When Ruth Nabatanzi’s mother died, her father worked as hard as he could to support her and her sister. But it wasn’t enough to keep Ruth in school.
Disappointed to lose her chance at an education, Ruth scrambled to earn an income. Over the next few years, she worked a variety of jobs, eventually moving in with her older sister to a one-room apartment near the Ugandan capital of Kampala. She began selling pineapples to earn money, but came back with only about $1.40 a day.
“I couldn’t afford basic personal needs, and we weren’t able to afford two meals, as my sister was also not earning enough,” she admits. “So generally, life was hard.”
As the days went by, Ruth resigned herself to a future of odd jobs and constant anxiety about earning enough to survive. Maybe, she thought, she would get married one day and combine incomes with her husband.
But she despaired of ever earning a good income herself. “I knew I couldn’t get a better job as a high school dropout,” she says.
Ruth’s situation is not unusual. Across the globe, young people often struggle to find meaningful work without adequate education. And in Uganda, women’s unemployment rate is roughly 27% higher than that of men.
The Journey Begins with Training and Mentorship
Helping young women like Ruth to achieve their potential is the mission behind TechnoServe’s Girl’s Apprenticeship Program (GAP). Given the difficulty that young people – especially women – face in finding productive employment, TechnoServe partnered with Citibank to help Ugandan women ages 18-24 develop the necessary skills to enter the workforce. GAP participants engage in apprenticeships with successful local businesswomen, who serve as mentors and role models, guiding the young women through their transition to employment.
Ruth first heard about the TechnoServe program through her local council. She was excited to get back in the “classroom” for the training component of the program. Here, she learned a basic toolbox of entrepreneurship skills, such as:
- Financial literacy
- Customer service
- Business planning
- Development strategies
Ruth then decided to pursue an apprenticeship in welding. Women are unusual in this field, but in Ruth’s view, welding would be more profitable than other, more “traditional” occupations.
She learned quickly. Her welding mentor praised her dedication and skill, and helped her secure a welding job that led to another, even more lucrative welding job. She now boasts an array of welding skills such as fabricating, drilling, and spraying with a compressor. Her current supervisor says she is “trustworthy, a fast learner, and doesn’t fear challenges.”
Earning the Tools for Success
One of the most exciting aspects of the TechnoServe GAP program is a business plan competition. Program participants develop a plan for an enterprise they’d like to start, and prizes are awarded to the best plans.
With strong business and vocational skills under her belt, Ruth submitted a plan for her own welding enterprise. She was thrilled when she won the business competition – and was awarded welding equipment worth $300.
She now has her own welding machines, a grinder, a drilling machine, and a tool box. And in her current job, she can make over $33 a day–a far cry from the dollar or two she used to bring home.
Ruth’s story was even aired on Ugandan TV in a feature on women succeeding in male-dominated sectors. “That was my proudest moment,” says Ruth. The show portrayed her journey, she says, as “a good example for other young women in the country.”
Changing Her Family’s Life
While Ruth enjoyed the spotlight, she never lost track of her goal: starting her own workshop. “I’m saving my earnings from my current job, so I can start my own business in future,” she says.
As she works towards this goal, her dedication and newfound skills are already transforming her and her family’s life.
“I pay half the rent at home, I buy food, and also send some money to my father in the village,” Ruth says. “So life has really changed for the better. We don’t have to miss meals anymore because we can’t afford them.”
Ruth also bought herself a bed with a “big mattress,” kitchen utensils, a radio, and clothing for work.
Breaking Gender Stereotypes, One Customer at a Time
Being a woman welder has its challenges, however. When men customers are told she will be working on their orders, they are often skeptical, and want a man colleague to supervise her.
“This at first affected my confidence, but I understand the cultural norms in the country,” Ruth says. “So I decided to always do quality work. I have to put in double the effort compared to my male colleagues.”
Her good work wins over these clients – and makes her boss confident in giving her even more customers.
Soon, Ruth hopes to save enough money to open her own welding shop and further change the perception of women’s abilities. “Once I open my own workshop, I will employ more women and girls, and give them an opportunity to enter new sectors that most women shy away from, yet are more profitable,” she says.
And she hopes not just to change the lives of women around her, but the trajectory of her own future family.
“I have no children yet, but I know when I do have them, I’ll be able to take them to school and pay for their education,” she says. “They will not drop out like me.”