After one visit to Uganda as a teenager, Alumni of the Year and Young Alumni of the Year award winner Anne-Marie Reddan’s life changed forever and she’s never looked back. She now runs Yimba, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping Ugandan youth stand on their own two feet.
“My family and I went to Uganda when I was 16 to volunteer in a rural community, and that was it for me. It changed my entire outlook on life and what I wanted my future to look like,” said Anne-Marie.
“At first I thought it would be just a chance to go overseas and have a bit of an adventure. I honestly didn’t think it would change my life the way it did.
“Even though I was a self-absorbed teenager, seeing a completely different world and realising how much need there was, I couldn’t go home and just forget about it.
"It changed something in me. I came to understand it wasn’t fair that people live this way because of where they were born. I knew I wanted to dedicate my future to doing the little that I could to make someone else’s life better.”
University, her way
While she was still in high school and thinking about her uni preferences, Anne-Marie was leaning towards a degree in nursing and midwifery. But when she returned to Uganda on her gap year, she realised she was about to embark on the wrong path.
“I spent my gap year back in Uganda volunteering for various programs, mostly with a sex worker rehabilitation program for women. It got me thinking that nursing wasn’t for me and I came home the following year to begin studying international development instead.
“I enrolled at ACU through the Community Achiever Program (CAP), which made such a difference to me. I like that it valued community involvement, not just your ATAR. This really resonated with me and I appreciated that ACU’s values aligned with my own.”
Even though Anne-Marie immediately took to her Bachelor of International Development studies at the Melbourne Campus, she had now completely fallen under Uganda’s spell, not to mention she had also met the man who would soon become her husband.
Once her degree was underway, Anne-Marie became a frequent flyer, travelling back and forth between Melbourne and Uganda on her semester breaks.
“I actually started my organisation, Yimba, during the holidays of my first semester.”
Anne-Marie began Yimba with her now husband Emmanuel seven years ago.
“We got to know each other as friends and it grew from there. When we met, I quickly saw we had the same vision for empowering local young people, so we started the organisation together in 2013.”
Yimba has grown exponentially over the years and Anne-Marie has big plans for its future, but its mission has always remained the same.
“We want to empower Ugandan youth by providing access to employment and educational development opportunities to equip them with sustainable income-generating skills.”
For Anne-Marie, this meant starting with finding out what the community wanted.
“We knew we wanted to start self-sustainable programs in a rural community, so we spoke to the locals first to find out what they were interested in.
“We wanted to empower them to make their own money and keep the programs running themselves. At the time, I was still coming back and forth from Australia, so it needed to be something they could do on their own.”
A successful start
Yimba began with a goat program designed to help widows and single mothers earn an income from a goat’s milk and by selling its offspring.
To Anne-Marie’s surprise, the program was a huge success.
“It completely exceeded our expectations,” she said. “The goats became a form of capital that the women could later sell off as a business. Some were able to sell their goats for a cow, and from there they went on to sell a calf to purchase cement and bricks to build a home with. Another lady sold her goats to open a roadside shop. But mostly the women were using their goat businesses to pay their kids’ school fees.”
Anne-Marie said her favourite part of the goat program was that its success was not her own doing.
“I love that the program has full community ownership. The people weren’t receiving handouts from us and it wasn’t like we were paying their kids’ school fees. They did it themselves and they took pride in seeing the results of their own hard work.”
Anne-Marie is happy to say the project is still going and a new goat program has been developed specifically for young people in the community.
“We set them up with a goat pen, give them training, help them organise a business plan, and they use their goats to generate income for their families.”
As Yimba began to grow, Anne-Marie saw a new opportunity for the organisation to move into fashion, design and tailoring.
“We now have 20 young people training in a year-long course,” Anne-Marie said.
“They learn how to make every garment you can think of, as well as bags, jewellery, shoes, everything.
"We also offer entrepreneurship training and help with literacy, numeracy and English classes too. Things like pattern drafting involves a lot of maths, so we want them to catch up.
“Then at the end of the course, we set them up with a sewing machine and start-up capital so they can go out and start their own businesses. We also provide employment for the best students from each year and we have a social enterprise selling different African fashion to tourists and expats. We export items too.”
With inspiration from musician husband Emmanuel, Yimba’s music program provided yet another creative direction for the organisation to move into.
“We do music mentorship and we have our own recording studio,” Anne-Marie said. “We teach audio production, sound engineering, and how to play musical instruments. And our students learn how to produce jingles for ads and do paid corporate work.”
Another project close to Anne-Marie’s heart is the hygiene program she runs for young girls in the community.
“Our menstrual hygiene program is so important to us. We make washable pads because so many girls drop out of school because they don’t have access to sanitary products. Educating the women about their periods is a big part of it.”
While Anne-Marie is incredibly busy with all of her current programs, she still has big dreams for Yimba.
“We’d love to open a large vocational training centre, helping vulnerable youth develop skills in a wider range of industries, such as plumbing, electrical, hairdressing and beauty, catering and baking.”
Good in a crisis
Unfortunately, Anne-Marie’s dreams, like most people’s, are on hold for now thanks to the global pandemic.
“Obviously 2020 hasn’t gone according to plan for anyone,” Anne-Marie said, “but we’re hoping to introduce at least hair and beauty training services by the end of the year.”
With the global crisis putting a strain on Yimba’s usual programs, Anne-Marie’s team was forced to get creative, and her tailoring students have now added face masks to their repertoire.
“We started selling them to people in the local community, but now we’re exporting them to Melbourne and my family is selling them on my behalf on Yimba’s Facebook page.
"So far, we’ve sent 1,000 masks to Australia, we sold at least 5,000 in Uganda and we’re sending more home soon.
“The pandemic has been so hard on the informal sector. We were doing a COVID-19 relief program at the start, and we put together emergency relief packages to feed more than 5,000 people. But we knew we needed to do something more sustainable, which is where the masks come in.
“The students have been sewing them for the entire pandemic and the masks have been what’s feeding their families. Though we’ve also been distributing masks for free to communities in need here too.”
Helping others help themselves
While Anne-Marie has fully embraced Uganda’s culture, its people, and speaks the local language Luganda –“I’m not fluent! But I can get by” – she likes to make it clear that she’s not the one in charge.
“I’m not saving the world and I don’t know best. Ugandans on the ground know the needs of their community in a way that I never could. So, we ensure that every program we create can run on its own without me.
“Also, how we do things in Australia just isn’t how things get done here. We consult with the community about everything we do – it’s never about what I want; I’m not the one calling the shots. I couldn’t do anything without my team.
“My degree really helped me understand that the work I wanted to do was never going to be about me swooping in to save people. It’s just helping them make changes in their own lives, no matter where they come from.”
Anne-Marie Reddan was the winner of the Alumni of the Year and Young Alumni of the Year awards in 2020.