For Isabel Agol, owner of the leather goods company naRoho, business is in her blood. Coming from a family of nine children, Agol and her siblings grew up helping their mom in her various companies. Agol credits her mom with helping her gain the acumen and drive for business she has today, as well as Agol’s desire to be a businesswoman herself. However, when it came time to start her own pursuit, she wanted to be a little more focused in her objective and worked to identify a singular stable idea that was not only sustainable in the long run but also philanthropic.
Enter naRoho. The word itself means ‘with heart’ — a concept Agol has fully embraced as she’s built her business in her native Uganda. Deciding to create a leather goods company happened much like a perfect storm of Agol’s passions coming together. As she strolled through a downtown market in Kampala one day in 2014, she saw a leather sandal and thought it was something she could make herself — so she made use of her artistic background and spent an entire day handcrafting a sandal of her own. This creation became the prototype for her new business.
“When I was studying, I really wanted to do something I loved, something I was passionate about,” Agol said. “I fell on this chance with the leather sandal and the leather goods company just started.” When deciding on products and their design, Agol added, “it starts…with me, I like things that look good but also which are durable.”
Agol’s bachelor’s degree in industrial and fine art from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda has provided the foundation of developing her own creative process when designing the products naRoho sells. Preceding naRoho, Agol started and ran a business named Ezy Shac, sourcing souvenirs sold in markets in Uganda. It was through Ezy Shac where she began to notice that a vast majority of souvenirs in Ugandan markets were actually from Kenya. Her inspiration to create a durable product that was actually made in Uganda is partially what led her toward the initial sandal prototype that ultimately changed the course of her business.
She has since expanded her offerings in response to customer requests, such as certain-sized handbags. NaRoho’s inventory of leather products now includes two different tote bags (one with a zippered closure and another with a magnetic button closure), wallets, cardholders, coin purses, passport and notebook covers, and earrings. The wide-ranging items are available at various price points and come in multiple color options. “There are a lot of products for really anyone for gifts,” Agol said.
In light of her success in Uganda, Agol has always wanted to move into the Western market, specifically in the United States. During a trip to New York City in 2022, she decided to take advantage of being overseas and began doing research on different programs to help her bring her business here. It was in this research that she came across Soft Landing New York, a program of Binghamton University’s Koffman Southern Tier Incubator.
“She had a really interesting customer profiling looking at corporate or business people [between the ages] 25-55 in the U.S. and Canada who need a durable yet stylish bag that is versatile for carrying their everyday work essentials,” Atanas Tzenev, business development manager for Soft Landing New York, commented about Agol’s program application.
After applying and being interviewed, Agol came to NY as a part of the spring 2023 cohort in April. Over the course of a month in the Southern Tier of NY, she has been focusing on customer discovery, research and networking to establish naRoho in the U.S. market with mentorship from staff at the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator.
“The experience has really been great, because as a producer or a business not situated in a country where you want to trade in there’s so many pitfalls you can go through. You can think your product is universal, but you come to a market and then you find that not everyone likes your product the way that it was back home,” Agol commented. “So, through the program, we’ve gone through the process of learning the market — the U.S. market we want to enter — like what are customer expectations, how do we do business in the U.S., what do we need?… My visit to Binghamton has really kind of given me a confirmation and more courage to actually come settle and start the business in the U.S.”
Her success so far has paid off greatly. In addition to being selected for this cohort with Soft Landing New York and making the journey to the Southern Tier, she was also nominated as one of the 2022 African Women of Courage by Ambassador Natalie E. Brown at the U.S. embassy in Uganda.
In and around the greater Binghamton area, Agol has conducted interviews with various customer segments and showcased her products. Throughout this process, she has found naRoho’s products are received as high-quality items with broad appeal to the markets included in her research. She has wasted no time here, as naRoho is now set up as an LLC with a tax identification number and bank account to be open for business in the U.S. Agol has also worked closely with her mentor at the Koffman, Eric Krohn, as he’s guided her through the process and challenged her to look at this new market in a deeper way.
“It’s been very uplifting to introduce naRoho’s products and stories here and to the people of upstate New York,” Krohn said. “Not just for the story, but because her products are just that good.”
As naRoho produces and sells high-quality leather goods, the mission of helping the women of Uganda is what drives the expansion into the future. At naRoho, you’ll find female employees between the ages of 18 and 35 learning and thriving, despite not being able to complete their education. Access to and completion of education can be a challenge due to a variety of reasons, including family background, pregnancy or financial constraints. Females in Uganda who come from lower-income families are viewed as a source of income — when they marry, their family will receive gifts from their future husband’s family, often in the form of livestock. Primary education is not free in Uganda; if families are struggling to afford education costs, a common choice is to send a male child to school over a female. This gender inequality often results in women struggling with conflicting feelings of betrayal while also upholding loyalty to their family, a core principle in Ugandan culture. Women in these situations are often left with little confidence as a result of incomplete education and lacking certain life skills. Agol is passionate about helping these women gain the necessary confidence and skills to overcome the situations many find themselves in.
“Most of all, [Agol] sold all of us at the time of acceptance into the Soft Landing New York Program with her story and her care for the youth she teaches [artisan and lifelong survival] skills,” Tzenev added. “As a social entrepreneur working with women empowerment, helping refugees by visiting refugee camps, and her successes with her business development so far, we hope that she will continue [to] consider the U.S. and New York marketplace as she scales her operations, and we will continue to assist!”
Currently, naRoho recruits new employees through advertising, but can only train one new employee at a time on how to craft leather goods and engage with customers. The next move for naRoho is establishing partners for expansion, with the ultimate goal of being able to train 10 women simultaneously. When naRoho reaches that point, Agol would like to retain about 60% of the trained women as employees while helping the remaining 40% set up and lead their own facilities for subcontracting of large orders. Creating this ecosystem to educate and empower women through skill-building and entrepreneurship fulfills the mission of naRoho and brings it full circle.
“Isabel’s story is about freedom [through] entrepreneurial success,” Krohn commented. “naRoho’s story is about a community that has found hope through support and skill building. Through supporting naRoho’s fine leather products, we can all be part of the solution to uplifting women as philanthropic consumers. Isabel’s entrepreneurial spirit is certainly great inspiration for other women around the world.”
“Our mission is just ‘empower women’,” Agol said. “We would like every girl, every woman, to feel, be and act empowered. It starts with finances… but also, empowering women in a sustainable way. Even if today they left naRoho, that doesn’t mean the next day they’ll fall into an abusive marriage or not be able to care for themselves… [we want to make sure] they’re able to either start their own business — which they’ll run properly and sustainably — but also [teach] them life skills. That’s what we mean [by] empowering them successfully.”
Agol concluded her time here in the U.S. by speaking at Koffman’s “Breaking Down the Silos” networking event on May 10, 2023 where she also hosted a pop-up shop showcasing her products. Agol has also launched naRoho on Shopify and Etsy which will allow her to continue to grow her customer base in the U.S. and worldwide. To learn more about and follow the progress of naRoho’s work, follow them on Facebook and Instagram (@naRoho256).