Nasozi Kakembo is a Ugandan and American designer and entrepreneur. As the founder and owner of the Brooklyn born lifestyle boutique xN Studio, Nasozi brings her Ugandan heritage into American living rooms through bespoke and locally sourced African designs. Nasozi’s work has inspired her to leave her previous career behind, and instead find a way to make a real difference in East Africa through her own business.
From partnering with local artisans to releasing a part of her earnings to fund an orphanage and school, her efforts are making a meaningful mark on people in Uganda.
Hi Nasozi, tell us about your relationship with Uganda?
My mother is American, and my father is Ugandan. I grew up outside of Washington, D.C., which has a large Ugandan community. In that sense, I was always connected to my heritage. I also have a Ugandan name! It’s a great conversation starter. People always ask me where my name is from. I appreciate it because I love sharing more about Uganda with people who might not know much about it.
I've been visiting Uganda regularly since I was a teenager. My son was only two years old the first time I took him with me. I wanted him to see that halfway across the world, there’s another place that he can call home - that he has a family there, that this is our heritage - something we should always be proud of.
How did you first become involved with human rights and social change?
In my early 20s, I was pursuing architecture. But it changed when I saw that things could be improved in Uganda - like access to infrastructure. It’s those things that make it more difficult for people to get to work or school. I ventured into human rights and urban development because solving these issues became more important to me than becoming an architect.
I did my masters in Urban Planning. My thesis focused on public participation and industrial development in my village in Uganda. I worked with local people, the landowners and the representatives from factories nearby. I pointed out their social responsibility for the local community, versus their interests worldwide.
In 2009, I started working for the Open Society Foundations. It’s one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world, focused on democracy and human rights. And on the side, I was visiting markets, scouring for souvenirs to bring back the US. Initially, I didn’t even think about monetizing it. In 2013, I left the foundation and launched my design business.
Tell us more about your e-commerce business xN Studio.
Although I worked in urban planning, something I found so meaningful, I still missed design. I wondered how I could work in interior design while still retaining the element of making a social impact.
In 2011, I founded xN Studios. We are a home decor, fair trade, interior design outfit based between the East Coast of the US (Washington DC and Brooklyn) and the Eastern part of Africa (Kampala, Uganda).
I utilise interior design as a channel to tell stories about our products. The most popular product is the traditional Ugandan basket. Traditionally, these baskets are used for wedding ceremonies - they carry the dowry for the bridal party. The baskets have so many design and colour combinations! Oh, and they smell amazing! Just smelling them takes me back to the first time I got them from my dad. I decided to include them in my collections, and they immediately started to get recognition.
Aside from home decor, we also sell furniture, which is currently all made in the US. In the future, I would love to source furniture from Uganda. The furniture craftsmanship over there is exquisite; made with high-quality raw materials. Hopefully, I can figure out the logistics in the coming years.
How did you start to connect your business with social change?
During my first years, I examined what the best way to incorporate social impact into my business model would be. I didn’t have any major investment backing me up and I’m not a billionaire philanthropist like some of those I worked for. But thanks to my experience, I was familiar with different kinds of mechanisms through which charitable grantmaking is made.
I was looking for a model that I could scale down to my level and still make an impact. I came up with my own hybrid model, where a percentage of our earnings is donated to an orphanage and school in Uganda.
When I was looking for an organisation to work with, I ended up choosing the Suubi school. Suubi is partially a boarding school and partly an orphanage school - some of the children come from the surrounding villages, some of them are there full time because their parents have passed away. I felt like I could make a real impact there. I saw the results very quickly,from buying a new mattress, to building a library. I also aim for sustainability, so the impact goes beyond my presence there.
Tell us more about the work you do with the Suubi primary school and orphanage in Uganda.
My efforts with Suubi school are happening within a broader political and economic context. My goal is to provide educational funding for children who otherwise don’t have access to it.
I want those children to have an opportunity to study. Maybe in the future, I’ll explore looking into supporting ongoing studies - after their primary education is complete. But honestly, I believe that if a child has access to quality education in those formative years, they gain tools to establish their livelihood further on. That’s why primary education is so important.
In the future, I would like to expand into other organisations while keeping the same model.
Tell us what part WorldRemit plays in your charitable and business activities?
Often, people still rely on cash, such as waiting for a family member to visit Uganda, bringing physical cash with them. A lot of my earlier business activities relied on my family - going back and forth to collect money, to pay for my products and activities in Uganda.
Before I discovered WorldRemit, I had to go to a bank or a cash transfer company. I was waiting in line for a long time and then filling in confusing paperwork. I had to provide all the transfer details to my recipient - but even then, it wasn’t guaranteed that the money would arrive safely. Once someone hacked into the account and the money didn’t get delivered to the intended person. It was a hard pill to swallow because it was intended for Suubi - it got me down for a while.
But, as technology evolves, we are discovering tools that are easier and cost-efficient for everyone involved.
I used WorldRemit for the first time in 2019. Sending money online was such an abstract concept to me - how can it be so easy? I was sceptical before I tried it, but my experience was so great. With WorldRemit, I know exactly what’s happening with my money and when my recipients are getting it - I get the notifications right to my phone.