From volunteering to global careers

Zawedde speaks at the ceremony where she was awarded. Photo / Courtesy

What you need to know:

  • Volunteering: Sandra Zawedde’s career journey started at 16, working in her father’s pharmaceutical business in her S.4 vacation.At 18, in her S.6 vacation, she was given an opportunity to volunteer with World Vision Uganda and later Habitat for Humanity Uganda.

“When we started out, no one believed in my friends and I, but we were very intentional about giving back to the community. We were also very aware that we did not have skills at that age, so we were eager to learn,” she explains.

Last week,  Sandra Zawedde was one of the recipients of the annual Excellence in Infrastructure Development award by Grow, Unite and Build Africa (GUBA), an initiative that celebrates heroes within Africa.

Zawedde was recognised for her efforts and contribution in changing the infrastructure landscape in Uganda and Africa at large.

She is the chairperson of East of Eden (U) LTD, the exclusive licensee of a Spanish construction solution in Africa.

The firm promotes innovative and affordable construction solutions.

She is a development professional, turned social entrepreneur, with more than15 years of combined experience with government, multilateral organisations, development consulting firms, private sector and civil society organisations.

Her passion for improved infrastructure was ignited during her formative years in post-conflict Uganda as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity where she led volunteer teams in building low cost housing, raised financial resources and mobilised fellow youth to engage in the organisation’s initiatives.

At 22 years old, Zawedde became the youngest chairperson of the Habitat for Humanity Board in Uganda. Under her leadership, youth participation in housing construction grew and the country hosted Habitat’s 100,000th house global build celebrations. It was at that event that the organisation’s founder, Millard Fuller, inspired her to dream bigger if the face of Ugandan housing was going to change.

Zawedde holds an MS in Health Services Management and Policy from the New School University in New York City.

At Makerere University, she founded the Habitat for Humanity Campus Chapter. Her two friends were, unfortunately unable to be part of the chapter as they did not make it to the university.

She registered the chapter with the university guild along with Nathan Kiwere, whom she met while volunteering with World Vision.

Their objective was to form a ‘movement’ to eradicate poverty, housing being their anchoring point.

At 22 years and in her second year, she became one of the youngest leaders of the organisation.

She juggled volunteering and doing paid research roles as well as studying.

“My volunteer work helped me see the difference we were making each time we donated a Habitat house.”

Turning point

Zawedde says her turning point was a conversation with Fuller. She says Fuller said Ugandan Habitat houses were different from those in the US because Ugandans chose them.  The Uganda Habitat house was a four roomed house with no plumbing, no painting and no electricity.

The US house on the other hand was well furnished. The curious Zawedde was not convinced so she went ahead and inquired internally at the Habitat office. The answer she got inspired her mission to change how the Ugandan house would look.

After graduating from Makerere, she briefly took on a research role attached to the Ministry of Health in Uganda and after four months, she was headhunted to support the setting up of the Deliver project in Uganda.

Within four months, she got an opportunity to work with the Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Health Insurance access.

She was a first-year student at the New School University. Now in hindsight, she recognises that it was always by God’s grace that she worked while she was a student.

At the mayor’  office, she took advantage once again and strived to improve people’s lives.

“I believe I was hired because I was from Africa and would understand the issues of recent immigrants.”

A year later, as a second year graduate student, she was awarded a Women in Public Policy Fellowship, where only 10 women in New York are selected to be mentored into leadership roles in public policy and government.

“My role in supporting Africa’s development evolved over the years. But for me, the pivotal moments were when I worked on influencing the shift in universal access to HIV/Aids treatment in Africa at the time when the rest of the world did not believe that Africa could afford and sustain treatment,” says Zawedde.

She adds, “Our work managed to dispel this notion and eventually, treatment guidelines in all our countries were revised. Also, policies in countries such as Botswana were formulated to ensure universal access to HIV treatment for free by the state,” Zawedde says.

As a youth focal point at the Economic Commission for Africa, Zawedde worked tirelessly to have youth as a development issue as well as encourage countries to invest in young people’s education and health.

“I was a youth myself at the time and it was my aim to see that young people are part of development processes, not just the outcome. I was a critical partner and participant in drafting the Africa Youth Charter that defines the role of youth participation in development, which was later adopted by African Heads of State in 2009. That work became profiled when the Arab spring hit and youth became a development agenda,” Zawedde narrates.

She then moved on to work on urban planning and development issues. She was moving back full circle with belief that her work in that space is a calling.

As pioneer team member at the Economic Commission for Africa, they did not want it to replicate what UN Habitat or other players in the space were doing, but rather build on existing efforts.

Her first task was to ensure that they have proper data at a city level for planning and development processes. The commission also advised countries on the African New Urban Agenda they wanted to see over the next 20 years. For example, issues of proper urban planning, infrastructure, building sustainable cities, changing the skyline of African cities and urban job creation are some of those enshrined in how they want to see Africa progress.

Zawedde is a believer that if you prioritise infrastructure and urban development, you get the rest. African jobs would come, the economy would grow, health would improve, education would improve, and the quality of life would improve.

At the time, she witnessed the growth and transformation of many African countries.

“The cards were aligning for me to do what I never imagined. Destiny led me to promote innovative and affordable construction solutions along the housing value chain in Africa. We cannot achieve this without technology and continuous innovation. We cannot achieve this without affordable finance, and we cannot build houses without proper urban planning and good infrastructure in place. This is exactly what EOE set out to address in a continent with no handouts,” Zawedde says.