Sandal company, Sseko changes lives in Uganda

Liz Forkin is the founder of sandal making company called Sseko Designs. In Autumn 2008, on a whim, she went to Uganda hoping her knowledge in Journalism and Communications would assist a youth development organisation. Unbeknown to her, ambition gave her other ideas. Here is her story.

My company, Sseko, involves almost everything that I am passionate about. People. Poverty. Education. Creating. Story telling. I do love spending time outdoors (my husband and I love to go camping) and my biggest hobby is probably re-purposing things. I love finding old, discarded things and creating them into something beautiful and useful. I love being with people. I love telling stories. And I don’t feel fully alive unless I am creating.

Sseko is a not-just-for-profit enterprise that recognises the power of business and responsible consumerism to support sustainable economic development, which in turn affects a country’s educational, justice and healthcare systems. The goal of Sseko is two-fold: provide university tuition for young Ugandan women through a sustainable monthly income, while contributing to the overall economic development of the country.

The Ugandan school system is designed with a nine-month gap between secondary school and university. These nine months are intended for students to earn money for tuition before university. However, in an impoverished and male-dominated society, many of these young women struggle to find fair work during this time.

Sseko Designs hires recent graduates for this nine-month period to live and work together while earning money for their university education. These women will not make sandals for ever. They will go on to be doctors, lawyers, politicians, writers and teachers that will bring change and unification to a country divided and ravaged by a 22-year war.

I was working with a youth development organisation in Uganda that has a girls’ leadership academy. It is a highly competitive secondary school that preps students for university. Many of the female graduates from this school were having trouble finding employment to earn tuition money.

The logical – and seemingly simple at the time – solution to this problem was to start a company that could provide sustainable, fair wage employment to get these bright young women on to university. I wanted to make a product for the western market. Specifically, I wanted to target women, who I thought would really get behind and get excited about supporting these young women across the globe. So shoes were the answer.

The actual process of creating Sseko was trial and error in the most literal sense. I had the basic design in mind and set out on a hilarious journey of trying to develop the first “prototype”. I wandered around the city for two days in the rain, looking for a tool to punch holes in leather. I finally found it! It was basically a makeshift punch welded out of two pieces of a car. Also, I wanted to use all local materials in an effort to stimulate and support the local economy. I tried a ton of different things: methods, materials, designs. I finally came up with what is now known as a Sseko sandal.

This is the point in our life we decide what is important and develop the habits and ideas that will guide the rest of our lives. If being socially engaged and making an intentional, positive, local, and global impact does not start now, it probably won’t. There is so much power in the passion and energy of youth.

So. Much. To. Do.

Trying to start a manufacturing company in a country that doesn’t have the infrastructure or systems for production meant we had to start at square one with everything – creation, production, the actual sale, telling the story, and everything in between. Also, I never knew starting a company would involve so many near-death experiences on the back of motorcycles carrying a bag of fifty sandals on my head.

My advice would be go. Feeling like there needs to be a certain amount of preparation or understanding in any adventure keeps most people from ever diving in.

Surround yourself with people who have gone before you. Learn from their mistakes, and be willing to take criticism. You should always have a long way to go. If you don’t, then the place you are going probably isn’t that great.

Words and photography by Megan Pieper

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