By Laura Gossman

Editor’s Note: Brittany Merrill-Underwood, Founder and President of Akola Project, graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2013 with a degree in Intercultural Studies. In a recent interview with Brittany about how this organization started, she shared the many obstacles along the way, and how this completely reshaped the model of addressing the needs of orphans in the war-torn country of Uganda. Today, the Akola Project’s mission is to empower marginalized women to transform the spiritual and physical livelihoods of the their families and communities.

Brittany’s initial vision for starting this enterprise began when she was only nineteen. While at Southern Methodist University, she spent the summer of 2004 teaching in a boarding school, and was impacted by the faith and dedication of local women who sought to transform their communities and the plight of orphaned children. She was deeply moved by one particular Ugandan woman, Sarah, who struggled to care for 24 children that slept on her floor. In 2006, Brittany moved to Uganda and founded the Ugandan American Partnership Organization (UAPO) to realize this dream. She partnered with a Ugandan ministry to build a three-story orphanage with the capacity to house 180 street children. The orphanage project was completed in 2009, and was featured both nationally and internationally on CNN.

Brittany with one of the women's children Vivian.

Brittany with one of the women’s children Vivian.

Brittany, with full disclosure shared, “there have been many obstacles in realizing this dream…so many in fact that it caused us to change our model in 2007, even as the orphanage was being constructed.”

The most significant obstacles included:

1. Model: The orphanage ministry model in Uganda often plucks orphaned children from their surrounding communities, extended family, and tribe and places them into an institutional structure. “Children in Uganda should be tied to their ancestral land, extended family and tribe even if one or both of their parents have passed away,” said Brittany. They knew that there had to be a better model to care for these kids.

2. “Orphans” with parents: Most of the children that were coming into the orphanage ministry were not true orphans. In Uganda, children are called orphans if their parents cannot take care of them. Therefore, there are many children who have one living parent, or whose parent does not have the resources to care for them. Brittany and her team were discouraged that children were carted off to orphanages just because their parent could not take care of them. They thought a better way must include helping those parents take care of their kids.

3. Cost/Sustainability: The three-story orphanage project turned into a one million dollar project just to construct. UAPO’s job was to build the building and another ministry had agreed to sustain it. They quickly realized that orphanages were a black hole and required more money than could ever be raised to properly sustain.

4. Women’s enormous role: The cultural responsibility for women, especially widows in Uganda, is to provide for their own children, as well as orphaned and disadvantaged children in the tribe and community. Brittany reflected, “we realized that we were stripping women of their proper role when we went around them and put the children in their community into an orphanage home.”

5. Corruption/Accountability: The ‘orphanage business’ in Uganda is very corrupt and it is hard to keep partners fully accountable. It seemed that the funds never fully made it to the kids in the name of ‘overhead.’ Most orphanage ministries that they visited in the country had the same problems unless they were western run and owned. Brittany and her partners did not think it was right to have a western owned and run orphanage in a country that was not western. Brittany concluded, “the right thing to do was to help empower local Ugandans to be able to take care of their own children.” They did this through the orphanage, but the accountability issues made this model less successful than they would have hoped.

By 2007, in response to these many obstacles that challenged their thinking about how to address the orphan problem, they launched the Akola Project (which means to work in the local dialect), a social business within a non-profit framework to improve the physical and spiritual livelihoods of marginalized women, their families and communities. Akola’s model provides training for marginalized women so they can make products designed to sell in U.S. markets. Akola sells the products in the U.S. and returns the money to the women so they can generate a monthly income. The women use the income from Akola Project to send their children to school, provide medical care, and to start other local small businesses.

Brittany working with Akola Project in Northern Uganda weaving bags with the Konyi Kenni Akola group.

Brittany working with Akola Project in Northern Uganda weaving bags with the Konyi Kenni Akola group.

Since its inception, the Akola Project has elevated over 1,400 Ugandan children out of extreme poverty through sustainable means by empowering over 200 women in rural poverty to meet the needs of their families and communities.  These same children could have ended up in an orphanage home, separated from all that was familiar to them. Instead, women are able to generate enough money, through Akola, to care for the orphaned and disadvantaged children in their homes, through a model that is sustainable and honest.

During Brittany’s time as a student at Fuller, she was able to fine-tune the model even further, particularly during her classes with Dr. Bryant Myers. The model is so good that they were approached last year by the Dallas Women’s Foundation to expand the model to marginalized women and children in Dallas.  Akola Project is responding this year by beginning to provide an economic alternative to sexually trafficked women in this Texan city. Akola will help train and employ these women in industrial sewing, so that they can generate the income they need to get their families back on their feet. Akola has also been asked to globally mentor other women with a similar vision through the Laura Bush Women’s Initiative. “Fuller truly helped me revise the dream,” shared Brittany. Her dream will continue to be nurtured as she was also recently chosen as a 2014 Praxis Fellow where she will be mentored by world class, gospel-minded entrepreneurs.

Brittany with Alice Dramandru, a Ugandan woman who helped start the Akola Project.

Brittany with Alice Dramandru, a Ugandan woman who helped start the Akola Project.

Their long-term vision is to create a global fashion brand that is made by and fully benefits marginalized women. At present, the organization has opened a vocational training center in Northern Uganda to employ and train women displaced by war to grow and spin cotton. They opened a vocational center in Eastern Uganda in 2014 to employ and train women affected by the HIV crisis to weave the cotton yarn made in Northern Uganda into well-designed woven fabric. Their aim is create a global brand that trains, empowers, and employs marginalized women around the world so they can uplift the livelihoods of their families and communities.  To date, the fashionable products made by the women of the Akola Project have been sold in over 250 boutiques throughout the United States and have been featured on the Today Show.

When mission is truly focused on people and the assets that already exist within a community, one can quite possibly expect that initial approaches will need to be let go of for the sake of the mission. Too often, for the sake of being right and proving to the world that a model works, the people we aim to serve suffer. In Brittany’s case, her wisdom stretches beyond her age: she not only embraces the obstacles as a means to re-caste a new vision, but she elevates the strength that already exists in a sea of need – the strength of the Ugandan women.

Brittany with Akola's Jinja Women's Studio group.

Brittany with Akola’s Jinja Women’s Studio group.

Laura Gossman lives in Pasadena, California. She is the Director of Operations at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and a recent new mother to son Benjamin and wife of Adam Gossman. She received her M.A. in Cross Cultural Studies from Fuller in 2006.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.

 

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