Jacqueline Kamsu arrived at the US embassy in Yaounde in late August looking every bit a success story. She had been invited to speak to a group of young leaders on her non-profit, Beads Space. The audience included business owners, community leaders, journalists and students. She was being honored as an example of a positive story in a country where many young people often feel frustrated by a lack of opportunity.
Kamsu shook hands firmly, kept a broad smile and maintained eye contact. Last year, she started a small non-profit that has now made her one of Cameroon’s most promising social entrepreneurs. She said her organization started as an activity to help alleviate the hardship of single motherhood. When she could not find a job, she decided to create one for herself.
Model poses with a handbag made from recycled paper and beads by Cameroon businesswoman Jacqueline Kamsu. (Kamsu)
Her break came when she attended a skills building seminar for women in 2011. There she learned how to recycle paper into beads.
Kamsu said back home she found her new skill so interesting that she began turning old calendars and newspapers into necklaces, earrings and adornments for handbags and shoes.
Very soon, she was earning a living selling handmade jewelry to women in her community. One year later, she is being hailed and an “imaginative innovator.”
Beads Space was born without a single dollar. Kamsu said she worked from her one bedroom home for six months. With only her drive as the initial capital, the organization has grown and now affects other lives. Kamsu now runs a separate fashion design business, but she has kept Beads Space as a non-profit, training other single mothers. She said she targets single mothers because, as one of them, she understands their plight.
"A single mother is all alone," she said. "It is very difficult for her, if she does not have assistance to take care of her children and herself. Often, they are tempted to get into odd jobs like prostitution."
In conservative Cameroon, single mothers are still viewed as failures. Kamsu said when she became pregnant, she was rejected by her family and community. With only a high school education, finding a job was almost impossible. She said her life was a struggle.
Jacqueline Kamsu tries one of her handmade necklaces on an American customer. (Kamsu)
She said Beads Space helps other single women be self-reliant and avoid her own experience. She has already trained 31 women. Five of her trainees now run their own small businesses.
She continues to support them even after their training has ended. Whenever she has a large order; she outsources some of the work to her former trainees.
Kamsu shot into the limelight after winning several awards for her work. In 2011 she received first prize in a national competition for the use of recycled material. In June and July of 2012, she was nominated by the US embassy to take part in the Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership with Young African Leaders in the United States. The program was sponsored by the US Department of State.
Beads Space currently operates only in the northwestern Cameroonian city of Bamenda. But Kamsu has plans to expand. She said her goal is to reach as many single mothers as possible. She’s currently seeking funds to build a training center that can train two groups of 50 to 60 women every year.
She’s also considering an offer to partner with a British businessman about venturing into the global marketplace.