By Joanie Garlich
On a mission trip during her sophomore year at Southern Methodist University, alumna Brittany Merrill began a 10-year journey that allowed her to make an extraordinary impact on impoverished women and children of Uganda by training them in business and ways to provide for themselves and their families.
In 2006, Merrill built an orphanage for the children she had come to know while volunteering in Uganda for a number of years. It soon became apparent that the women in the countryside also needed help raising their children, so Merrill created two vocational centers in Uganda where volunteers trained and employed 250 Ugandan women, with no education or work experience, to make high-end jewelry. The model focused on helping the women understand the basic arithmetic of counting. Eventually, the women, who also learned about saving, began to open local businesses.
“It was a model that was sustainable. It was a pathway to care for more orphaned children. It was a means to help other women facilitate their dreams,” said Merrill in a previous interview with Conscious Magazine. Soon, Merrill transformed that model into the Akola Project, a mission related jewelry business that supports and empowers some 400 Ugandan women.
Akola’s jewelry line consists of four different materials: paper bead necklaces made from hand rolled paper that takes about 10 minutes per bead, Ethiopian metals and crosses made from melted down artillery shells found in farm fields, African Akole horn jewelry made of horn from cattle native to Uganda, and Kenyan sea glass jewelry sourced from the African coast.
Since Merrill founded Akola in 2007, the non-profit has made a remarkable impact; more than 63 Ugandan women own businesses in their village related to Akola, and the project brings in more than $142,516 in wages for 409 women and sustains an estimated 4,000 children. In addition, Akola most recently launched their first flagship store in Dallas, which employs and trains women of New Friends New Life, women and girls who have been sex trafficked.
According to Akola Engagement Officer, Hannah Paul, the non-profit recently received a purchase order and launched in 12 Dillard’s Department Stores. This allows Akola to further expand on a national scale. The mass amount of inventory needed to complete this purchase order gave Akola an opportunity to expand their Akola-Dallas program to West Dallas, where low-income women are now partnering with the Ugandan women and helping create the jewelry for the Dillard’s Department stores. While the Ugandan women hand roll the paper beads, the women in West Dallas now assemble the jewelry for the purchase order.
“I love how both of our programs now connect the women that are in Uganda and connect the women in Dallas.” said Paul. “They’re working together to empower each other and themselves.”
Merrill’s efforts and impact with the Akola Project have not gone unnoticed. In 2013, Merrill received the Emerging Leader Award from SMU. In 2014, Merrill was named the “Best Person in the World” by Yahoo and was honored by Levi as one of the 50 women globally who have “changed the political, cultural, and spiritual shape of the future.” She has been featured on CNN’s Young People Who Rock, Modern Luxury, Christianity Today, and most notably, the Katie Couric Show. Most recently, in 2015, Merrill decided to give back to her alma mater by joining the faculty at SMU, where she teaches a course on social innovation.
Merrill’s initial goal was to create a “global brand that trains, empowers, and employs marginalized women around the world,” she said, and within only a few years, she has made that goal a reality.