YALI fellow Evelyn Zalwango owner of Awaka Furniture poses for a photo.

Eve Zalwango

Zalwango already employed more than 60 people in her custom-made furniture business, but she wants to expand her market and also help survivors of landmine explosions in western Uganda.

Since Uganda won independence in 1962, more than 60 armed conflicts within the country have left thousands of wounded behind. Most of the population is not aware of this legacy because the conflicts mainly occurred in rural regions away from the capital city of Kampala.

Landmine victim in Kasese, Uganda.
Landmine victim on the streets.

Hundreds of landmines laid in western Uganda claimed innocent victims, especially children in small villages. The victims often lost limbs and found it difficult to sustain themselves in a manual labor economy.

Eve Zalwango is a young business woman in Kampala. She studied information technology in college but followed her passion into carpentry, like her grandfather.

"I own Awaka Limited, a furniture making business. We have over 60 employees here, and 30 percent women." Watch Video

Awaka, which means “the essence of home” in her native tongue, has a showroom and an open-air workshop in back.

Woman from Awaka Furniture building a chair.
Man from Awaka Furniture sits by stacks of wood.

Zalwango chose to make mugavu wood Awaka’s specialty, while others had wasted it as charcoal. It’s a hard and heavy wood that “has beautiful grains, and it’s not affected by water.”

Evelyn Zalwango stands next to a basket that made out of banana fibers.

Zalwango made jump ropes out of banana fiber as a kid, so she decided to experiment with the material when she wanted to incorporate weaves into her furniture in 2012. The search led her to the western town of Kasese, where she had a chance meeting with landmine survivor Ahab Asanairi.

Landmine victims make rope out of banana fiber.

“There was a war in western Uganda, but I didn’t know about land mine victims …I was in shock.” Watch Video

Landmine victims make rope out of banana fiber.

War in western Uganda chased Ahab Asanairi and his family from their village in the mountains. Rebels attacked government forces from over the border with Congo, and both sides laid hidden landmines.

After hearing Asanairi's story, Zalwango said she met the group of landmine survivors and was profoundly touched. She offered them the project of weaving banana-fiber ropes so people with limited mobility could support themselves in a place where most work is manual labor.

“After I was the victim of a landmine, I found it very difficult to get money. At least some survivors can earn a living out of this project. When you earn your 10,000 shillings, you can buy some food for the family.” Watch Video

Close up shot of landmine victims make rope out of banana fiber.

Zalwango knew she needed more expertise to build the landmine survivors a nonprofit organization. And while she had studied technology and carpentry, she had essentially learned how to run her furniture business through trial and error. In 2015, she won a Mandela Washington fellowship and came to Notre Dame for six weeks of classes in business and entrepreneurship, the centerpiece of a program known as the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).

"The most amazing part of the classes for me was that I thought I knew everything because I’d been running my business for eight years. Until I went to the classes and realized the way they run their business is completely different.” Watch Video

Evelyn Zalwango presenting.

She said the instruction opened her eyes to new ways to manage cash, financial books, human resources and long-range plans. She particularly recalls a mentor telling her that she needed to develop her personal brand separate from her business.

Man staining a wooden table.

Zalwango started a nonprofit to raise about $150,000 and create a training center in Kasese, where land mine victims and their families can receive job training and medical help. Rope weaving would be only one part. She said her experience in YALI opened her eyes to the possibilities.

"It makes you dream big, because that opportunity gives you that mindset that I can do this, maybe I’ve been dreaming too small." Watch Video

Kagera Safaris

In western Uganda, elephants and lions and more roam the grasslands and rolling hills of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Eve Zalwango called upon a fellow YALI alumna who owns a tour company to arrange a safari.

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