With mentorship and a microloan, a group of women in a Kampala neighbourhood grew their business during the COVID pandemic.

photos by Esther Mbabazi

text by Marcie Good

In the twilight at the open door of the clothing boutique, Pamella Nakanyi removed a dress from a mannequin, carefully folded it up and placed it on one of the shelves inside. She chose a stretchy floral number and deftly tugged it over the model. She shooed away a toddler who was reaching inside the sudsy mopping bucket, and moved on to reclothe the next model. 

The little girl is the daughter of Juliet Mutonyi, who told me how she, Pamella and 12 of their friends started this shop. Many of them were single mothers, and they needed an income. “We had nothing to do,” she said, and she seemed to be telling me that the women banded together because they needed a purpose. 

Juliet Mutonyi started up the Kitale Women’s Association with a group of her friends

The shop is in a small house on a hillside in a neighbourhood of Kampala, Uganda. I visited in March 2020 with Sustainable Villages leader Simon Nambafu. At the time, the Kitale Women’s Association had been operating their business for about a year. 

It started through a connection: Juliet was a neighbour of Simon. He encouraged her and her friends to come up with a business idea. They wanted to sell clothing, and they started out by taking second-hand items from the street markets directly to neighbourhoods, knocking on doors and introducing themselves. Then they began sourcing out new clothing from suppliers. Their customers would give them orders for specific items they had seen somewhere, and Juliet and her friends would search it out in the markets or at their agencies. When they had reliable income, they rented a shop. Then they had another idea — they all needed basic groceries like sugar, oil and flour so they opened a kiosk selling those items and employed a young orphan girl. 

All along they relied on Simon’s business advice and his encouragement. But at the time of my visit, they had done everything with no grant or loan. They were learning from the bottom-up. 

Over the next year, they weathered the storms of COVID. They lost income and had to close their shop. But with a $300 start-up grant from Sustainable Villages, they bought a sewing machine and focused more on the designs created and sewn from African fabrics by their own members—items with bigger margins. Through the lockdown they continued selling to their customer base. By the end of 2020, they had opened a new shop and created a new source of revenue, becoming agents for a mobile phone company. Most people in Uganda do their banking on their phone, and they can visit the shop to deposit cash on their account or withdraw cash. For the women of Kitale, the banking business is a reliable source of income and it also represents an important move into a male-dominated industry. 

Back in March 2020, Juliet told me how the women had found strength together. 

“As a group you bring in many new skills, many new ideas, and you share the work a lot,” she said. “The profits become less in terms of sharing because you are many, but you don’t become stressed to do everything by yourself. Where one fails, another one adds on, complements the other.” 

In early 2021 the Kitale Women’s Association was chosen to receive a $2,500 loan from Sustainable Villages, and they will use this to buy at least one more specialized sewing machine and expand further. 

Since they started the business, their lives have significantly changed. With steady income, they were able to improve their families’ food security, nutrition and hygiene. Some of them have moved to better homes, even bought small properties. They have new status as business owners, and can apply for loans from banks. 

The women have become an example to others, who also want to join. “Possibly they can encourage them to form their own groups and do something different,” Simon explains, “because everybody is seeing that they have made progress.”

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