Whatever happened to Bead for Life?

April 24, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY BOOTS TOLSDORF – As I have not been seen standing by the post office on a weekly basis selling my Ugandan women’s handmade jewelry made of recycled paper, many friends and acquaintances have asked me often, “Whatever happened to Bead for Life?”

COVID happened to Bead for Life.  And in this case, the timing could not have been better. Started in 2004 as a fair trade organization, the net profits from the sale of jewelry provided women living in poverty in Uganda the means to sustainably change their lives. I got involved with them in 2007, sold their products and took trips to meet the staff and the women handicrafters.

The goal of BFL was to train women to bead, have them bead for 18 months and then at the end, help them to start a business of their own, while continually recruiting new beaders to keep the pipeline going. The “help” was not in monetary gifts as the Bead for Life philosophy has been to kindle the entrepreneurial spark in women to boost their confidence and to learn the tools to keep them self sustainable. So no handouts or microloans. The “problem” of finding beaders became more difficult because it seemed that these bright women wanted to start their own businesses from the getgo!

And so with a decade of experience in empowering women, BeadForLife made changes to its program and committed all of its resources into a singular focus: bringing enterpreneurial education to the masses. This program we called Street Business School, thus transforming Bead for Life. We kept selling the beads that were being made, but in the background, this new idea was being developed.

At first we concentrated on training Ugandan women with our business module covering topics such as getting out of your comfort zone, business identification, finding capitol and starting small, bookkeeping, market research, business planning, growing the customer base and money management.

Our goal, though, has always been bigger than just Ugandan concentration: It was time to take it globally.  Devin Hibberd, founder and CEO of BFL, started the “Ignite One Million Campaign,” which basically stated that we were committed to help one million women out of poverty by the year 2027.

So what was the next step? Through a social franchising model we started training other nonprofits in other countries. First was Africa. Leaders  from nonprofits in surrounding countries came to Kampala to add SBS to their toolkits and deliver global entrepreneurship training to the people they served, to allow them to lift their families from poverty.

We deal specifically with women who live on less than $1 to $2 a day. Women in this group are most likely to lack the skill and, more importantly, the confidence to believe in themselves. When you live in poverty most of your life, it is more often than not that you can’t feed or educate your children. You don’t wake up with the idea that you can change your life around.

SBS hosted its first weeklong “Train-the-Trainer Immersion Workshop” in 2016 where members from eight NGOs learned how to deliver our customized programming. Four of them launched SBS in their communities within two months of the workshop in Kilifi, on the coast of Kenya. The NGOs send two representatives to us. We can take 16 people total for in-person workshops, who come from eight different areas.

This worked very well, until COVID.  What to do? Obviously travel and personal contact was out of the question. With  more people falling back into poverty across the globe SBS staff, partners and alumni redoubled their efforts to reach people. We launched our virtual immersion workshop and made our online training as interactive and impactful as our in-person training. This allowed us to reach regions of the world that had been previously out of touch. We launched an innovative phone training, delivering a distilled version of our curriculum on conference calls with five women at a time. We added new team members and increased our goal from reaching 300 women directly to training 1,200! We zoomed and reached 24 people at a time in various time zones for a week long series of three hour workshops. Our initial research shows us that this was so very effective, that we will continue this outreach program in order to involve more countries in need.

As of March, 2020, about the time of the pandemic, SBS had partnered with 96 organizations on three continents. Those countries are Burundi, Cameroon, DRC, Ethiopia, Haiti, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Malawi, Nepal, Nigeria, Rwanda, USA, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The organization is called sole4souls.org, and they accept used shoes. On their website I searched for where I could drop off shoes within 50 miles from 33921, and that resulted in 13 drop-off sites.

Let’s look at some results, for those of you who like figures. These figures show one year after graduation from SBS. SBS in Uganda has seen increased income by 211 percent (people increasing from $1.35 a day to $4.19.) Across the other countries, 163 percent (from $1.03 to $2.71). What does this mean in terms of family life? It means three meals a day and schooling. This is a life goal.

Business ownership in Uganda: 89 percent have businesses two years after graduation, and 46 percent have two or more businesses. In other countries 80 percent have business one year after graduation and 56 percent have two or more businesses.

We do monitor these women after graduation, and are always a phone call away if they need help.

We have 245 lead coaches in these countries, with 101 NGO partners and 218,790 total people out of poverty in four years. These figures indicate a transformational impact. We were recognized in 2017 as the “Best Nonprofit” by the PeaceJam Foundation, which consists of 14 Nobel Peace Laureates. This was awesome recognition.

For this year there are two virtual immersion workshops scheduled so far – one four-week workshop from April 13 to May 13 and one eight-week workshop from April 27 to June 23. All participants must speak, read and write well in English, and plan to implement the SBS program within six months of their training.

Saida Awori is resilient, adaptable, and works hard, especially when challenges arise. Saida joined Street Business School in 2017 after hearing a bullhorn announcement in Mutungo, where she lived. Saida was a stay-at-home mother to three children, and her husband was unemployed. Together they lived in a single room, rent-free, in exchange for caring for the property.

