Twenty years ago, Zane Wilemon was graduating from the University of Kansas and faced an internal crisis. He was supposed to go on to medical school, but the voice in his head made him question: "Do I like to help people, or do I like the idea of myself helping people?"
Wilemon, who now lives in Austin, says he didn’t want to be like his parents and their friends who were trying to figure out what they wanted out of life in what he calls "the back end of life" instead of "the front end of life."
He found a group going to Kenya and bought a one-way plane ticket. There he would work as a medical technician, live in poverty, serve people and, he hoped, see if God was real. That was his plan.
Instead, his trip to Kenya created a 20-year relationship with the country and the lifestyle brand Ubuntu Life. The brand, which offers bracelets, bags and shoes all made by artisans in Kenya, can be found in Whole Foods, American Eagle Outfitters and Nordstrom.
Ubuntu Life also makes Disney- and Marvel-branded shoes with characters like baby Yoda, which has the Maasai artisans asking, "Why are people buying this ugly green guy?" Wilemon says.
Oprah Winfrey just named Ubuntu Life’s Lamu mules to her 2020 Favorite Things list.
Ubuntu Life’s goal is to not only to provide a means for women in Kenya to support themselves and their children but also to become a well-known lifestyle brand that people think of when they think of Africa.
The business’s revenue goes back into supporting the community where the workers live through the Ubuntu Life Foundation.
The word Ubuntu comes from the language of one of Kenya’s tribes, the Bantu. It means "I am because we are."
Ubuntu became known more widely because it was a word used in South Africa by Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu at the end of apartheid.
It’s about "how we are all connected and in need of one another," says Wilemon, 43. "When we lift up and love someone else, we are lifting and loving ourselves."
A chance meeting
Wilemon was working at the clinic in Kenya when he was asked to go to an orphanage in Maai Mahiu to give medications to the 140 kids who were living there. That’s when he met the Rev. Jeremiah Kuria.
It was like a spark, Wilemon says of that meeting. "I got this fire in me to help people," he says.
During the year he lived in Kenya, Wilemon began to drive to Maai Mahiu every Thursday to have lunch with Kuria.
A friendship formed as both men explored more training. Wilemon went to the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin and became an Episcopal priest. Kuria went to Michigan to get his master’s in business.
Both Kuria and Wilemon went back to Africa — Wilemon to get more training in the priesthood and Kuria to stay.
After five years of going to Africa, Wilemon realized that families with children with disabilities felt like they had to live their lives hidden from view.
"They were perceived as punished by God, that as a mother they did something wrong," he says.
In Maai Mahiu, he met mothers of children with disabilities. They didn't have a school for their children, and child care was a full-time job. Wilemon and Kuria began talking to them about what they needed and wanted: a place where their children could learn, and the opportunity to have jobs of their own.
Kuria and Wilemon created a center for children with disabilities, but it was the women’s idea to learn to sew and to sew something that could be sold, and that started Ubuntu Life, Wilemon says.
"We failed at a lot of different attempts at products," Wilemon says, before they found a design for bags that worked.
Getting into Whole Foods
Back in Austin, Wilemon was trying to figure out how to get these bags into stores. He kept going to Whole Foods, to the customer service desk, and being told no. Finally someone asked if he had a brochure. Wilemon made one up, put it in one of the bags and handed it over to the person at customer service.
No one followed up, but Wilemon was persistent and finally was put in touch with Whole Foods’ Whole Planet Foundation.
After a year of trying to meet with Whole Foods, Wilemon showed up at a Whole Planet Foundation board meeting in 2010 with Hey Cupcake cupcakes and the bags.
"The meeting was so funny," Wilemon says. "I didn’t know Whole Planet Foundation and Whole Foods. I’m officing out of my garage. I’m ready to pitch our bags, and in the meeting, they’re like, ‘We like the bag, but we’re the foundation.’"
What they were interested in was taking volunteers to Kenya, and they needed a host partner.
Wilemon says he threw the bag on the floor, and said, "Who cares about a bag? Let’s take you to Africa."
That began the relationship between Ubuntu Life and Whole Foods and the Whole Planet Foundation.
Whole Planet Foundation volunteers went to Kenya and met the nine moms who were sewing the bags.
Ubuntu Life had also started to make a reusable coffee sleeve. At the time a good order for Ubuntu Life was 100 units. Whole Foods came in with a 15,000-unit first order followed by a 30,000-unit order.
