During an interview with Impactful Tourism Consultancy, researcher and social impact founder Margarida Vasconcelos discusses her new regenerative fashion line Seeds and Stories Uganda. Seeds and Stories is a social enterprise that focuses on empowering women in rural Uganda by providing vocational training programs and employment opportunities.
Could you tell our readers about Seeds and Stories Uganda?
Our social enterprise is a sustainable and regenerative fashion line based in Bigodi village, Uganda. We intend to make products from natural organic fibres that are farmed, processed, spun, naturally dyed, woven and sewn within the community by local women. In particular, we are interested in utilizing barkcloth, a regenerative material made from the bark of the local Mutuba Tree (Ficus species) and a traditional practice in South-West Uganda. Our mission is to create handmade and unique products in harmony with the environment, follow regenerative practices, build on the women’s pre-existing artisanal skills, embracing the local culture and preserving traditional crafts with a modern approach and innovative methods. We strive to empower local women while creating a positive impact on the environment and empowering the community to become self-sufficient.
What is the current economic and environmental situation in Bigodi, Uganda?
Bigodi is situated in the highlands of western Uganda at the borders of Kibale National Park, known for its high density of primate life including the largest chimpanzee population in the region and premontane forest. Forest degradation, habitat loss due to agriculture, wood and other non-timber products extraction, poaching and human/wildlife conflicts are major threats to the park and Bigodi wetlands sanctuary. Tourism is the main source for conservation revenues and with tourism at a standstill, they are facing a new challenge.
The people living in Bigodi are predominantly crop farmers who have depended on growing crops for both income generation and food security. Poor yield seasons have left many with little food and no income. On the other hand, increasing population and western influence has led farmers to intensive forms of agriculture, placing additional pressure on the environment.
Some women are already involved in generating income activities mainly weaving and selling their products. However they depend on tourism and with the fluctuating visitor numbers to ecotourism sites which has been exacerbated by the lockdowns, they are facing new challenges and running out of options.
How did you first determine there was a need for Seeds and Stories in Bigodi, Uganda?
Our approach is entirely based on qualitative research and data. Our partner organization, the Kibale Association for Rural and Environmental Development (KAFRED) performed a community survey of 160 households. The results of this survey indicated that Bigodi and neighboring communities were interested in developing greater income generating activities outside of mainstream tourism. With the negative impact of COVID-19 on the tourism sector, community leaders have indicated a heightened level of urgency to developing and implementing income generating activities in Western Uganda.
What does regeneration mean to you?
For us regeneration means improving the world from how we found it, and to do so for indefinite time. It means leaving the world, the communities where we work, a better place as a result of our practices, decisions, and relationships. We will learn from and honour nature through our activities.
How does this project incorporate environmental regeneration?
The ideas of regeneration relate directly to our holistic management practices and to the materials we use, in particular, the bark of the Mutuba tree naturally regenerates every year. By ethically and sustainably harvesting the bark, local populations are able to produce high value products without harming the tree. This regenerative local material is also carbon negative, fully compostable, and enriches the soil. The community is already propagating the Mutuba trees and by doing so, this project will contribute to climate modification.
Our social enterprise also embraces permaculture ethics and principles, applies regenerative agricultural practices, utilizes carbon neutral and zero-waste production methods and provides employment opportunities to local people.
How did you first become interested in the intersection between gender equality and environmental stewardship?
I have been campaigning for gender equality and social justice for all since a young age and did voluntary work for different organisations, including women empowerment associations. During my trips to Uganda and Nepal, I visited several women’s groups and social enterprises that empower women through crafts and sustainable fashion. I was able to see the work they do, the difference they make to local women and learn about their efforts to protect the environment. It was inspiring to see how those groups of local women artisans create social impact and promote environmental sustainability.
It is important to recall that the 189 countries that unanimously signed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action acknowledged that “The continuing environmental degradation that affects all human lives has often a more direct impact on women.” The world leaders not only recognised women crucial role in sustainable development but also pledged to ensure women to participate in environmental decision-making at all levels, to take measures to reduce women’s risks from environmental hazards as well as to take measures to empower women as producers and consumers so that they can take effective environmental actions not only in their homes but also communities and workplaces. Yet, twenty six years later, gender inequality remains embedded in cultures, economies, political and social systems, around the world and women continue to be more vulnerable to environmental degradation and disproportionality affected by climate change.
Research shows us that gender equality and women’s empowerment are crucial to sustainable development. In fact, evidence reveals that there are strong interconnections between environmental sustainability, gender equality and women’s empowerment. Empowered women are more likely to become change-makers and active agents of conservation and restoration of natural resources. It was these issues, along with my personal experiences with female entrepreneurs in Uganda, that inspired me to start Seeds and Stories.
How is this project community led?
The main beneficiaries of our project are women living in Bigodi and surrounding areas of Western Uganda. We have collaborated with the Bigodi Women’s Group to distribute a survey to local women regarding their interests, challenges and aspirations. We received completed questionnaires from 35 respondents that helped us shape the idea of our social enterprise. Our respondents identified an interest in vocational training on sustainable methods such as upcycling, repairing and making clothing, and skill sharing opportunities.
Moving forward, we will create a vocational training centre where women can learn and share skills and techniques to make zero waste garments and accessories. The curriculum for this centre will be created in consultation with the local community, focusing on subjects that the women would like to learn and teach.
There is already a group of women that are developing ideas on how they could repurpose their basket weaving skills to make new products and upcycle their clothing. We think that the creativity and skill of these women is essential to the development of in-demand and scalable goods as we start production at a later phase.
As an organization, how can you promote social well-being for your female artisans?
We aim to tackle barriers to work and will offer flexible working hours, possibilities to work at home and will provide for childcare facilities.
We also hope to expand the preexisting social impact models created by our partner organizations, KAFRED and the Bigodi’s Women Group, by providing additional financial support for services that would increase the quality of life in Bigodi.
If you are interested in learning more about Seeds & Stories Uganda and how you can get involved, please contact Margarida at email@example.com or Kyla at firstname.lastname@example.org.