The story of Ubuntu Life begins more than 20 years ago, about an hour outside Nairobi, where a pair of pastors from different continents struck up an unlikely friendship over bowls of stew.
It was there, in a town called Maai Mahiu, that Kenyan Jeremiah Kuria and Texan Zane Wilemon started working on an idea that would have a far greater impact on the lives of the region’s people than either could have imagined.
What started as a local center for children with disabilities – providing life-changing therapy and medical care for kids with special needs – has blossomed into a multipronged organization called Ubuntu Life, which provides full-time jobs, healthcare, training, education, and empowerment for an entire community.
Moms making a difference
Ubuntu Life’s breakthrough moment came in 2011, when the school discovered an unexpected benefit of their work: with children taken care of, mothers had newfound free time on their hands. What the moms needed were jobs, and they came to Wilemon and Kuria with an idea: all of them could sew, so why not start a business?
“I’m thinking, wow, is there a way to employ these women to offset the cost of our school?” recalls Wilemon, who worried about sustaining an endeavor that was often low on funds. “We were living and dying by donations and events.”
That year, in a rented room, nine local moms got to work on Singer sewing machines, making products like shopping bags, coffee sleeves, bandanas, and coasters. Their first big order came from Whole Foods, which began selling Ubuntu’s reusable canvas coffee sleeves in their stores.
Soon the organization purchased 11 acres on the outskirts of town, planted trees, and built the Maker Mum Sewing Studio. Ubuntu, which gets its name from an African philosophy meaning “I am, because we are,” grew exponentially from there, producing increasingly sophisticated handmade products like beaded accessories, bracelets, bags, and their smash-hit Afridrille shoes, made in collaboration with Zazzle. Partnerships with Disney and American Eagle soon followed — along with Oprah, who featured Ubuntu Life’s mules in her list of Favorite Things.
Breaking the cycle of poverty
Their success set the wheels in motion for a sustainable hybrid model of business-charity. Ubuntu Life* not only provides higher wages, healthcare, and financial security for more than 100 full-time Kenyan employees on the for-profit side, but also funds the Ubuntu Life Foundation on the nonprofit side, which provides pediatric healthcare, physical rehabilitation, and special-needs education for students across the region with conditions like cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and severe autism.
Today, the campus hosts an expanded Ubuntu factory, a popular café supported by Whole Foods, an organic vegetable farm, and even a natural spring water bottling facility. And this year, after a pandemic construction delay, Ubuntu is set to open its new Children’s Wellness Centre, a combined special-needs school, pediatric medical facility, walk-up pharmacy, and community health education space.
“When I think about the countless lives that will be impacted for years to come, I am reminded why Jeremiah and I started Ubuntu Life,” Wilemon says of the new structure, which is 10 times the size of its current space. “The enduring calling to serve Maai Mahiu’s most marginalized people and build something that would outlive us and benefit future generations.”
The lasting ripple effects of Ubuntu’s self-sufficiency experiment can’t be overstated. The social impact and empowerment of meaningful employment are felt far beyond the essential services, clean water, and food it provides to hundreds of vulnerable children. The more revenue Ubuntu earns, the less dependent it is upon donations and the higher wages it can pay. (Roughly half the charity’s $2 million annual budget is now funded through sales.)
More than half of Ubuntu’s current employees, 60% of whom are women, are now homeowners — compared to just 10% of Kenyans nationwide. Ubuntu pays above-market wages that are as much as four times higher than comparable jobs in the community, and it provides health insurance to 100% of its employees and their families, in a country where less than 20% have access.
Soles with a purpose
For every product you purchase from Ubuntu Life, you create very real hours of meaningful employment for members of the community. That means four hours of pay for every handmade pair of espadrilles, like the popular Kuba Cloth Afridilles in burnt orange and white or the beachy Striped Sea Green, made from sturdy and breathable East African cotton and genuine Kenyan nubuck leather, with traditional jute soles capped with vulcanized rubber for durability.
The zebra-print Go-To Tote bag in cotton canvas has leather straps and trim sourced from one of Kenya’s finest tanneries, with a hand-beaded tab made by Maasai Maker Mums, providing six hours of well-paid work. For The Weekender, a beautifully turned multipurpose bag in one of Ubuntu’s coolest prints, it’s eight hours of employment.
The colorful Maasai-handcrafted Gold Bead Love Bracelet takes about two hours of work, and the stackable Single Strand Beaded Bracelet takes about half an hour (buy a few!). And don’t sleep on the hand-beaded leather dog collars.
“Unlike most brands, we proudly own our factory and our entire supply chain,” the founders say. “That means we’re 100% responsible for the health, happiness, and success of our employees. Our team is our family, and we can only reach our full potential by helping each of our employees reach theirs.”
And with every hassle-free purchase you make from Ubuntu using Amazon Pay, you can help them get a little bit closer.
“The coolest thing is we started with nine moms,” they reflect, “and now we’re the largest employer in Maai Mahiu.”
*Amazon does not endorse any of the products or information provided by the Merchant in this video.
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