In the local Ugandan dialect, Akola means simply “she works.” Yet, for many Ugandan women and their families, it represents much more.
Akola Project began in 2007 with the mission to empower women in poverty to transform the well-being of their families and communities through economic development. Since its start, Akola has helped create economic stability for 400 women and over 3,000 dependents in their care.
This impact is possible because of a young woman’s willingness to pivot her method of achieving her calling. In 2004, Brittany Merrill Underwood, Akola’s founder, was moved to compassion after meeting Sarah, a Ugandan woman caring for 24 street children in her home. Believing that residential care would ease the burden of Sarah and other women like her, Brittany founded an organization to build an orphanage, and in 2006, construction began. However, in 2007, while the orphanage was still being built, Brittany discovered that residential care was neither an effective nor needed response for the orphans and vulnerable children living in the rural villages.*
A more sustainable, effective option for these children was revealed in the already-established families found in the local community. Just like Sarah, many women were caring for orphans in their homes alongside their own children. It became evident that the children were not in need of another home; rather, their mothers were in need of a way to support them. Instead of easing their burden by removing the children and placing them in an orphanage, the decision was made to support the women through economic empowerment, allowing children to grow up in their families and communities.
Once the decision was made to transition away from the orphanage model and toward family-based care, Brittany approached local church and community leaders to help identify women with the least amount of material and relational support and the greatest number of dependents. The project began with a small group of women who were offered vocational training and employment. The women chose the name “Akola,” representing their belief that dignified work is a gift from God and one of their greatest blessings. From this small group of women, Akola Project was born.
Today, hundreds of women have received training in creating products such as high-end jewelry and accessories that are sold through the Akola website and in the global marketplace, resulting in living wages and the ability to support their children. The success of the project is due to the Akola model, which consists of six phases, beginning with community infrastructure and ending with lasting sustainability. Digging wells, building vocational centers, and providing the infrastructure needed for economic opportunity allows Akola’s impact to reach beyond the women in the project and out to their communities. The vocational centers provide the necessary space for the next four phases of the model to take place: vocational training, creation of fashionable products, dependable employment, and the Akola Academy, which includes six holistic programs for the women and their dependents. Combined, these four phases lead to lasting sustainability for families and their communities, completing the model.
Akola’s goal of sustainability through economic empowerment is being achieved in the lives of the women involved in the project. Included are the 63 women who have launched their own local businesses, strengthening the economic structure of their communities.
Namakose Tito Tappy is an example of one woman whose involvement with Akola has dramatically changed her family’s reality. Before working at Akola Project, Tappy did not have an income. She could not afford to support herself or her four children.
Tappy started part-time with Akola Project and was able to send her children to school with the income she earned. She purchased food and other necessities and was able to start a budget for her family and save for emergencies. Tappy’s family saw significant improvements in their lifestyle with her Akola work, but Tappy wanted to earn even more income to send her children to university one day.
So Tappy began to pray. She prayed that the Akola business would pick up so she could be hired full-time. One month later, Akola product sales had increased so significantly that Tappy and her entire Akola village group of 20 women were promoted to full-time salary on Akola’s product assembly team.
Now as a full-time salary earner, Tappy has been able to purchase mattresses and bed sheets for her family. She bought a bicycle to reduce the time her family spent fetching water and food. Her children are in secondary school, and she is confident they will go on to university. Tappy is participating in her Akola facilitated savings and loan association and has a goal of starting her own shop in the future.
For most women living in rural poverty, a future like Tappy’s is a rare luxury, but because of Akola, it is becoming a reality for women just like her. Akola is committed to supporting Tappy and the many other women in the project in lifting their families out of poverty. A key piece of the success of Akola and its model relies on individuals in the developed world purchasing the jewelry and accessories crafted by the women in the project. For individuals passionate about caring for orphans and widows as prescribed in James 1:27, purchasing an Akola product allows them to play a significant role in supporting widows to provide for their children, and as a result, creating a lasting impact in families and communities throughout Uganda.
This impact is a testament to one young woman’s willingness to pivot her approach without losing her passion for caring for orphans and vulnerable children. Akola Project’s commitment to implementing family-based care, grounded in best practices, has resulted in the economic empowerment of over 400 women and the preservation of their families throughout Uganda. You can learn more about Akola Project and other organizations that have transitioned to family-based care through the webinar and case study developed by CAFO in conjunction with the Faith to Action Initiative.
*More in-depth information on the limitations of orphanages and the benefits of family care can be found in Faith to Action’s resource Children, Orphanages, and Families: A Summary of Research to Help Guide Faith-Based Action.