It started with one woman. One sewing machine. One story.
Halle Butvin, Founder and Director of One Mango Tree, was strolling through the central market in Gulu, Uganda, when she met Auma Lucy. Auma was alone in her market stall, just her and her sewing machine. Halle and Auma struck up a conversation, which developed into a friendship, which developed into a partnership. What Halle learned about Auma was that she was like so many other women in Uganda: abandoned by her husband, and left with several children to care for. Not only did Auma have to provide for her children, but she was also caring for 11 nieces and nephews that had been orphaned, through both the war and AIDS. Halle found a way to make a difference for Auma and women like her: One Mango Tree.
In deciding to start One Mango Tree, Halle had to decide on an economic model for her organization, and jump through all the loops that are involved in starting a business in a developing country. In deciding on a for-profit model vs. a non-profit model, Halle says that she “really felt that the products needed to sell themselves.” In essence, in order to create something that was going to be sustainable over time and have long term efficacy, it had to stand on its own, without the need to seek donations in order to stay open.
Making that decision was only the first hurdle, however. Just some of the challenges Halle had to overcome in getting One Mango Tree started in Gulu: registering, getting tax ID numbers, getting export licenses, navigating trade policy to determine tariffs, finding reliable shippers, etc. If these things would be difficult to do in the US, imagine doing them in a different country! However, Halle says the biggest challenge is working on their supply chain: the demand for their products is there, but the supply is often lower than demand due to lack of reliability within the textile industry, price fluctuations, and just generally a lack of available fabric.
The good news: this hasn’t kept Halle and One Mango Tree from growing and doing what they meant to do. Through the making and selling of their products, One Mango Tree has changed hundreds of lives by creating sustainable incomes for women, who can feed their families, send their children to school, and even start saving money to expand their business.
One Mango Tree also takes part in what they call “holistic community improvements.” I mentioned this “holistic” approach when I wrote about Corazon: you’re not just building houses, or selling products, you’re actually going beyond that to see what the needs of the community are: education, access to transportation, food, etc. One Mango Tree does this by providing bicycles for their staff, serving hot lunches for staff and their children everyday, providing on-site daycare for infants and toddlers. Such a brilliant concept: you’re taking care of everything that might keep a woman from coming to work: you provide her the means to get there, you provide care for her children so she doesn’t have to worry about them, you provide her and her children with food so they can be healthy and productive. LOVE IT.
Part of this holistic approach also involves training and community development that helps bring women together: some women who were victims of the war, and others who were perpetrators during the war. It also involves the Village Savings and Loan Association, which is completely run by the women in the program. Basically, the VSLA provides financial literacy trainings to teach women how to save, why to save, how to create a budget, etc., and provides them with a savings account. This is immensely important for women who have never had more than a day’s worth of food. The concept of saving for the future is probably something that is difficult for them to grasp, especially when faced with the challenge of daily survival.
Halle and One Mango Tree have not only been successful in setting these programs up, but they’ve actually been able to scale up their productions by building a relationship with Global Girlfriend. This relationship allowed One Mango Tree to bring their products in to retailers such as Whole Foods and Target. Yep, the organization that started with one women now sells their stuff at TARGET! Pretty incredible.
Although Halle believes that their relationship with Global Girlfriend is one of their major accomplishments, I think it’s the fact that this enterprise is run almost exclusively by local community members, not international employees. During my last trip to Haiti with All Hands Volunteers, the organization was talking about decreasing the number of international volunteers, and scaling up the number of local volunteers. I think this is extremely important. The purpose of organizations such as these is not to spoon feed individuals, but to give them the skills and experience necessary to take the reigns and take control themselves. Out of 58 staff in Gulu and Kampala, 54 of them are Ugandan women, two are Sri Lakan men who run the apparel workshop, and two are American interns. Those are impressive numbers.
So, what do these women actually make? Here are some images of the products sold by One Tree Mango (they’re actually having a great sale right now…you should check it out!).
(Yes, I want each of these…)
A huge thank you to Halle Butvin for her time in answering all my questions, and congratulations on the amazing work you’ve accomplished so far, and are yet to accomplish!
I’ll leave you all with some words from Halle:
“While I started OMT with the mission to give to others, I never expected to receive so much – I have learned so much about myself through the business, and every day I get to wake up and do what I love – design products, tell stories, and work with all of these strong, beautiful and amazing women in Uganda. There are certainly setbacks, but the reward of building something like this – two workshops, fifty staff who have lifted themselves out of poverty, a beautiful product line and a long list of happy customers in the US – I could not ask for more.” –Halle Butvin