Ten women stood in formation each speaking passionately about a proposal for a women-run bakery to a panel of judges. Their plan included details about location, costs, marketing, and an analysis of competition in the area. However, they were not in a conference room in a high-rise building, nor were they wearing suits. They were standing under a mango tree in the Northern Ugandan town of Gulu, competing with nine other groups of women for capital to begin funding their business. The town, which had once been terrorized by a violent civil war for over a decade was finally beginning to find peace while realizing its economic potential. Gulu and its surrounding area is a rural yet developing hub in the small, East African nation. Known for its fertile soil and wide expanses of farm land, Gulu’s main economic activity is agriculture. But in order to make a living selling crops, farmers need crucial business skills; however, due to a forced migration to displacement camps during the war, an entire generation missed out on their education and thus, their economic potential. However, Gulu, and its Acholi people, are not letting that stop them from finding a place in the current economy.

For six months, I had the opportunity to work for a non-profit social enterprise in Gulu called Krochet Kids international (KKi). The organization works in Gulu as well as in Lima, Peru. The cornerstone of KKi’s program is self-sustainable economic empowerment, meaning the beneficiaries have the ability to lift themselves out of poverty without the need to rely on outside aid. The model is three-fold: while our women beneficiaries participate in the program, they receive a job knitting and crocheting products that are sold in the US and online; education ranging from tangible skills training for work (farming, raising livestock) to personal development skills (health education, public speaking, financial literacy); and lastly, one-on-one and group mentorship to plan a unique and sustainable plan for each woman’s future. Furthermore, the products are extra special for the consumers buying them—each product is hand-signed by the woman who made it, and customers are able to view an online bio of the woman and write a thank you. The program has been wildly successful. Personal income grows to be 10-times greater than pre-KKi levels, savings increase by 25%, the beneficiaries are more likely to have access to healthcare, prevalence of physical abuse decreases, and gender equality increases. Beneficiaries work with their mentors towards a graduation, their final “thesis” being a business plan.

Past success stories have included women who have started their own used clothing stores, broiler businesses with large hotels as customers, or large-scale farmers. Our most recent success story goes by the name of Akwero Agnes. A commercial real estate developer and agro-business owner with twenty employees, Agnes is a prime example of the amazing work women in developing countries can do when they have access to economic empowerment tools. As Agnes walked me through her enormous farmland, excitedly pointing out the different crops she grew and stopping to pull weeds from time to time, she spoke of her massive success. One yield from her farm can earn her up to thousands of US dollars, more than enough to support her extended family as well as have savings for any troubles that come her way (such as when an elephant stampeded through her crops this past spring).

There’s a reason why women are at the forefront of conversations about development. The UN cites a multitude of different reasons why female economic empowerment can help society as a whole, such as lower poverty rates associated with women’s participation in the labor force, benefits to children due to increased income in the hands of women, and better education opportunities for women and children, which can also reduce child mortality. Factors like this are indispensable in the aim of overall poverty reduction and higher standards of living around the world. This is why there has been an overall trend towards small-scale social enterprises like KKi as well as 31 Bits, FashionABLE, Soko, and Mercado Global. These organizations have proven to be more successful than typical government-based aid projects in giving women agency and opportunities to economically empower herself. And the proof is under that mango tree, where those ten women are creating their own stories of change through a business plan.