The nine moms sewing on manual sewing machines weren’t going to be able to get it done. Wilemon found donors to help him buy electric sewing machines, tripled the workforce and found a supplier in Nairobi that could get them enough canvas.
The workforce was there in Kenya, Wilemon says. A lot of the women there knew how to sew as a hobby or as a means to make some money on the side by sewing linens for their neighbors.
Whole Foods team members who visit continue to ask what else Ubuntu Life can do, which has helped grow the product line.
"They would see where it comes from and who makes it, and they would be so blown away," Wilemon says.
Growing Ubuntu Life
Today, Ubuntu Life has about 500 employees in Kenya, including about 350 Maasai who make beaded bracelets and shoes. Kuria leads the operations in Kenya while Wilemon and a team in Austin continue to work to get the product into stores in the U.S.
Ubuntu Life has been able to double its employees during the pandemic because people have been buying bracelets that say things like "Vote," "Love," "Unite" and "Peace."
Nordstrom just picked up selling the bracelets, which also has allowed the business to grow.
During the pandemic, Ubuntu Life has made masks and donated masks to the Maai Mahiu community. It also formed a partnership with U2 frontman Bono's Red organization to create three masks designed by African artists to benefit AIDS care.
The masks became an important component of Ubuntu Life’s business, because they made Ubuntu Life an essential business as well as ensured that it would continue to have a revenue source. Wilemon feared that no one would want to buy shoes and bags during the pandemic.
Ubuntu Life employees work full time with benefits and health insurance. In Kenya, only about 5% of the population has employer-covered health insurance.
"All people want that stability," Wilemon says. "That’s what you look for in a job."
When people buy something from Ubuntu Life, "You’re participating in us being able to create full-time employment," he says.
The nine original women are still in Maai Mahiu, and they have become the leaders and mentors to others. Some of the employees also continue to start their own side businesses.
In 2018, Ubuntu Life brought four of its Maasai makers to the Austin City Limits Music Festival to show how they make the beaded bracelets. The women also brought their own jewelry, and Ubuntu Life hosted events for them to sell it.
"They are savvy businesswomen," he says.
As Ubuntu Life has grown, more opportunities have been created. Ubuntu Life started a partnership with Zazzle to offer espadrilles with licensed characters and customizable shoes through the use of digital printers that print to canvas.
Some ventures have worked; others have not. Ubuntu Life created a waste management company to try to stop the practice of throwing trash in the street as well as to employ men in their late teens and 20s. It didn’t take off; Ubuntu Life discovered people weren’t willing to pay for trash removal.
It also started a cooperative with the Maasai to make cheese out of goat’s and sheep’s milk, but as the fashion line grew, it became too much to manage both. Ubuntu Life sold Brown’s Cheese to its employees, who now have the cheese in every major grocery store in Nairobi.
Creating a business
Ubuntu Life started as a nonprofit organization rather than a business, but it has outgrown that.
"It was really painful going from a priest mindset to a successful entrepreneur," Wilemon says.
He read books like "Conscious Capitalism" by Whole Foods’ John Mackey and Raj Sisodia and had retreats with the team, seven of whom work in Austin, to talk about how to grow the business and go from a nonprofit mindset to a thriving business mindset.
Last year, Ubuntu Life separated the nonprofit organization that has run the organization from the business. All donations go through the nonprofit, including the tips you can give when you buy an Ubuntu Life product online, and the nonprofit owns a percentage of the business. At the end of the year, the business will pay dividends to the nonprofit organization as an owner of the business.
The nonprofit organization also owns the buildings on the 11-acre property in Maai Mahiu. Each month the business pays rent to the nonprofit organization.
The nonprofit organization provides education and physical and occupational therapy to about 100 students in its school. It also provides medical resources to the community.
In addition to creating a thriving business that employs women and creates female leaders, Ubuntu Life’s other mission is to change the way we think about Africa.
Wilemon wants Americans to change their perception of Africa from a continent that's surviving to one that's thriving. "It doesn’t need handouts, it doesn’t need aid; it needs trade and business partners," he says.
Ubuntu Life is trying to scale up responsibly, he says, with an end goal of being "a soup-to-nuts lifestyle brand," like Ralph Lauren, he says. "Ubuntu Life could be aspirational, a raw beautiful lifestyle brand with a vision of what Africa really is."