Sarnia man helping Ugandan women support themselves through bag sales in Canada
Pat McGill poses with some quilted bags stitched by Ugandan women that he's helping sell in Canada. It's part of his work with the charity Soft Power. (Tyler Kula/Sarnia Observer/Postmedia Network
Pat McGill says he never expected selling hand-crafted, quilted Ugandan bags in Canada would take off as it has.
“It still astonishes me,” the retired Sarnia chemical worker said Tuesday, while speaking with Seaway Kiwanis members in Sarnia about his work to help empower women in Bujagali Falls and Mawoito, Uganda.
After getting involved with school building in the area through non-governmental organization Soft Power in 2010, McGill noticed that a co-op group affiliated with the charity and selling the bags in Bujagali Falls was falling on hard times.
The Mukwano Women's Group's lifeblood was selling to tourists, journeying to the area for whitewater rafting, he said. But tourism in the area was drying up in 2014 after half the rapids had disappeared following the installation of a government hydroelectric dam.
They'll be all gone in 2017 when another dam is built, he said.
Fear, at the time, about the Ebola virus outbreak in west Africa — albeit thousands of kilometres away — was also hampering tourism, said McGill.
What the group needed, he said, was a new market.
So he decided to act, taking a dozen bags back in his luggage, after travelling to the area for a school construction project.
Back in Sarnia, McGill gave them to friends to sell for $20, he said — enough at the time to break even after shipping fees and paying the co-op about $11 per bag.
It wasn't long before McGill said he was importing 90-bag shipments as more and more stores offered to sell the bags — at no profit — to help what are now 56 women in the Mukwano coop.
Now, he said, well over 40 people are helping sell the bags in cities in Ontario and British Columbia, including in Sarnia at Cheeky Monkey, De Sena's Hardware and others.
“What happened really blew me away.”
A few thousand dollars has gone towards opening a second co-op in Mawoito, he said, after demand was outstripping production.
“It's the story,” McGill said about the uptake.
“I think the fact that it's not charity; the women are earning the money that they get, and it's just kind of the whole package.”
It's also a quality product for the money, he said, noting bags are now $25 because of the slumping Loonie.
All the proceeds go back to the women, he said, where they're used for school fees, medicines and other necessities.
“It just kind of all wraps up somehow into something people can really buy into,” he said.
To date, he said, some 3,100 bags have been purchased, meaning more than $34,000 back to Mukwano.