How A Former Journalist Is Changing The Face Of Manufacturing In Uganda


Image: Olivia Knox

This post was written by guest columnist, Shanley Knox, co-founder of the manufacturing social enterprise Olivia Knox. Her previous experience includes three years of reporting on international issues in Washington DC, Los Angeles and New York. Shanley currently splits here time between New York City and Uganda. You can follow her on Twitter @shanleyknox

At 20, I was certain of my calling. I was meant to be a writer. That was just before my third trip to Uganda. It was before I realized that I couldn’t be unbiased about the stories I was going to experience. It was before I discovered that my lack of bias would drive everything: that soon, I would use my storytelling skills to change local industries, instead of the way people perceived them from overseas. 

Three months later, working in a slum outside Kampala, I stopped believing that my calling was to craft a congruent narrative of local human rights issues. Instead, I began to work backwards, explaining western markets and mindsets to local communities. And, it was there that I discovered my true path.

It’s been five years since that dusty summer in Kampala. Now, I'm 25, and running a manufacturing company with the strong belief that an industry cluster of best practices and shared knowledge could change the lives of dozens of women who are important to me. My goal is to disrupt an industry traditionally run by men twice my age. 

My company, Olivia Knox, is a social enterprise based in Uganda’s capital city. There, my partner and I re-purpose horn set aside as a by-product of local markets. Known for its wide range of color, diverse capabilities, and durability, Ankole horn is an ethical alternative to other types of horn in luxury markets. 

We say that Olivia Knox is changing the face of manufacturing. What we mean by that is that we’re teaching women the skills to do jobs traditionally done by men. If you give a woman a wage, she invests 90% of it into her family. A man, in contrast, will only invest 30-40%. By giving women a living wage, we believe we are creating opportunity for the next generation. 

My facility used to be used for coffee. Today, we’ve partitioned it into sections where raw pieces of horn can be transformed into luxury items. Within that process, we needed to work with local experts to determine how to best build the supply chain. The key? To get them to slow down and communicate each step of the process to the women we work with. We’re also establishing safety standards and our own methods for monitoring working conditions and treatment of our employees. We’re working in an area of the world where safety standards and laws for working conditions are shaky, at best. And, if we are to effectively change a market, we don’t just need the people with the right information. We need to break down international standards of safety and fair treatment into everyday processes. That’s my job. That’s how I tell a story now: breaking down the abstract reality, “people need to be safe,” into specific practices and guidelines. 

I’ve found that the common thread running through my business, and socially responsible manufacturing as a whole, is exactly that: the ability to learn the right information, and to share it effectively across different backgrounds, cultures and languages. 

When it comes to bringing women into industries they were traditionally locked out of, strong communication is perhaps the most important part of restructuring. How do you communicate the facts and figures behind a reality, and make people understand the human element - not just for some abstract people group in another world, but for themselves? 

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