Saturday January 12 2013

Sara Katebalirwe: Giving life to bark cloth, the funeral attire

Sara Katebalirwe: Giving life  to bark cloth, the funeral attire

Katebalirwe gets to work in her workshop at home. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa. 

By Esther Oluka

If you have attended a burial, ritual or ceremonial event particularly in Buganda, chances are that you have sighted backcloth being used.

At such functions, the fabric is most times worn, spread to the ground or even hung.

Therefore, when Sara Katebalirwe thought of an idea of making different functional fashionable products out of backcloth during the early 1990s, many thought that she was going into the wrong kind of business. “Most people were not supportive of the idea because they believed that backcloth was better off being used at certain functions other than as a fashion accessory,” she says.

Katebalirwe was interested in making purses, different sizes of handbags, wallets as well as office and home accessories from the fabric, locally known as lubugo. Other than taking heed of their dispiriting words, Katebalirwe chose to follow her heart and established her business. However, there was one problem; she lacked a place she could start operating from. “I badly wanted to get a shop in town where I could work from but the rent was very expensive. I decided to seek plan B,” Katebalirwe recounts.

Countering the challenges
Plan B led straight to her living room where she began operating the business. Katebalirwe believed that by operating the business right inside her house, she was minimizing rental costs. To kick start the business, she purchased a leather sewing and binding machine and recruited 10 workers to help her. She started off with the work concentrating mainly on making handbags. However, she says these turned out to be of very poor quality.

“They had very badly finished handles and the stitching patterns were not very regular,” Katebalirwe says. Rather than get discouraged, she enrolled at Uganda Women Entrepreneur’s Association Limited (UWEAL) for a six-month programme that aims at developing textile manufacturing skills. During this time, Katebalirwe improved her art of making not only the handbags but other fashion accessories as well.

Reaping profits and recognition
And when she finally left the training, Katebalirwe decided to extend her workshop to the home garage. She also bought more machines and added a few employees. Eventually, the business caught up. “I started realising profits since the quality of the products had greatly improved,” she says, although expressing discomfort in disclosing the exact amount of money she makes from the business.

Amounting to her incredible work, Katebalirwe has been honoured with all sorts of distinguishing awards. In 2007, for example, one of her bark cloth bags was voted as one of the best 10 new products in Canada. Then, in 2010, she was also among the three finalists from Africa for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award (CWIA). She has received various training and assistance to improve her business management and growth, product development and market access.

“Now I hope that in a few years, my products will have been well received not only in Uganda but other countries as well,” Katebalirwe reveals. Her products can be found at Exposure Africa, a crafts market along Buganda Road, as well the National Theatre.

Her handbags range between Shs22,000 to Shs90,000. The small purses are less than Shs10, 000 while the clutch and shoulder purses are between Shs12,000 to Shs20,000.