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Baskets Build Schools, Empower Women in West Africa

By Mike Hower

Two of the biggest problems afflicting the people of West Africa is a lack of access to education and employment -- without the former, the latter is difficult to attain. So says Valerie Lemke, Co-Founder of Jjangde, a social enterprise that strives to hit both issues with one... erm... basket, by connecting handmade goods from rural communities in Senegal to global markets, and using the profits to fund schools in the communities where the goods were made.

The company’s curious name is derived from the phrase Wallam e’ jangde, which means “help me learn” in Fulaani, a local Senegalese language.

“I started Jjangde in hopes to change the ‘buy one and give one to a child in need’ model,” said Lemke. “I wanted to create a social enterprise that focused on a hand-up and not a handout. With Jjangde’s full-circle of development, we hope to change this model.”

Nearly half of rural Senegalese children drop out of school before the age of 12, and a mere two percent of girls attend high school, Jjangde says. By providing families with additional income opportunities, the company hopes more children will be free to attend school rather than remain on family farms to help make ends meet. With many villages lacking schools of their own, Jjangde uses 100 percent of its profits to build locally-run schools in the communities where it operates, with the ultimate goal of establishing a culture of formal education the region currently lacks.

“Providing Senegalese children with the opportunity and culture to stay in school remains key to opening up their futures to other avenues and changing the prescribed expectations of low wages for livelihood,” Lemke said.

Sounds good to me. But what makes all of this possible? Baskets.

Senegalese woven baskets are world renowned (and globally coveted), but the local women who produce them rarely receive their fair share of the profits. These women also often are the breadwinners, supporting families of nine or more on a single dollar a day. The Jjangde model disrupts this by guaranteeing women will earn far higher wages and the power to comfortably support their families.

Jjangde says basket weaving is a long-standing tradition in Senegal. The company employs local women who have refined their craft over decades, incorporating local hays and grasses, as well as strips of reclaimed plastic prayer mats for color accents.

“The artistry is instantly recognizable, and each basket is as unique as the woman weaving it,” Lemke added.

Building a culture of formal education begins with women, Jjangde says. The company has an agreement with all of its artists that they will keep their children in school as long as they are employed by the Jjangde cycle. Profits from the baskets also can fund full-time schooling for over 100 children for an entire year.

With a test run of baskets, Jjangde was able to fund a summer program that gave 300 students extra support for the upcoming school year. The company also fully funded one year of school for 110 students and developed an exchange program to strengthen the relationship between high schools in Senegal and the United States.

To help scale up its operations, Jjangde has launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise $50,000, which will be used to hire 10 women full-time, open at least two schools and bring an inventory of 5,000 baskets to the United States. The funds also will cover a full year’s production.

With the holidays right around the corner, a Jjangde basket could make a great gift for a loved one. According to the Indiegogo page, $55 USD will land you a one-of-a-kind handcrafted basket and also provide school supplies for five students for a year (Note: the baskets ship only within the U.S. and won’t arrive until July 2014).

As of this writing, Jjangde is already nearly halfway to its $50,000 goal with more than a month to go.

Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a writer, thinker and strategic communicator that revels in driving the conversation at the intersection of sustainability, social entrepreneurship, tech, politics and law. He has cultivated diverse experience working for the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., helping Silicon Valley startups with public relations campaigns and teaching in South America. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@mikehower).

Mike Hower headshot

Currently based in Washington, D.C, <strong>Mike Hower</strong> is a new media journalist and strategic communication professional focused on helping to drive the conversation at the intersection of sustainable business and public policy. To learn more about Mike, visit his blog,<a href="http://climatalk.com/&quot; > ClimaTalk</a>.

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