It was just a bicycle, something many children grow up with. But for Ugandan Shirley Kandabu, those wheels represented empowerment in a country where in some cultures it was frowned upon for girls to own or ride a bicycle. And it was her father who bought it for her; tacit paternal motivation to ignore gender strictures. It set the tone for Kandabu’s life.
“You come from a background like that, and you’re constantly empowered,” said the Emerging African Leaders Programme graduate from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance (NMSPG). Kandabu was speaking to UCT News in Women’s Month from her current base in Nairobi.
“I love immersing myself in new experiences,” she added. “I continued to explore my interests [and] embrace new opportunities. And today I consider the plurality of my skills as my superpower.”
Her adventurous spirit is matched only by a deep sense of responsibility to her continent and the mantra: “Give more than you take”.
When she’s not bungee jumping off 40 m cliffs (“Which my mother hates”), Kandabu works to connect low-income maker and artisan communities to more inclusive economic systems for their products.
Their website is also a curation of African maker stories, traditions, products and a platform for Kandabu’s inspirational, tell-it-like-it-is blog.
By working towards sustainable livelihoods, she hopes to provide a decent standard of living for grassroot makers across Africa: fair payment for their products and a sustainable stream of income that covers basic needs and supports an existence worthy of human dignity.
“It’s not just selling one product and then having nothing to eat for the next six months.”
“It’s not just selling one product and then having nothing to eat for the next six months,” she said. “We have onboarded 25 artisans who produce a variety of products, ranging from jewellery, handmade baskets to textile and fabrics.”
One of the makers hosted on the site, Ida of Byentaro Ceramics, wrote, “My husband passed away a few years ago and I struggled to support myself. At my age no one would hire me because they thought I was too old and would not be able to contribute meaningfully. I heard about this ceramics group from a friend, and I decided to give it a try. I am grateful to God that they accepted me to join. As it stands today, I have learnt a new skill. I earn a liveable wage – and most importantly, I have found a place to call home.”
In her hands
Her paternal grandmother planted the seeds of this kind of entrepreneurship early.
“Growing up, I would go to my father’s village and, no shade on him, but it was just one tiny house and she had 10 children. I often wondered how she did it.”
The answer lay in the matriarch’s hands.
“Up until the time she passed away at 66, my grandmother would sit on the veranda in perfect contentment for hours on end, her fingers deftly and swiftly joining pieces of reed, weaving some of the most intricate patterns I have ever seen.
“From the sale of her mats at nearby markets, she was able to provide for her family and help send my father and his siblings to school, which invariably broke the cycle of poverty for our family. My father went on to become a formidable businessman and statesman.”
Innovative and courageous
Kandabu’s UCT journey started in 2018 when she was nominated as one of the outstanding candidates for the NMSPG Emerging African Leaders Programme. This identifies and supports the next generation of African leaders; equipping them with skills, knowledge and the networks to operate more effectively in their chosen fields of influence.
The long-term goal is to build a strong cohort of innovative and courageous African leaders who are committed to public service, with the vision, ethics and the skills to bring about change on the continent.
“Would we commit 27 years in prison and the conditions they had to go through?”
Kandabu values the tight network of programme alumni she taps into throughout Africa, each with different journeys.
At UCT, the programme included a visit to Robben Island; a portentous but motivating experience for Kandabu. She was struck by the sacrifice prisoners had been prepared to make for change.
“We put ourselves in the shoes of those political prisoners and asked, what would we commit to ensure social change, no matter the sacrifice? Would we commit 27 years in prison and the conditions they had to go through?”
It was a vital perspective for her own challenges in the social entrepreneurship space – and by sidestepping familiar paths. Both her sisters are lawyers, something her mother raises often in the hopes her ‘errant’ daughter will follow suit. Solid, respectable and with the promise of a future security.
But that path was not for Kandabu.
After completing the NMSPG programme, she worked with other research fellows on a publication about youth, unemployment and livelihoods across 10 African countries. Here was a challenge.
“I got a better understanding of just how significant the unemployment and livelihoods challenge is across, not just in Uganda or South Africa, but across Africa.”
For Africa’s sake
In that discovery Kandabu started thinking about her own role and influence in transforming her society. Before coming to UCT, she was part of Uganda’s largest innovation hub. But the target was middle-income Uganda. It left out the country’s low-income, underdeveloped sectors.
Her focus shifted to building sustainable solutions for these communities, particularly the women and youth.
This year, Kandabu aims to bring the tally of African countries she has lived and worked in to 10; all centres where makers and artisans ply their trade in the handmade products young consumers are beginning to value.
Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and South Africa have been crossed off her list. Now for Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Ghana and Nigeria … There’s work to be done.
As for the question of being an exemplar for other young African women, Kandabu answers frankly, “I don’t necessarily see myself as a role model. I see myself just trying to do what I love.”
In Women’s Month, she makes an urgent call for gender equality, for the sake of Africa’s prosperity.
“If you are constantly putting down one half of the population, there’s no one [for girls and women] to look up to. But if you have people who are doing different things constantly cheering you on, you feel emboldened too.”
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