Empowerment. Ubuntu in Action.

When we first came to Maai Mahiu, we found a community of children with special needs and their mothers being mistreated and secluded. The stigma and lack of understanding surrounding special needs in Kenya means extremely limited access to essential services such as education, affordable healthcare, physical rehabilitation, and vocational training. This leads to limited opportunities for social inclusion, many social and economic issues for their families, and ultimately limits their ability to live the life of dignity that they deserve.

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Ubuntu first created the Ubuntu Special Needs Centre (SNC) to combat this stigma and injustice by providing therapy, education, and vocational training to youth with special needs in Maai Mahiu. Caring for these children had been a full-time job for their mothers, so soon after enrolling their children in the SNC their Mums started a new conversation with the founders: “Now that our kids are out of the house, can you help us do something productive with our time?”

 

The answer was a fashion line, initially imagined to create jobs for these Mums. Today, those same women have formed into a sisterhood revered in the community: women who provide for their families, purchase land, and venture into their own successful entrepreneurial efforts. Which is why it’s not simply about creating jobs.

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“Plenty of people have been given opportunity, but they don’t feel empowered,” explains Zane Wilemon. “There’s something magical about our culture and creating a job within that; it then empowers the whole community.”

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At Ubuntu, empowerment means more than providing handouts or even a sustainable job. It means offering people a chance to create their own lives and livelihood. Ubuntu Made pays above-market wages to all of our employees - up to 4 times as much as they would have been able to find elsewhere in the community. We also provide health insurance to all our employees and their families, a rarity in Kenya where less than 20% have access.

The job skills our Mums learn and the money they earn empower them to buy homes – more than half of Ubuntu employees are homeowners compared to 1% nationwide. They are able to provide for their families, and sometimes start their own enterprises. They earn more than money; they earn respect in their community. Together, by providing disabled children with the healthcare and education they need, we empower them to realize their fullest potential.

That’s empowerment. That’s Ubuntu in action.

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Thank You: A 15 Year Reflection from Zane

15 years!  I can't believe we've been doing this for 15 years!  2017 marked Ubuntu's 15th Anniversary and what a tremendous growth year it was.  When I look back on the past 15 years it's interesting to notice that each 5th year marks a turning point for the company:

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  • 2002 -> 2007: The years of discovering our "mile deep & inch wide approach" and establishing that we will be a company built on interconnected relationships starting with my friendship with Co-Founder, Jeremiah Kuria.

  • 2008 -> 2012:  When everything changed & we discovered the power of incorporating business into our non-profit model.  These are the years I refer to as, "I was out fishing for trout when we caught a whale" through our partnership with Whole Foods Market.  Seeing the power that is created for the women and men we serve in Kenya through a meaningful job became clear during these 5 years and we realized we must figure out how to continue developing this part of the company at a larger scale.

  • 2013 -> 2017: The years of restructuring and rebranding in order to establish ourselves as a brand not just for the next 15 years, but for the next 100 years. These past 5 years have been the most difficult. It's fun to grow, but at some point there's a need to slow down so that you can speed up.  Those have been the past five years, slowing down, really connecting and fine tuning the make up of our teams in the US and in Kenya, re-defining our company culture, mission and vision so that everyone is aligned to build a brand that is positioned to be the most iconic brand coming out of Africa.

 

A 15 year journey, each year unfolding new opportunities and challenges, all providing clarity over time on the type of company we are becoming one product, one community, one person at a time.  2017 in particular represents that last key restructure to both our staff and board of directors, adding key members to our team that are providing business knowledge and wisdom to help us maximize our potential to harness the power of capitalism and create more meaningful jobs and grow profits.  At the same time we made significant strides with our Ubuntu Kids program, hiring staff in Kenya and the US who bring tremendous skills to the table to grow our health and education programs as well as our funding base to support that programatic growth by launching our inner circle of funders known as Tribe 2020 (a 3 year higher tier commitment that will get us to sustainability by the year 2020).  Our advisory board met for the first time to support these efforts and continue the longstanding meaningful work led by both doctors and nurses here in Austin and in Kansas City, returning to Kenya for over 10 years now...amazing!  The last critical hire of 2017, which was something our health and education pioneers have been championing for years was the onboarding of Dr Gaitho, Maai Mahiu's first pediatrician EVER.

With all of this restructuring and progress these past 15 years, it is with tremendous excitement and anticipation that we enter a new year, full of potential.  Thanks to all of you who have walked this journey with us.  Here's to a new year and turning the page into another 15 years of healthy, strong growth one step at a time.

