By Leonie Reuvers – A big inspiration for me is my friend Stella. We know each other from law school, but after college Stella chose a very different and (I might add) braver path then most of us. She founded 22Stars, a socially minded business that designs, markets and sells jewellery that is handmade from recycled paper by women living in the Acholi Quarter of Kampala, Uganda. She, for me, is the living proof that if you really believe in something you can make it happen.
Get to know Stella and the extraordinary jewellery she sells and be amazed and inspired by her story.
– Who’s talking?
Stella is a German/Italian descent. At the age of six she came to The Netherlands. Following the footsteps of her parents she leads a very active life and travels all over the world. She studied Public International Law in Leiden and obtained a second Master’s degree from the European Inter University Centre in Human Rights and Democratisation. During her studies she learned that the best way to help people out of poverty is by making sure that they can provide for themselves.
Stella’s passion and interest for Uganda started when she wrote her thesis about girl child soldiers within the Lord Resistance Army and visited the country in 2009 to volunteer at an Aids Information Center and do research for my thesis. This was when she also met her designers in Uganda for the first time.
– From law-student to socially minded entrepeneur; what’s your story founding 22Stars?
During a church service I met Pastor David Wafula who introduced me to the women living in the Acholi Quarter of Kampala. This is a camp for internally displaced persons who fled from the war in Northern Uganda many years ago. Impressed by the artistic skills of the ladies to make beautiful jewellery out of recycled paper and fascinated by their stories, I decided I wanted to help them design, market and sell their products on the international market.
At first I bought many necklaces as presents for my friends. Then I started taking pictures, wrote stories and began designing new pieces. And then things went fast. More and more people started asking me if I sold the necklaces and if they could also order some. So I didn’t hesitate and developed a concept for a socially minded business for the jewellery. 22STARS was born! And when I formally founded 22Stars in the Netherlands, I travelled back to Uganda to meet up with David Wafula and select the first group of designers to concrete all the plans.
In 2013 the first two collections were launched: Rising Star and Born as a Star. And in 2014 we launched Stardust and Stargaze. All collections have a specific theme and thoughts behind it. With our collections we want you to follow your heart and reach for the Stars!
– 22Stars; how does it work?
With 22Stars I sell the jewellery that our designers in Uganda make. Most of the jewellery I design myself. These designs are send to Pastor David who takes them to our team manager Susan (or when I am in Kampala I explain them directly to her). Next Susan goes to the centre to buy the recycled paper and other material which is necessary for my order. She needs to measure every single bead, cut them, roll them, varnish them. In total there are 26 steps to be taken before the jewellery is ready…..!
When the designs are ready my volunteers in Uganda collect them and ship them to The Netherlands. Then I arrange the photoshoots. I take most pictures myself and do the photo-editing. I take care of the copy writing, I maintain the web shop and, most importantly, I do the sales. Since I travel a lot I have ambassadors in The Netherlands who pack and ship my jewellery and send it to the clients. All the other things I can do myself on my laptop and anywhere I want. For example in South Africa where I live right now.
But the most important thing is what we get going for our designers in Uganda. By giving them a plan to market and sell their products internationally through 22Stars they are able to earn an income to provide their families with housing, food, medicine and education. And in addition to really empower people to provide for themselves they need more than just an income. Therefore we use part of our net profit to finance our 22STARS projects, educating our designers and their children. They receive English lessons, learn about Income Generating Activities (IGA), get social support, health education and music, dance and drama classes. But, in my opinion, the psychological support we give the women is even more important then teaching them how to make new designs or English. We got a lot of positive feedback from our designers, saying that creating and selling the jewellery restores their dignity.
– Your designs are made by war-victimized women in Uganda; what’s their story?
All our designers had to overcome many challenges in their life. They fled during the war in North Uganda, lost many family members, gave birth to their children at a very young age, had little to no education and most of them are HIV positive.
They all live in the Acholi Quarter, a former refugee camp but know regarded more as a neighborhood. There are shops, barbershops, cafés and bars. But the district is overcrowded and occasionally cholera epidemics break out. There are neglected children walking around and there is a lot of drunkenness. And just as in most slums sanitary facilities are completely inadequate, people suffer psychological traumas, there is a lack of education, a lot of people suffer from HIV and aids, there is no infrastructure, and the streets are littered with waste. Most of the houses are no more than hovels. Only 1 in 4000 houses have electricity and even less have running water. When it rains the whole area turns into a big mess because of its location on a hill, where the water keeps running down.
Because of the lack of opportunities a lot of women are forced to earn their living breaking rocks under very bad working conditions. Their daily wage is the equivalence of about 75 cents. They don’t earn enough to pay for health insurance, education or to save up for the future. They hardly earn enough to pay for their basic necessities such as food and shelter. It is virtually impossible to escape this poverty, with their biggest concern that without education their children await the same fate.
But despite all of these circumstances and all the suffering they had to take, all the women are full of life and have lots of hope! Their support and help for each other masks their terrible past. They form an incredible source of creativity, energy and positive power producing these wonderful pieces of jewellery. They are truly inspiring for anyone who wants to reach for the stars!
– Selling jewellery made by war-victims in Uganda; not an easy job?
Of course it is much more work then I thought it would be at the beginning. Making the jewellery takes a lot of time and our orders are getting bigger and bigger, so that’s why we needed to expand our group to 15 women. Which is of course a good thing, but also challenging.
Also sometimes it is difficult to explain what I mean with my designs, so pieces may look different than I originally intended. But we are working hard to improve the communication. More severe are the problems we face concerning the safety of our designers, as they don’t live in houses with a security guard and fences… And of course their health is a concern; they need to eat very well and also need psychological counselling. It’s challenging to make them see that there is still a future for them. But so far we are dealing very well with all of these issues. Our 22STARS volunteers David, Moses and Aidah (our social workers) are doing an amazing job in helping those ladies!
And of course there are always logistic things that often don’t go easy. But I love what I am doing and I love to see the impact I make.
– What are your greatest achievement so far?
First, and most important to me, is that we help to empower the designers. The impact we have on their lives is the biggest achievement for us.
Of course we need keep selling (more) jewellery to be able to help the designers. So being present at the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven was a great achievement for us. And a big step forward is that we now sell a lot of our jewellery across the Ocean in the USA and partnered up with some other nice organizations like http://unlockhope.com/.
– What are you dreams for 22Stars?
My dream is that we will sell worldwide so many jewellery, that we can open an own office in Kampala and be able to empower more women and their families.
– Where can we find 22Stars?
You can find us online in various webshops, but I can recommend you to go to the official website www.22STARS.com where you can find our entire collection. There you will also find an updated list of markets and stores we sell at.
– For the readers that aren’t convinced yet, why do we want your beautiful jewellery?
The jewellery vary from earrings to necklaces, for him, her and (recently) the kids. 22STARS places utmost importance on high quality. Our jewellery is super light in weight, waterproof and comfortable to wear. It is inspired by the latest fashion trends as picked up by early birds bloggers and it-girls. Above all we care that all 22STARS items are fabricated in a socially responsible manner that is friendly to the environment.
For all the parents; last year I introduced jewellery for kids at the markets I was selling. It was a big hit! So in the spring of 2015 I will launch an online kids collection for the little girls and boys age 5 to 12. Teaching kids the story behind the products they wear -how it is made, where it comes from and its impact – cannot start early enough.