nalule had been homeless after being robbed.

SISSY NALULE: I went to see the foundation. And, "Is this my real house?" Well there will actually be a day. And I sleep in my own house, it will be so wonderful, and I don't know what I'll do the first day when I'm sleeping in my life, in my house. Maybe I'll sing the whole night. I don't know what I will do.

SPENCER MICHELS: One fear about starting a new village has been tribal violence, which has a long history in Uganda, but that hasn't happened here.

TORKIN WAKEFIELD: People are making friends across tribal lines. We have quite a few Muslims, as well as many Catholics and Protestants and born-agains, that share the space. And we thought that would be a problem, but it hasn't turned out to be a problem.

SPENCER MICHELS: Margaret Awata learned that firsthand. Her husband was killed because he was on the wrong side when Yoweri Museveni became president. Now she's 1 of 11 people elected to run the village.

MARGARET AWATA: Well, I have to lead the people in the village, let them -- unite them to come together, inject knowledge into their brain.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even after she started beading, she kept living under a tree with five kids to save money for a house.

MARGARET AWATA: I never had anything like what we are sitting on. I never had any clothes on myself. I never had a bed. I never had a mattress. So all that was rehabilitation, and seeing my children off to school.

QUESTIONER: You're proud, huh?

MARGARET AWATA: I'm very, very proud of myself now. I'm now a lady, don't you see?

Charity and empowerment

SPENCER MICHELS: BeadforLife sees itself as a transitional program. After 27 months, the beaders have to start doing something else, like learning auto repair.

BeadforLife sponsors them and others in vocational training classes while also teaching life skills. The organization also runs monthly sessions on how to market and finance businesses.

TORKIN WAKEFIELD: Hey, look at your garden. Your basil is growing like crazy.

FARMER: Yes.

TORKIN WAKEFIELD: This is fantastic. You know, you're going to find good market. You're going to find a good market for this. When you come into the office on Friday, let's talk about marketing...

FARMER: OK.

TORKIN WAKEFIELD: ... and how to approach the restaurants in Kampala, and what you're going to need in order to package and keep it really fresh.

SPENCER MICHELS: Those who've made beads now are doing everything from cutting bead paper, like Moses Kwanze, to running a restaurant. And every step of the way, they get advice and counsel.

TORKIN WAKEFIELD: ... what options that you have for expanding. And then, you know, what else?

One of the things I've been thinking about recently is the difference between charity, programs that are really charitable, and programs that are really more about empowerment. And I like to think that BeadforLife is really about helping hardworking people become individuals who can sustain themselves into the future long after BeadforLife is a fond memory.

Learning business lessons

SPENCER MICHELS: Fatuma Laker learned the lessons quickly. Before coming to BeadforLife, she was kidnapped by soldiers in the north, raped, and bore two children. She finally escaped and married, only to have her husband die.

She was trying to live on 25 cents a day and thinking about poisoning herself and her kids when she heard about BeadforLife. When she first got paid, she was stunned.

FATUMA LAKER: I refused that money. I said, "This is not my money." Then they were comforting me. "No, it is your money." Actually, it was like something surprising. You first time to get something very big, what you were not expecting out of what you made.

SPENCER MICHELS: But then she got down to business. She paid her back rent, then bought a popcorn machine. She leased it out and used the money for rent. Then she started selling groceries and used that money to feed her family.

FATUMA LAKER: I'm planning for more, because now I have my house. Nobody is demanding me. They don't chase me away, "Go, go, go." No, it's not there.

I have my peace. I sleep as I want. I get up at my own time. I do my things as I want. Now I feel I'm happy, at least I'm happy, and my children, they have life.

SPENCER MICHELS: BeadforLife is now ready for some next steps. It wants to market more products, build more homes, and find a way to provide affordable housing in people's own communities.