Big love,

Zane

Key Moments

As we look forward to some huge projects and announcements on the horizon, we wanted to share a few key moments from the past year. We have laughed, loved, and cried tears of happiness and sorrow over the past year. Our team has evolved both in Kenya and in Texas. Our mission has strengthened and been driven forward more than ever before. Thank you for everyone who has been there for the journey, and we cannot wait to share with you the adventure ahead.

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Day for Persons with Disabilities

Happy #feelgoodfriday! Today we wanted to share about a celebration in our small Kenyan town which brought the community together to commemorate persons with disabilities and embrace the spirit of Ubuntu. More than 200 people marched on the streets from the bustling city center where our special needs school is located to the edge of town where Cafe UBUNTU sits nestled in the Great Rift Valley.

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"It was a truly eye opening experience when people turned up in high numbers at 9:00am at the Ubuntu offices on a Sunday morning. Everyone was so excited and energized - the marching band was ready and testing their instruments and when we began the walk the music filled the air, it was as if the entire Maai-Mahiu town came to life. It was so beautiful how people came out of their houses and shops to watch us. Many children danced to the tunes of the band without a care in the world as we marched past them and their families (this actually brought tears to my eyes).

People held out their hands to pick up the fliers we were handing out and everyone in town read the banner held in front which we boldly held high as the procession grew bigger every step we made. One thing’s for sure, the message got home.

"Today is the International Day for People with Disabilities."

It was humbling to see people who were obviously struggling to walk either by themselves or others carrying heavy children pushing themselves as we inched closer and closer to our destination. But nevertheless there was laughter and excitement - the walk had brought everyone closer. For those few hours, everyone put aside their pain and their struggles - we were connected as humanity, as people. It was beautiful.

As we finally reached Cafe Ubuntu you could feel the pride in everyone’s heart for pushing themselves to participate in something bigger than all of us. We culminated the day with words from Jeremiah Kuria (Ubuntu Co-Founder and Kenya Director), Mr. Kinyanjui (chairman of the Maai-Mahiu group of people with physical challenges) and our local Chief representing the government. Hefty issues affecting people with disabilities were discussed but the day came to a close with the same energy we had at the beginning with everyone visibly satisfied with what they’d done for that day.

It was truly a beautiful day."

- Kelvin Chege, Ubuntu Occupational Therapist

Ubuntu Water Dads: Meet Peter

Ubuntu Made is not the only enterprise that helps to fund the Foundations programs and provides empowered jobs in Maai Mahiu. In 2008 one of Ubuntu's employees in Kenya came up with the idea to start bottling water to provide additional revenue and to gain access to reliable clean water for our programs and families in need. We researched natural source points, piping, purification, and packaging. Then with generous funding from donors across the world, we tapped into a nearby well and Ubuntu Water became a reality and has been steadily growing ever since.

One unexpected benefit of the Ubuntu Water program is that we now not only employ mums at Ubuntu - now we have Ubuntu dads on board!

MEET CALEB'S DAD

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Peter Munyingi is the proud father of 5 children, but as with many in our small rural community, he was struggling to make ends meet and provide even the basic necessities such as food for his family. Through his employment at Ubuntu Water, Peter now has the ability to see his family thrive thanks to a steady income, health care, employee benefits such as financial training, and of course access to clean reliable water.

On top of all of that, Caleb's mother is able to take more dedicated care of his younger siblings because she is not walking to the quarry to look for casual jobs to help her husband make ends meet. This means Caleb is now able to attend school every single day - he is one of our star students with perfect attendance almost every week and has benefited immensely from the additional time with our family of occupational therapists and teachers.

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Ubuntu Water has a positive effect across all of the Ubuntu departments, from creating empowered jobs for community members and parents of our students to providing clean water to our offices and Cafe Ubuntu. Even more critically, this clean, reliable source of water is used at all of the Ubuntu Heal medical camps. It is not a secret that there is a water and sanitation crisis in Kenya. More than half of the population of the entire country relies on unimproved water sources, and even more use unimproved sanitation solutions and store water in open barrels, leading to breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes.

At Ubuntu our hearts are always full, empowered by the strength of our community and the generosity of those who not only understand our vision of committing to this community in an 'inch wide, mile deep' approach but who invest in it and allow us to provide sustainable, scalable growth of our programs and our impact. Caleb's father is a great example of why Ubuntu Water is not just a water bottling enterprise - it empowers the community to thrive, provides the lifeblood of health in our pediatric programs which effect over 300 special needs children and their families, and creates meaningful jobs. Thank you to everyone who has helped make this idea a reality - we cannot wait to share with you as we grow the enterprise and our impact.

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