Seeds & Stories empowers women artisans in rural Uganda
Social enterprise entrepreneur Margarida Vasconcelos co-founded Seeds & Stories, a non-profit that empowers women in rural Uganda. After working in law for many years, Margarida followed her passion for social justice and began a second career. In her interview, the creative entrepreneur shared what led her to Seeds & Stories. Located in rural Bigodi, Uganda, the organization helps artisans earn from their handiwork through circular fashion and capacity-building programs.
Being kind to the earth is one of the organization’s core values. “Seeds & Stories artisanal products are made from a combination of local natural fibers and natural dyes, repurposed materials, modern designs, and traditional techniques passed down through generations, including basket and mat weaving. Artisans are encouraged to express their creativity and use traditional crafts to create our unique, soil-to-soil fashion items,” Margarida told us.
To illustrate their commitment to the environment, Margarida shared an interesting fact. “Seeds & Stories does not buy lining fabrics for our handbags but second-hand cotton sheets and curtains. In this way, we keep them in circulation for longer, and the environmental costs of their disposal in landfills are avoided.” How cool is that? Keep reading to learn more about Seeds & Stories.
What inspired you to start Seeds & Stories?
To cut a long story short, through my travels, I visited several women’s groups, social enterprises, and community projects. I learned about the difference they were making to local women, even with limited resources. I spent some time in Bigodi in 2018 and fell in love with the village and its people. I met a local artisan, Stella, who showed me basket-weaving techniques and shared her knowledge of local natural dyes. During this time, I also learned about the economic, social, and environmental issues women in Bigodi face.
Two years later, the idea for Seeds & Stories started developing. The time had come to change my career and life, follow my passions, and focus on what matters to me. I approached John Tinka, the founder of The Kibale Association For Rural and Environmental Development (KAFRED) and Betty Tinka, the chairwoman of Bigodi Women’s Group, who loved the idea of a women’s social enterprise in Bigodi.
They surveyed local women, and they identified a lack of sustainable income as their biggest challenge and demonstrated their strong interest in being involved in a new income-generating project. Seeds & Stories was officially launched in September 2021, when our constitution was unanimously approved and we registered as a community-based organization. Stella is now the chairperson of Seeds & Stories’ women’s group.
Seeds & Stories enables me to move my values forward; it combines my passion for women’s empowerment, craft making, and regenerative fashion. It allows me to make a real difference for women in rural Uganda, contributing to gender equality, social justice, climate justice, and environmental regeneration.
What motivates your work?
Seeds & Stories is motivated by economic, social, and environmental issues that currently exist in Bigodi, namely, no economic opportunities for women, low income, and environmental degradation.
We aim to address these issues through a regenerative design lens, implementing nature and community-based solutions. We are embracing the cultural and ecological uniqueness of Bigodi, recognizing its distinctive local culture, traditions and landscapes.
Bigodi is very rich in natural fibers and dye plants. The local women are experienced basket and mat weavers. So, we thought of using local raw materials, sustainably harvested indigenous natural fibers, and natural dyes. This empowers local women artisans to use their skills and techniques passed down through generations, such as basket and mat weaving, to create our beautiful, unique fashion items.
Seeds & Stories’ stylish and timeless handbags and shoes create social, economic, and learning opportunities for women in rural Uganda—representing the conservation of natural resources and environmental protection while promoting traditional crafts and cultural heritage.
How do you define success for your organization?
Seeds & Stories is a non-profit social enterprise. This means that any surplus is reinvested into social and environmental community projects. We are just starting, but I hope we will be financially sustainable within the next two or three years, so we can pay living wages to all our artisans and team, cover all our costs, and fund our social and environmental programs without continued reliance on donors and grants.
Success for Seeds & Stories is to sustain the project through sales of our products and have a variety of clients that love our products, value what we do, and are proud to be part of the solution and, therefore, willing to pay a fair price.
Where do you find inspiration?
Rebecca Burgess’s book, “Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy,” had a massive impact on me and greatly inspired Seeds & Stories. I became fascinated by the regenerative movement and wanted to learn more about how we can make the world better by applying nature-based solutions. It is very inspiring and empowering to see women coming together, supporting each other, standing up for their rights, and making positive changes in their communities. Daily, I find great inspiration in nature, color and textures, traditional crafts, vintage pieces, and botanical books.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I have a law degree and a master’s in European Law, and I worked for 14 years in Westminster, London as a political/legal researcher.
As creatives, we can be continuously creating and refining our art. How do you handle perfectionism?
I embrace the beautiful imperfections of handmade work.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to begin selling their art or creative product?
Stay faithful to your values. Be clear about your purpose and draw a line. Start small, step by step. Tell your story and engage as much as possible with customers and other artists, makers, and artisans. Meaningful connections and partnerships are fundamental for a business to grow. Besides, we can learn a lot by engaging in meaningful conversations and sharing with others.
What’s something that surprised you about running a creative business?
You can be as creative and resourceful as you want by just using what is locally available.
Running a business brings joys and challenges. What advice would you give to someone about handling the highs and lows?
Seeds & Stories has been a long and challenging but super rewarding journey. Social entrepreneurship is new to me, and I learn something new every day. My advice is to celebrate every single success, even if it is small; this keeps us going and motivated to move forward. Be proud of yourself and those who work with you for everything you achieve. Every step back is a learning opportunity. Learn from what went wrong and make it better next time. Stay focused and positive.
Has someone ever criticized your work? How did you handle it?
I always welcome constructive criticism and try to learn and improve my work from it.
In addition to Seeds & Stories, name a cause you are passionate about and why?
I am passionate about women’s empowerment and have been campaigning for women’s rights, gender equality, and social justice since an early age. There are many women’s rights and women empowerment organizations that I support, and they also inspired me to launch Seeds & Stories. Please visit www.unwomen.org/en and www.globalfundforwomen.org/.
And, of course, we have to ask you this—what brings you joy?
Seeing the smile on my group of women’s faces every time they learn something new or nail a new skill brings me joy. Developing a product with these women brings me joy. Making my own clothes and experimenting with natural dyes and eco-printing bring me joy; any creative process brings me joy. Traveling, being surrounded by nature, and experiencing different cultures bring me joy. My lovely cat, Blossom, brings me joy.
Thanks, Margarida! You can learn more about the social enterprise entrepreneur and Seeds & Stories at www.seedsandstories.org.
This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Like this story? Also checkout our story on the Luangisa African Gallery, which sells goods made by African artisans.