By Zane Wilemon, Ubuntu co-founder. Read a Forbes story on Zane here.
Fifteen years ago, just after graduating from university, I bought a one-way ticket to Kenya. I became friends with a pastor named Jeremiah Kuria, and together we started a nonprofit with the hope of empowering marginalized mothers who have children with special needs.
Today, we’re a blended social enterprise with our own Kenyan fashion company, Ubuntu Made. Our first big break came when I pretended to be a cupcake guy at a Whole Foods Market board meeting in order to get a meeting with a higher level executive. It worked, and the next thing we knew, our little nonprofit was fulfilling massive orders overnight.
This week marks the next giant leap as we launch the world’s first fully-customizable espadrille from Africa, the Afridrille.
The Afridrille shoe is designed in Austin, Texas, and handmade in Maai Mahiu, Kenya. What makes it unique is that each pair is custom-made to fit the wearer’s personal style. With nearly 22,000 possibilities, nothing about the Afridrille is “off the rack.” Each customer creates their own unique shoe by selecting from 10 colors of canvas, 13 silk-screened print designs, 12 colors of ink for the print, and 13 inner linings in Kenyan kanga prints.
Each shoe is sourced with natural, local materials with an emphasis on comfort and durability and is hand-sewn by our Kenyan artisans, the Maker Mums. Our Maker Mums are mothers to children with special needs who are enrolled in our foundation’s special needs program, which provides access to essential services and promotes social inclusion for our Ubuntu Kids.
I describe our partnership with the Maker Mums as not a handout, but a handshake: The mothers are businesswomen who directly benefit from every pair of shoes sold — because they’re the ones making them. Every exchange should be a chance to connect and empower. That’s what our shoes represent.
“I am now the proud owner of my family’s home, my finances are stable, and my living standards have greatly improved, “says Monicah, a Maker Mum since 2008. “I am on a savings plan and can access financial credit, something which seemed out of reach in the past.”
The entrepreneurial Kenyan women working with us earn above-market wages and invest in their families with the income they receive. Because of that, 100 percent of them have health insurance and can afford to send their children to school, and more than half of them are now homeowners. On top of that, 100 percent of proceeds from every Afridrille purchase goes directly towards the pediatric education and medical care of the children enrolled in our foundation programs.
“We see The Afridrille shoe as one key step into cracking the code on sustainability for communities across Africa,” explains Gladys Macharia, Ubuntu’s Head of Design. “People need jobs and not just any job, but well paid, meaningful jobs that provide people with the basic infrastructure in their lives and the lives of their families so that they can lift themselves, as empowered voices, out of poverty.”
But how do you scale growth opportunities like this to a truly sustainable level that provides lasting employment on a global scale? In trying to figure that out, Jeff Beaver, co-founder and Chief Product Officer at Zazzle, and I forged a strong friendship over the shared vision around the power of the makers. What started as conversations quickly led to two trips to Kenya, an exploratory adventure to shoe factories in Ethiopia, and full-scale production of Africa’s first fully customizable shoe.
“At Zazzle, we’re thrilled to extend our platform and technologies to Makers who craft products with soul, made from the heart,” says Jeff. “And there’s perhaps no better example of this than the Ubuntu Maker Mums. Through our partnership with Ubuntu, we’ve learned that providing economic opportunity is exponentially more impactful, and sustainable, than handouts or charity.”
“These Afridrilles are more than just awesome shoes, they are a celebration of the human spirit and every single pair empowers these Mums, their special needs kids, and their larger community. What’s better than that?”