Fashion is often used as a platform for social commentary and change. While many designers start by building their brand name and then branching into a form of CSR (corporate social responsibility), Mable Suglo from Ghana chose to do it the other way round. This young entrepreneur, along with two of her friends, started the Eco-Shoes project in 2013 to challenge perspectives on the environment and disabled people in society.
It started with Suglo’s grandmother who suffered from leprosy. At a young age, Suglo was exposed to the social stigma and marginalisation people with disabilities experience. Although her grandmother passed away when she was 12, the notion of what life was like for her grandmother stayed with her. So when she saw a disabled beggar being ridiculed in town a couple years later, she was inspired to do something about the level of isolation they endure on a daily basis. “So I just walked up to him and I asked him if he could get a job that would pay better than begging, would he be ready to work? And he said yes,” said Suglo. She asked a few more disabled, unemployed individuals and before long she had a list of people looking for a chance to work and support themselves. She just had to figure out what opportunity she could offer them.
She turned to her friend, who is passionate about fashion and design, and the idea for Eco Shoes was conceptualised. With only $100, which was raised from donations by family and friends, they put their plan into action and set up base in Kumasi city. Driven by her fervour to alleviate poverty through entrepreneurship, the project partnered with a local school with to teach persons with disabilities relevant shoe-making skills. The project has so far offered formal employment to 13 workers with disabilities. A move that has seen these artisans creating fashionable, comfortable, Afro-themed shoes and by 2015 they’d added accessories such as handbags into production.
When they started out in 2013, they only made 500 pairs. But by 2014, they had tripled that figure due to the demand. This is despite the fact that they only distribute via small distribution networks across four regions in Ghana. Over time the project has taken to providing these artisans with more skills to enhance their independence. This includes offering advice on product development, financial and business literacy, as well as, providing mentorship.
The brand also gives back, by donating $1 for every shoe sold to the EPF Educational Empowerment Initiative, a charity that provides free brand new shoes to school children from deprived communities. In addition, Eco-Shoes has provided 10000 children with free shoes through the match making donation scheme.
The Eco Element
According to Suglo, Ghana has disastrously huge stockpile of discarded tyres as well as waste material which are environmental and health hazards. Eco-Shoes decided to take these elements and convert them into marketable, fashion items. She credits the idea yet again to her grandmother. Because her grandmother had lost her toes due to the leprosy, conventional shoes couldn’t fit her feet properly. She made due by taking car tyres and cutting them into short pieces she’d fasten to her feet with rope. Not only are they investing in the environment, by upcycling tyres, fabric waste and other sustainably sourced raw materials, but they’re also helping to build a community of conscious consumers.
Eco-Shoes may not have a strong online presence just yet, but their initiative is getting international recognition. Suglo has been the second runner up at the 2015 Anzisha Prize which saw her receive $12,500. The Anzisha Prize was made possible through the MasterCard Foundation and the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. Eco-Shoes was amongst the winners in the 2016 SEED INITIATIVE Award thanks to their commitment to poverty alleviation. This year, the brand was elected out of 177 applications and nominations from 48 countries to be a finalist in the 2017 Ye! Global Award. It’s also been featured on media platforms such as the BBC, Rising Africa, and Leaders-Afrique.
There’s much that Eco-Shoes needs to accomplish. Suglo has expressed the desire to enhance productivity by investing in better machinery and an e-commerce site. Additionally, she wants to improve their training by incorporating modern technique prospects such as computer-aided shoe design. She started off at the age of 19 with only $100 but Suglo has already made waves in changing attitudes in Ghana. One of sustainability and recycling. And the other, that persons with disabilities can be contributing members of society. That their situation shouldn’t lead to discrimination or alienation from conventional society. By putting herself in her grandmother’s shoes, she has been able to help others achieve economic independence while challenging notions about disability.