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Ohio University entrepreneurship class partners with Zienzele Foundation to empower Zimbabwean women and students

Hardika Singh
March 25, 2020

Hanna Olberding cheerfully woke up before 8 a.m. almost every day in Fall Semester 2019. After morning classes, she sped at noon to CoLab in Alden Library. She and her classmates worked to increase the sales of handmade baskets, so that kids in Zimbabwe could run to classes of their own.  

Students in Entrepreneurial Business Consulting worked with the Zienzele Foundation to expand the market for baskets the foundation sells to pay school fees for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS and support child-headed households in Zimbabwe.  

Children in Zimbabwe
Children helped by the Zienzele Foundation pose for a photo

Zienzele, a Ndbele word that means “to be self reliant,” works with women’s business cooperatives in 38 communities in Zimbabwe. The cooperatives are agricultural (farming crops or raising livestock) and creative (weaving baskets or sewing clothes), and all have the same goal: empowering women and providing education to children. 

The student consulting team, led by Paul Mass, director of Ohio University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, consisted of five students from diverse backgrounds and majors. Olberding is studying sustainability and tourism, and pursing an Environmental Studies Certificate; Justin Autry, finance; Brian Beres, business analytics; David Knock, construction and project management; and Zoe Meadows, dance performance and choreography. 

“This was such an eye-opening experience for me,” Olberding said. “We’re not only marketing baskets, we’re changing lives. This isn’t for class anymore; it’s so much more than that.”  

In 2010, more than 1.3 million children in Zimbabwe were orphaned and 50,000 households were headed by children below the age of 18 because their parents had died of AIDS, according to the country’s National AIDS Council.  

Handwoven sisal baskets are a traditional art form in many parts of Africa, including Zimbabwe. Women cut the sisal plants with blades to strip the fiber out of the blade-like leaves. They rub the fibers along the side of their thighs, until the twine can be woven. The twines are dyed in colors, then formed into baskets that are both ornamental and practical. 

Handwoven-baskets made by women in Zimbabwe for Zienzele Foundation
Handwoven-baskets made by Zimbabwean women for Zienzele Foundation

The results are beautifully hand-woven baskets, most of which are sold in New Hampshire and Vermont, where the foundation is headquartered. 

“Sales were sporadic and mostly through word-of-mouth,” said Megan Clark, marketing director of Zienzele Foundation and daughter of co-founder Nancy Clark. “The local market became saturated.” 

All five of the team members are enrolled in the Certificate in Entrepreneurship program which has given them the tools to properly manage and organize logistics in business ventures.  

During the semester-long marketing campaign, the consulting team revamped the Zienzele Foundation website and made it user-friendly. The students also created an Instagram account for Zienzele to reach a younger audience and used appropriate hashtags. 

Their efforts on Instagram were successful: House Beautiful magazine included the baskets in its 10 best gifts-that-give-back list for 2019. That mention drove more than 500 visits to Zienzele’s website and $820 in revenue from basket sales. At one point, the foundation was handling six to seven orders per day – the number of orders they had previously filled in six months.   

“Before revamping the website, the online basket sales never felt worth the effort,” Clark said. “These changes will help us reach a longer-term goal of expanding the direct-sales relationships available to the women’s groups making the baskets.”  

Zienzele grew from an Earthwatch project launched by Prisca Nemapare, a professor of nutrition at Ohio University in the 1980s and 1990s. Nemapare was studying nutrition among women and children in her native country; Nancy Clark, a nurse, was a volunteer. In 2000, as Zimbabwe grew increasingly unstable politically, Earthwatch discontinued its support for Nemapare’s project. Having seen the growing crisis of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, Nemapare and Nancy Clark regrouped and started Zienzele in 2003.  

“If Nancy and Prisca were willing to put so much effort 20 years ago, we as students have no excuse,” Olberding said. “Their passion inspires us to work hard and help students attend and finish school in Zimbabwe.” 

Editor’s note: Interested in sponsoring a child-headed household? A donation of $300 provides a child-headed household with one year of school fees, uniforms and supplies, basic food and medicine staples, and shipments of clothing and shoes. Donate here!