We’re all familiar with the Bette Midler quote, which goes, “Give a girl the correct footwear and she can conquer the world.” It’s a phrase that Ugandan-based fashion brand, Sseko Designs, remarkably seems to embody. In addition to the handbags and accessories, which they craft through partnerships formed with local Ethiopian and Kenyan artisans, they’ve got a strong sandal game handmade in Uganda. From crossover slides and rue sandals, to wrap sandals and flipflops, your soles are spoilt for choice; especially in this current torrid weather. Nevertheless, what really distinguishes in the footwear industry are their ribbon and t-strap sandals. Why? These beautiful leather sandals come with interchangeable fabric straps and accents that can be styled and tied in innumerable ways.
Liz Forkin-Bohannon conceived the ribbon sandals concept whilst attending the University of Missouri, pursuing a communication degree. Detesting the flapping noise traditional sandals made, she created her own low-cost options by taking rubber flip-flop bottoms and interlacing ribbons through them. While in Uganda, she had the idea to improve on this notion using locally sourced material. Not only can you swap out the ribbons, you can change up the ways you wrap it round your foot. The products come with a point-of-purchase card that they can scan with their smartphones to see YouTube videos demonstrating the versatility of the ribbons.
Then came the T-strap Accent Sandals which come in a caramel or espresso leather base. Using a simple hook-and-eye claps, the sandal accent can easily be swapped out to give your footwear a completely new look. These accents are also applicable on the Sseko Ribbon sandals and their Rue Ankle strap sandals. You could wear the same pair of shoes in one week and no-one would be the wiser! Such options are music to the traveller’s ears.
If you want even more options, you can design your own dream sandal exclusively through their Sseko Stylists. Once you’ve filed out the form on their website, you’ll work with them to choose your silhouette, heel style, premium leather colours, details such as sole stitching and cord colour, accents and ribbons. Not to mention there is the possibility of custom monogramming for select silhouettes. Once done, they come in the mail with a message from the woman who made them.
After graduating from University in 2008, Forkin-Bohannon moved to Uganda to put her journalistic skills to use. In an interview with the Huffington Post, she expressed that she had set out to share her experiences volunteering with youth organisations in the area. In the process, she met a group of women who were about to graduate secondary school. But faced with their extreme poverty situation, as well as, the patriarchal society they resided in, their chances of continuing education were slim to none. The video below explains it a little further:
Realising they needed job opportunities, her sandal idea came to mind. Sseko Designs started with three women, Mary, Mercy and Rebecca, whom she promised that “If you make these sandals for next 9 months, I promise you’ll go to university in the Fall.” They agreed and began making the sandals while Forkin-Bohannon went back to the U.S with her husband, Ben, to secure a market for the Sseko products. This involved selling all their possessions, buying a Honda Odyssey minivan, which they drove and slept in during a six-month grand U.S. tour to persuade boutique owners to order the sandal.
Luckily, the move paid off and they secured investors that were aligned with their vision; especially since they didn’t receive the Shark Tank funding they were hoping for. They had entered the reality pitch competition in 2015 but walked away without funding. This had something to do with their decision to forgo the classic philanthropy model and focus on being a lifestyle brand. You can read more about their fascinating Shark Tank experience here.
This for-profit with a conscious has become one of Uganda’s largest footwear manufacturers; currently employing 50 women in Uganda. In addition, Sseko Designs (Sseko means “laughter” in Lugandan), has enabled 100 women to pursue their university education. Through the money they can save by making the sandals, everyone who has graduated from Sseko is currently pursuing her college degree or has graduated from university. You can meet the women of Sseko Designs, and read more about each of their ambitions and dreams here.
In 2016, they launched this program to provide women in the U.S Sseko products to launch their own social enterprises. “Every Fellow is paired one-to-one with a woman on our team in Uganda, and her sales directly contribute to earning an additional scholarship for her Sole Sister.” This initiative has enabled Sseko designs to triple the scholarships they provide to their university-bound team.
Sseko Designs has been featured in notable publications such as Fast Company, Vogue and Bloomberg Businessweek. It’s also been the recipient of the Social Venture Network Innovation Award, the SXSW Eco Social Impact award and was selected for the Cartier Women’s Initiative awards. And on international day of the girl child (that’s today), we thought it would be fitting to feature them on TDS as well. A simple sandal concept has given so many ladies options on various levels. The power of versatility, self-improvement, community and independence. Then there’s their role in facilitating an environment of dignity and equity that contributes to ending the poverty cycle. In the same vein, Sseko Designs has managed to maintain their profit and fashion aspect, demonstrating that fashion with a conscious can be a rewarding experience all round.