That Ubuntu Life

How an Austin couple's company is supporting entire communities in Africa

Ubuntu is an African philosophy that means 'I am, because we are." It describes the interconnectedness among all things….To reach our full potential, both individually and as a society, we must help others reach theirs…

Jeremiah Kuria and Zane Wilemon, pastors from Kenya and Texas respectively, started Ubuntu Life ten years ago because they realized this philosophy. “Jeremiah and I committed to serving the people of Kenya the best we could by creating opportunities that empower the local community to lift themselves to where they wanted to go,” Zane tell Austin Life. “It was actually nine maker mom’s idea to start selling, not our idea. A year after that we got a partnership with Whole Foods, so it feels like there was always something bigger at work.”

Austin Life caught up with Zane and his wife Amal, also an intricate part of Ubuntu Life, to learn more about the Austin and Maai-Mahiu-based lifestyle company that sells African-made and inspired goods that sustain entire communities. 

How many times have you each been to Kenya?

Zane: I’ve been doing this for 21 years and lived there for over year the first time when I met our co-founder Jeremiah, who was born and raised in Kenya. Since then I’ve gone about twice/year.

Amal: I’d say Zane is probably at about 40 and I’m at 11 or something.

What’s been your best seller?

Zane: Our bracelets have been number one. We’re 50 percent bracelets and then about 20-30 percent bags and 20-30 percent shoes. Our tried and true is definitely is definitely our bracelets made by Maasai maker moms.

What keeps you coming back to Austin?

Amal: It’s home. Once a Texan, always a Texan. Family’s here. But, we consider both home.

Ubunto is 10 years old, did you foresee being where you are now when you started?

Amal: I don’t think we ever thought Oprah would ever pick us as one of our favorite things.

And it almost didn’t happen because it was in our spam folder for a while.

Zane: They reached out to us months before and then they reached back out and were like ‘Do you want this?’  We were a non-profit for the majority of time we’ve been running Ubunto and then we shifted to for-profit for the product side. The non-profit is still focused on empowering children with special needs. But when we pivoted to for-profit we had this audacious vison that there aren’t many brands that are based on the continent of Africa that have successfully leapt over to the West and sold at scale. So we thought we could potentially be one of the first ones and then for Oprah to pick us was super reaffirming. 

How many moms do you have full-time now? 

Amal: We have about 120 full-time moms in Kenya. 

Zane: A lot of our Maasai moms are part-time depending on seasonality of sales. Last year at our peak were employing up to 800 total. 

Do you want to try to recreate the model in other cities?

Zane: For sure. Already we’re talking with some leaders in South Africa about expanding Ubunto Life into South Africa and Nigeria. I think there’s a lot of opportunity with the non-profit and for-profit hybrid and how those work symbiotically and I think whether it’s us expanding or sharing that model with other non-profits or social impact businesses and social enterprises, to serve marginalized communities at scale in the global marketplace.

Amal: The coolest thing is we started with nine moms and now we’re the largest employer in Maai Mahiu and our moms have now how their husbands with their businesses and it’s a ripple effect which penetrates the entire community which is super powerful.

Zane: Less than 10% of Kenyans have health insurance and 100 percent of our full-time staff have health and insurance and benefits not just for themselves but for their households, so that alleviates a lot of the reserve cash that these families have to have because they know their basic needs are met. So that allows 100 percent of our staff to send 100 percent of their kids to school and the majority of our make moms own their own land and have built their own homes.

Zane, you were a paster, are you still?

Zane: I am, yeah. I’m an Episcopal priest, that happened along the journey.

Amal: It’s not a full-time job anymore, but it’s still there.

Zane; Jeremiah is a paster as well so that’s how we originally meshed together and we would say we received this vision, it wasn’t ours, we received this vision and our focus has been how can we be responsible and good stewards with this vision to do the right thing.

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