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October 19, 2017
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Each item is hand-made from recycled paper by Ugandan artisans. Source: 31bits.com.
Claire Loop bracelet.  Source: 31bits.com.

California-native Kallie Dovel was just a university student when she first traveled to Uganda in 2007. She wasn't looking for a project or a business opportunity when she got there - but she ended up finding both.

While visiting Northern Uganda, Dovel discovered a local tradition: making beads out of paper. Women from the village of Gulu had an interest in selling the beads, but they lacked the foundation and marketing tools to do so. There's little tourism in the area and many of the women speak poor English, so there was no way for local artisans to get the word out about their creations. 

Dovel was fascinated with the beads themselves, but also compelled by the challenges that faced the women. So she bought a bunch of beads and took them back to California with her. When she showed them to her group of friends, they came up with a plan: they would buy bead jewellery from the Ugandan women and sell the pieces in America and abroad; concurrently, they would also set up a program to help the women develop their business. "We wanted to make sure that not only was your necklace paid for fairly, but the creator had been provided with education, employment and empowerment," says Dovel. 

That's how 31 Bits was born. The name comes from Proverbs 31 - "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves" - and attests to the value of a woman caring for herself and her loved ones. The word "bits" symbolises the actual making of the beads, which are created using bits of recycled paper.

Each woman who joins the program in Uganda - 31 Bits started with just six women and now employs 108 - receives more than just a fair wage. They're also provided with English lessons, health and AIDS education, as well as vocational and financial training. This last bit is especially important, as 31 Bits strives to provide their beneficiaries with about four years of employment - after that time, they hope each woman will have acquired enough money and knowledge to start her own business and support herself, allowing new workers to come in and benefit from the program.

Training is provided by permanent staff in both America and Uganda. Four of Dovel's friends and company employees moved to Uganda to help support the local office. The Ugandan office also employs three local women to manage the business side of 31 Bits: a design project manager, a livelihoods program manager (who oversees the English and financial training of the workers) and a product project manager.

These women didn't need a superhero to help them out of poverty. They needed a reason to dance.

While jewellery made out of paper might not sound particularly fashionable, 31 Bits has transformed the unlikely material into a sought-after collection. The beads are made using recycled paper, taken from local posters and discarded paper. The paper is cut into thin strips and then rolled over and over until a bead emerges. A water-based lacquer is then added to the beads to make them durable. "Women throughout Africa have been making paper bead jewellery for years and years," says Alli Swanson, California-based director of marketing for 31 Bits. "Over the years we've switched up the styles to make it trendier... but these ladies are the true artists! It amazes us what they can achieve with paper!"

The company's big break came in 2010, two years after launch. It was then that California-based Reef, a "surf-inspired sandals and apparel" brand, approached 31 Bits to collaborate in the creation of Ugandals, a sandal decorated with the company's beads. The sandals are made of man-made materials, including a durable rubber outsole and a synthetic t-strap. The sandals were a hit - actress Chelsea Kane was spotted wearing them, and helped spread the word about 31 Bits.

With offices in both Costa Mesa, California and Gulu, Uganda, 31 Bits has learned to make the most of communication. "Kallie tag-teams the designing process with Emily, one of our staff members that is currently living in Gulu," explains Swanson. "The two of them Skype weekly to dream [up] and create upcoming jewellery styles for our lines." Swanson says the women just finished designing the Summer 2013 collection. "They spend a countless amount time researching colour trends, fashion blogs and jewellery designs to come up with fresh and innovative designs," she adds. 

The extra-long Acorn Layers necklace can be  
wrapped 2-5 times.  Source: 31bits.com.

The company's current collection (F/W 2012) is entitled "House of Rhythm" because Dovel says they realised "these women didn't need a superhero to help them out of poverty. They needed a reason to dance." The collection is highlighted with "flavorful pops of Citrus Lime, cool shades of Midnight Slate, and warm touches of Rust Orange." The designs are bold, with chunky beads streamed together with leather or cord in hefty designs that are meant to catch the eye.

For those wanting a more understated look, 31 Bits also produces long, pearl-like necklaces, bracelets and headbands. It also produces a wedding line, which consists of delicate designs in soft colours such as whites, greys and pinks. For example, the Rosy Posy necklace consists of "light pink beads dusted with gold leafing."

When asked where she sees the company going in five years, Swanson says she has no idea what the future holds for 31 Bits. "We have ten designers graduating from 31 Bits this January and starting small businesses of their own," she adds. "We hope to see all of the ladies in our program continue to thrive, dream, and move on to start businesses, as we continue to grow our programs in Uganda."

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