Generation E: Brittany Merrill Underwood and the Akola Project
A series featuring young entrepreneurs and the faith that pushes them forward
"My journey began with a 10-minute meeting in a slum on the outskirts of Uganda's capital city Kampala," says Brittany Merrill Underwood, founder of Akola Project. There she met Sarah, a Ugandan woman who had taken in 24 street kids and made deep sacrifices to provide for them from her limited means.
Though Merrill Underwood was only 19 at the time, Sarah's example rocked her so deeply that it spurred her to action. She began raising money in the U.S. to build an orphanage for the children Sarah cared for and others like them, and eventually raised a million dollars to build an orphanage that would serve and house 200 children.
Around the same time, Merrill Underwood was traveling to the Ugandan countryside to help drill wells in remote villages without access to clean water. She was amazed to discover that many Ugandan women in these villages were caring for 10 or more children in their own homes. Soon, she realized that supporting local women and providing them access to a reliable income actually resulted in Ugandan children being cared for without needing to build new orphanages.
Out of this realization, Akola Project was born: a company that sells jewelry and accessories handmade by Ugandan artisans to Western customers through retailers located in the U.S. While at face value it may seem like one among many such businesses, its goal—to uplift women and children out of extreme poverty—is one the Akola model addresses in such a radically comprehensive way that it blows other fashion-based social enterprises out of the water. Rather than getting money into the hands of under-resourced women and stopping at that, Akola's model takes a holistic approach that benefits women, the children they care for and the wider communities in which they live in a sustainable way.
Akola Project starts by investing in the infrastructure of the villages they hope to reach, building roads, drilling wells, and constructing vocational centers at sites in Eastern and Northern Uganda. Working with local church and community leaders, Akola identifies and recruits marginalized village women who have little support and many dependents, and gives them basic training. Beginning with simple arithmetic and progressing to leadership training, financial literacy, and goal setting, Akola seeks to fill in educational gaps that keep women from becoming independent and sustainably employed.
Akola Project also partners with local health providers to support AIDS testing, tuberculosis education, family planning resources, and more. Though Akola bridges many gaps with the secular workforce, it unashamedly seeks to provide for spiritual needs as well as physical ones. To this end, Akola's programs also include ministries focusing on the study of Scripture and community fellowship groups.
Though the company is still young, the impact of these comprehensive programs is already tangible. At last count, 63 women had put their newly acquired knowledge about financial planning to work on their incomes from Akola, and have started small businesses in their villages from their own savings.
Recognizing that there's plenty of need right here in the U.S., Akola Project has also recently begun partnering with a Dallas-based organization to provide training and employment to women who have been trafficked for sex. These women are employed as a part of Akola's American operations in Texas.
Though Akola Project is technically a nonprofit organization, Merrill Underwood was clear from the start that she didn't want Akola jewelry to function as "charity purchases." The products, which are retailed in over 350 stores nationwide and are set to launch in Dillard's department stores this year, seem to live up to these standards—they've been featured on everything from Katie Couric to CNN.
Even more than the media attention they've received, though, Merrill Underwood is proud of the ownership and initiative taken by Akola women.
"The women are involved in the entire process," she noted in an interview with Katie Couric. "It's just this amazing global model that will empower women so they can support their families and communities."
Whitney Bauck is a photographer and art student whose passion is to help Christians engage the fashion world in an intellectually and spiritually robust manner. She blogs regularly about the intersection of fashion and faith at Unwrinkling.com.