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Meet Our UT Student Partners, Students for Wema

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They say what starts at UT changes the world, and that's in big part thanks to the forward-thinking, socially-conscious Longhorns who make up our student body. One such group of global do-gooders is Students for Wema, a small registered student org with a big goal: fund and build a self-sustaining bakery at the Wema Children's Centre in Bukembe, Kenya.

In Swahili, "wema" means goodness, and the Longhorns involved with Students for Wema have been busy spreading it across the Forty Acres since the organization was re-formed last fall. President Madison Gove, a marketing and business honors sophomore, has recently spearheaded the organization's partnership with the International Office to raise awareness for the Young African Leaders Initiative, a prestigious six-week institute for young African entrepreneurs that's coming to the UT campus this summer.

We sat down with Gove to learn more about Students for Wema, its mission, and what's coming up in 2014-15.

What is Students for Wema, and when did it get started?

Students for Wema is an organization at The University of Texas at Austin dedicated to supporting the Wema Children's Centre in Bukembe, Kenya, both financially and emotionally. In 2011, a UT student named Sara Hollis created a small organization to raise funds to build a well at the Wema Children's Centre after visiting the orphanage of 236 kids during the summer. She partnered with Living Water International to install a $60,000 well capable of providing fresh water to the orphanage, the nearby Highway Academy school, and a village of 5,000. The well was completed in December 2013.

In the fall of 2013, I re-formed the organization Sara started, now called Students for Wema, to act as mentors to the students and run fundraisers for school supplies. However, after studying Muhammad Yunus' social business model and speaking extensively with the orphanage's owners, Teresa and Stephen Wati, I realized that we have the opportunity to give the poverty-stricken village a chance at growth by making it self-sustainable.

Together with Stephen and Teresa, as well as students at Harvard College, we decided the most viable solution was to install a bakery at the orphanage to provide not only sustainable income, but a source of food as well. Bukembe is a food desert, as the nearest bakery is 30 to 40 minutes away by car. A bakery micro-enterprise in the village would not only provide a closer source of bread, but capture the majority of the market share. The profits from the bakery will be split between supporting the orphanage, buying supplies, and providing safe jobs to girls leaving the orphanage who are susceptible to entering the sex trade to support themselves.

What are some of things your organization is involved in throughout the year?

This year, we held several fundraisers and awareness events for the bakery project, including the first-annual Freedom Music Fest at Gregory Plaza and Dance Across the Globe, a benefit dance performance in conjunction with the organization Against Cruel Trafficking. We also held a book drive in the community and corresponded with some of the teenage residents of Wema as pen-pals.

Why did you decide to get involved with UT's Young African Leaders Initiative?

Our mission right now is to give the nearly 240 students of the Wema Children's Centre a chance to change their circumstances through an education and stable income. We believe that if the children are given the tools necessary to break out of the cycle of poverty and illness they live in, then they can change the entire social structure of the village, region, and country. We want to help the Young African Leaders Initiative do the same for other young African adults. YALI provides the same tools we are giving to Wema through entrepreneurship and shares similar goals of sustainable growth for the continent.

What's next for Students for Wema?

Although our group works diligently to raise the funds required for the bakery, there is no possible way that we can raise the $43,000 required in time to meet our two-year goal. We are currently seeking partnerships with companies that care about the development of Africa, and hope to find individuals or companies that are interested in working with us to start the micro-enterprise during the summer.

During the 2014-15 school year, we will continue to fundraise and act as mentors for the children. We will be taking a trip to visit the orphanage next June and hope to have enough funding to break ground on the bakery while there. Additionally, we would love to keep a close partnership with the Young African Leaders Initiative for years to come, as well as develop some sort of start-up curriculum that can be easily taught by teachers like the Wema Children's Centre owner.

Learn more about the Wema Children's Centre here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

By Jordan Schraeder

Top, photo courtesy Harvard College. Inset, photo courtesy Madison Gove.