Business / Corporate

Startup’s colorful Ugandan bags take off in Japan, lifting the women who make them

by Maya Kaneko

Kyodo

Colorful African-print bags handmade by struggling Ugandan women have attracted fashion-conscious Japanese who are also learning for the first time about the women’s plight — thanks to a scheme by a Japanese social entrepreneur to empower single mothers and former child soldiers in the country.

The bags, made from batik, a fabric commonly seen in Africa, have vivid colors and dynamic designs based on geometric patterns and animal motifs, such as fish and birds. Since sales started in 2015, the bags have flown off the shelves at upscale Japanese department stores and online, welcomed by consumers seeking unique products.

“Our main clients are middle-aged women who are mature consumers and looking for something new. They also sympathize with the stories behind our bag-making,” said Chizu Nakamoto, 33, who founded the bag brand Ricci Everyday and runs the business with Ugandans and her mother, Ritsue.

The brand’s flagship Akello Bag is both colorful and functional as it can be used in four ways — as a tote, handbag, shoulder bag and clutch bag. Its leather handle is hand-stitched by employees at a workshop in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. In the native tongue, akello means “to bring good things.”

Sold for ¥10,000 ($93) in Japan to cover the cost of shipping, tariffs and fees paid to department stores, the bag is less popular with young Japanese, who tend to prefer well-known brands, and appeals more to middle-aged and older customers, Nakamoto said.

“I was instantly attracted to the bag’s colorfulness. I’ll use it for work,” said Yoshie Kondo, 59, who bought one of the Akello bags in mid-April at a Sogo & Seibu Co. department store in the city of Saitama.

The proceeds have helped improve the livelihood of the approximately 20 Ugandan staff, the majority of whom are single mothers. Their monthly salaries range from $120 to $220, depending on each person’s task, but that’s more than twice Uganda’s average wage of $60, according to Nakamoto.

In the East African country, where a two-decade civil war ended with a peace deal in 2006, it is hard for the women to find a stable job and keep their children in school, especially in urban areas where living costs are higher and it is rare to receive support from relatives or neighbors, Nakamoto said.

“Those single mothers had blamed themselves for being poor and had low self-esteem. But now their livelihoods have stabilized with higher incomes and they take pride in themselves,” she said.

For Nakamoto, a former banker who worked in Uganda from 2014 as an aid worker, and her Ugandan business partners, launching the bag business was no easy task because the single mother with whom she started the project had to learn sewing from scratch.

But after skilled artisans joined the team and toiled away on print bag samples on a trial-and-error basis for six months, she eventually saw “a ray of hope.”

“Japanese consumers value the functionality and durability of the products. Ugandan staff can satisfy 60 percent of the level required for bags sold in Japan, and I fill up the remaining 40 percent by pointing out where to fix things,” the entrepreneur said.

To ensure quality, Nakamoto’s 60-year-old mother, co-head of the brand in Japan, double-checks the products before they go on sale. So far, there have been no major issues, said the businesswoman, who travels back and forth between the countries every two months.

In addition to struggling local women, Ricci Everyday has also worked since last August in Uganda’s northern region of Gulu with former child soldiers who returned to their hometowns after being forced to fight by rebels.

Cooperating with the Japanese aid group Terra Renaissance, which supports Ugandans’ reintegration into civil society, Nakamoto offered tailoring training to 19 former child soldiers in their 20s and jointly developed a tote bag bearing bananas images embroidered by machine.

Sales of the tote, priced at ¥5,940, began in earlier this month through Japanese mail-order firm Cataloghouse Ltd.

“Some of those former child soldiers returned home more than 10 years after being kidnapped by the rebels. They are illiterate, suffer from stigma and are often rejected by their own family members so we help them acquire skills to earn a living,” Nakamoto said.

Despite the ending of the civil war in Uganda, rebels have been hiding out in the jungles of neighboring Congo and the Central African Republic, and the returnees are usually those who got injured and surrendered to government forces, she said.

Nakamoto, who had been interested in Africa since she was little, came a step closer to her dream of working on the continent after becoming keenly aware of life’s fragility after the mega-quake and tsunami of March 2011. This experience prompted her to pursue her goal.

Leaving her job at what was then Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, she landed a position at the Sasakawa Africa Association, a Japanese group supporting African farmers.

While working for its Tokyo office, she also did pro bono work for a Japanese startup manufacturing and selling leather bags made from Ethiopian sheep skin and “learned the ABCs of fashion business there,” Nakamoto said.

“As a banker, I sometimes felt it meaningless to only ask the rich to borrow money and being harsh on the poor. As an aid worker, I also witnessed problems such as financial assistance preventing aid recipients from standing on their own feet and a hierarchical relation between donors and recipients,” she said.

“Now that I’m engaged in business, I have a 50-50 relationship with my Ugandan partners. I offer work and they make bags. We depend on each other,” Nakamoto said.

Nakamoto has won several domestic awards for her startup, and was selected as one of 27 global competitors to pitch for a share of this year’s Chivas Venture, $1 million fund set up by Scotch whiskey maker Chivas Brothers, a unit of Pernod Ricard S.A. of France.

Winning funding in a process that culminates in a final pitch in the Netherlands in late May would allow Nakamoto to open a Tokyo showroom for Ricci Everyday where people can learn the stories behind the bags. So far, the products have only been sold at domestic pop-up stores and at permanent outlets in Kampala.

Looking ahead, she hopes to expand to cities in Australia, California and Kenya, as well as Hawaii and London.

“Our bright-colored products do not sell well in the fall-winter season, so it would be reasonable to have sales channels in the Southern Hemisphere or tropical areas,” she said.