Campus News

SoHE class aims to give Kenyan women entrepreneur opportunities

A class from the School of Human Ecology aims to create innovative ways to improve the lives of women in Kenya while also giving them the tools to become self-sustaining entrepreneurs. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

What started as a design assignment in a class in the School of Human Ecology has transformed into a non-profit organization that helps empower women in Kenya.

After a student in one of Lesley Sager’s design classes thought of the idea to created cardboard disaster relief shelters, Sager, now the director for the Design Thinking Initiative in the School of Human Ecology, traveled to Kenya in 2012 — where monsoon season often destroys mud homes — to examine the Kenyans’ living situations.

Now, students in Design Studies 501: Design Thinking-Inspire, Innovate, Implement work to develop ways to improve the lives of Kenyan women in Tharaka Nithi County, Kenya while also helping them become successful entrepreneurs.

According to Sager, once students create their idea, be it a program or product, like a disaster relief shelter, Sager takes a prototype of the idea to Kenya to test it. If a student’s idea is well-received, they will continue to work on the project to fully implement it into the village community.

Last year, Sager tasked one group in her class with creating a light source that could be easily constructed and would cost no more than $2.50.

“The students came up with these battery-operated solar-powered LED light systems, and I tested them in Kenya this past winter break,” Sager said. “They were a huge success. I brought enough to illuminate 40 houses. Those students are coming back with me this winter break to illuminate more homes.”

These innovations are not the only way the students’ work helps benefit the women in the Kenyan community. Sager created a non-profit organization in 2016, Merry-go-Strong, that aims to help women in the community use their artistic skills to become entrepreneurs.

The non-profit organization — which gets its name from a type of community microfinance in which community members each put up a small amount of money which all contributors can borrow from — was created mainly for fundraising purposes, according to Sager.

Women in the farming-based Kenyan community weave baskets and bags called viondo. Sager provides the women with materials to create these products and eventually buys the finished product from the women to sell in the United States. Proceeds from the sales fund successful student projects.

“The [Kenyan] women are becoming entrepreneurs, and they use the money made from selling their bags to send their daughters to school,” Sager said. “Our students are selling the women’s work so that the money goes towards the projects that the students here do.”

Student innovations can also aid in the creation of the bags that generate income for the women. According to Sager, women in the community often farm during the day, leaving no time to create their bags and baskets. With the students’ light innovation, women now have more time to produce their work.

“With the lights — at night — the women can do their baskets, and they are not impacted during the day when they are farming,” Sager said. “Children can do their homework. They can now do things they normally wouldn’t have time to do.”

While the class is listed in the School of Human Ecology, Sager said the class “operates best when it has students from multiple disciplines.” She said that she has taught students ranging from engineers to interior designers and that the more diverse the students are, the “better the design solutions are.”

“The reason for [the improvement] is because all students have an expertise in a different area,” Sager said. “With that expertise and the common goal of solving a similar problem, they can kind of bounce ideas off each other and end up getting much more diverse, innovative design concepts.”

Although not in the class, Bailey Bowe, a junior at UW-Madison, became interested in Merry-go-Strong after attending the study abroad fair last year. Now involved in the marketing and sales of the produced bags, Bowe plans to go to Kenya with Sager this winter break to help develop more ways to improve the Kenyan community.

“[This organization] really opened my eyes to how much we can help them and how important it is to empower these women,” Bowe said. “[The Kenyan women] live in a world where they don’t get much say in their lives, so empowering them through entrepreneurship is so important.”

Merry-go-Strong will be selling the baskets and bags at the Madison Women’s Expo at the Alliant Energy Center Nov. 18 and 19, according to Bowe.

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