How a Sustainable Business Model in Rural Uganda Translates on Streets of Dallas

June 15, 2016Posted by Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

Although circumstances might differ, women across the world struggle with the same issue: earning a living wage that allows them to care for themselves and their families.

And finding good jobs is even more difficult when these women are recovering from addiction or sexual trafficking, or are living in poverty or with an HIV-positive diagnosis.

But the Akola Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit, is helping underserved women in Dallas and in Uganda find well paying and fulfilling work by rolling and assembling beads for boutique-quality jewelry.

“The advantage [of this model] is that women come together in community. They come together and make the jewelry together,” said Brittany Merrill Underwood, who founded the Akola Project in 2006.

“In Uganda, the women say you think you’re the only one who has struggles, that you’re alone and isolated, but when you come together in community—that’s where you get the strength. Akola offers a community where you realize that you’re not alone.”


Underwood started the Akola Project after witnessing the responsibility and extreme poverty women in Uganda face during a college trip. The year she started Akola, Underwood worked to  build an orphanage.

After meeting local woman—many of whom cared for more than 10 children at a time—she realized she could help keep these families intact, not by building more orphanages, but by giving the women vocational skills and sustainable employment.

Since then, Akola Project has trained more than 450 women to roll the beads and assemble the jewelry line, in turn ensuring them a living wage. The beads are made of paper, and are finished with a non-toxic varnish. Other materials used in the designs, such as horns, are ethically sourced so no animals are harmed, and the metals used in the pieces are made from recycled scrap.


The program has also built 23 wells so that the women and their communities have access to clean water, as well as two vocational training centers where women can hone their hard and soft job skills.

Last year, the nonprofit provided the women in Uganda with HIV/AIDS and malaria testing, and education on tuberculosis, family planning and maternal health. A wellness officer is available to attend births, weddings and funerals for support, and a medical assistance program supports women during short and long term illnesses and in times of bereavement.

Two years ago, the Akola Project brought their sustainable development model to women in Dallas, helping women who were formerly sexually trafficked or incarcerated with a new economic opportunity.


“The problem in Dallas in that women have been going back into prostitution, poverty and jail because they don’t have an economic alternative,” Underwood said. “There was a huge gap in the Dallas nonprofit ecosystem, and the Dallas Women’s Foundation approached us because of the economic model that worked well for us in Uganda.”

After piloting the program, Underwood found that it worked just as well in Dallas. What didn’t, however, was an $8 minimum wage. Akola overcame that obstacle by developing a new retail line that will be in Neiman Marcus stores across the country this fall, and sell at a higher price point. The higher cost of the jewelry allows them to pay the women at least $15 an hour, and all  proceeds go back into funding the programs to teach more women in Dallas and Uganda.

Annette Bailey, 56, started working in Akola’s distribution center two years ago as an intern and is now a full-time employee.


A recovering addict, Bailey said she turned to prostitution to buy drugs. She has been in recovery for four years.

Through Akola, Annette said her life has been “transformed and empowered,” and she’s set to start college to become a substance abuse counselor.

“I’m able to see my life in a different perspective. I know that I’m more than what I thought I used to be,” Bailey said. “And I’m able to help women—she might not have the same circumstances and experiences that I had—but I feel I am able to talk to her about things that went on in my life and be empowered through that.”

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