Saida and her husband had little money to pay for food, and their two school-age children stayed home with them because they could not afford school fees. Soon after she began her SBS training, Saida received $13.50 from a friend to help with living expenses. Knowing it was time to turn things around and learning to use capital to start a business, Saida launched a jewelry business. She bought a basin, some jewelry pieces to sell, and walked through neighborhoods selling. On her first day of business, she earned about $4.50. Doing well, Saida invested in two more basins and enlisted her husband and daughter to sell jewelry. Life improved for Saida and she was able to move her family out of their single room, renting a new place of their own. She also earned enough money to feed her children and enrolled them in school.

When COVID-19 hit, Saida had to close her business due to the lockdowns. All of her capital was used for food and rent, but when she received her micro-grant from SBS, she launched three new businesses. Saida used $13.50 to lease land and plant vegetables. These new sales earned her $19 per week, and she used the profits to launch mushroom and cosmetic businesses. Her weekly income is $44, she has joined two weekly savings groups and her goal is to buy a plot of land and build a house for her family. Saida’s resilience continues.

These are extraordinary times. In Uganda, where we got our start in 2004, projections suggested that three million people could be pushed back into poverty as a result of the pandemic.

In April, we surveyed thousands of SBS alumni in Uganda, and although they were better off than many others, 83 percent were still missing an average of three days of meals each week.

At that point, we knew it was time to step in, providing small cash grants directly to families who couldn’t run their businesses because of government-imposed lockdowns.

This next woman, Teddy, I was able to meet on one of my visits.

Teddy Namuyiga was desperate. Her youngest daughter was born deaf and because of this, her husband had left her. She was alone with her three daughters, earning less than one USD a day, doing whatever she could to feed her children. She had no hope for the future.

What’s more, in Uganda, family is everything. Weddings, funerals, important decisions, all are made with family input. But Teddy was at a loss there too. When members of her family passed away, nobody told her because she didn’t have the money to go to the funeral and they didn’t want to pay. It was like she was invisible.

Then we met Teddy and she received business training. It gave her hope. She started out by buying chickens and selling eggs. She then bought a water tank and started selling potable water to her community. She added a lot more chickens, some pigs and even cows and hired some employees to help her manage her business. Her income soared. She believed in herself and now wanted to fulfill her dream to start a small school in her community. She saved and invested her money and today she also runs a school with more than 100 students.

Teddy is now considered well off. Her daughters are all in school, the youngest is attending one of the only two schools for the deaf in the entire country. Their lives have changed. Now, whenever there is an important decision to be made, Teddy’s family comes to her for advice. She told me, “Now, I am somebody.” Her gratitude is twofold. She’s grateful for the ability to start her businesses and earn a steady, growing and sustainable income. As important, she’s grateful for the opportunity to transform her life, step out of the shadows, and be “seen” by others.

And one more story because this is a COVID story, and I love stories.

Victoria was introduced to Street business School in 2018 while earning the equivalent of less than $2 per day. After launching her own business selling chapatti, a traditional Ugandan flatbread, Victoria went on to mobilize 100 women in her community to join SBS and start enterprises of their own — women empowering women. Then came the pandemic, and with it a host of challenges for this woman entrepreneur and her community

The Ugandan government issued a lockdown that caused Victoria and thousands of women entrepreneurs like her to close their businesses overnight. In response, Victoria launched two new “COVID-proof” businesses to make ends meet for her family. She’s up before the sun at 5 a.m. making chapatti, and within two hours she’s outside tending her vegetable garden, which supplies the produce stall she launched that has since become her most successful business. Once the lockdown ended, she launched a third business, selling secondhand bedsheets and bedcovers, that has helped her increase her income to $6 per day.

Victoria is not alone. Her story is just one of millions Sas women entrepreneurs around the world realized they had to pivot quickly to keep their businesses afloat.

I have heard, seen and read many of these inspirational stories.  And it is what keeps me believing in the special work of SBS.

Now what about my inventory of beads?  I have a huge inventory which I will sell once again at the post office next year when things I hope will be back to a kind of normal. There will undoubtedly be discounts and special sales and I will do this on a weekly basis, time and weather permitting. My inventory has been safely stored and ready to see the light of day! The women who made the beads were paid when they delivered them to the staff way before COVID, so the monies I collect will go to SBS.

If you know of any organization that might be a good fit as a Global Ambassador or Partner with SBS, please don’t hesitate to write SBS. Visit their website at www.streetbusinesschool.org. Or you can certainly call me. If you have any interest in hosting an event where you would like me to speak about SBS, I am also available.

When we connect with a cause we believe in, no matter our role, we plug into something bigger than ourselves. We become part of the story. In subtle and not so subtle ways, our own mindset begins to shift. We start to believe a better future is possible. We see potential and hope where before we saw none. Such is my passion for this organization.

Boots Tolsdorf can be reached at PO Box 531, Boca Grande, FL 33921 or at (610) 715-1576.