Badala, or Together

October 2, 2017

Badala is a company that wears its heart on its sleeve. Joelle McNamara spent her high school years adamant that she’d move overseas and dedicate her life to providing aid before she began what she describes as “A passionate fundraising effort that would go towards poverty. Of course, I didn’t know exactly what that meant until I took my first trip to Kenya after graduating high school.”

Joelle explains, “Everyone was looking for opportunities—they wanted hand-ups, not handouts.” This gave her the idea for Badala, which meant scrapping her plan of arriving with aid and instead coming up with a viable, sustainable alternative to the desperate employment opportunities that were available to the women she met. “Most of my new friends in Kenya resorted to prostitution or carrying enormous buckets of water many miles a day, and neither job paid more than a few dollars at a time.”

At the time, bracelets were extremely popular on college campuses, and they were an easy way to symbolize the movement they were benefiting. “I didn’t know if any of us were going to get rich off bracelets, but it was a legitimate alternative to prostitution or back-breaking labor.” With her passion and eye for style, the brand began to gain steam. In fact, she remembers a turning point after a year of solid growth, “The women started saying, ‘We’re bored,’ and our customers were also bored. They wanted to keep supporting us but also owned all the styles we offered. We couldn’t keep making the same product over and over.” That moment was a key turning point for Badala. Customers wanted more and the tight-knit team of artisans was ready to broaden its offerings.

Joelle remembers, “I intended to start an aid organization but saw how helpful and sustainable a business could be,” which meant she turned her creative mind and compassionate heart towards other ways she could provide employment for her team. In Kenya, they settled on Christmas ornaments, which led to a massive order from TOMS. “That shot our production rate up by 10,000% instantly,” and, after the holiday season subsided, my husband asked, “What’s next?”

That question sunk in and solidified Joelle’s next dream into Badala’s current reality. She wanted to design home goods, and thanks to the time she spent in Kenya, she was learning more about which products were made there and how those designs could be translated and sold Stateside. She has a whimsical humility about her. Even as we hold the gorgeous and unique Badala wooden spoons, she says, “I would love to say that I’m a cunning business person, but I actually just kept being given opportunities and taking leaps!” (If it’s not clear yet, Joelle always speaks with a twinkle in her eye and a genuine sense of wonder and possibility in her voice). When I suggest that she seems to be following her high school calling in a bigger and more sustainable way than she might have originally expected, she admits, “I’m starting to embrace my ‘entrepreneurship.’ I always thought of myself as a missionary, and now I get to take risks and study trends in order to help our women in lasting ways in all the countries we work in. We’re a nonprofit, so if what we do doesn’t serve these women, it’s pointless. It doesn’t matter how much we grow our business if they don’t benefit. So, from the beginning until now, they’ve given a lot of input into what they needed and what they wanted Badala to be.” Many women join the Badala family and state that they simply want to provide for their children. After spending time working creatively and earning fair wages, they begin to dream much bigger. Joelle told me about one woman who started early on and has gone from trying to feed herself and her children week by week to planning her own fashion line and store in Kenya.

As for the name, Badala, it’s the Swahili word for instead. As a brand that started to offer employment to victims of sex trafficking, the name has a lot of power. “Badala is what we can do instead of trafficking, instead of just trying to survive. That’s something that binds us all together, this idea of instead.” We hope that every time you hold these spoons, you’ll think about the alternatives they provided their makers and the alternatives you can live out in your own story. 

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John is the managing editor at CAUSEBOX and a traveling writer who lives on the road with his dog, Hank.