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Sseko sandals provide Ugandan women opportunity for education

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:01 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Rachel Heaton models sandals made by Sseko Designs in Peace Park on Monday. Liz Forkin founded the company to give jobs to Ugandan girls.

*This story has been modified to show the current wage of Sseko employees in Uganda.

COLUMBIA — Liz Forkin Bohannon walked though her Kansas City apartment, counting sandal after sandal, lace after lace. They covered the floor of her office, cluttering the space where she walks, where she lives and where she works.

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“Our apartment is really small and is literally covered in shoes,” Bohannon said, laughing at the predicament of dodging around the very products she uses to help give young girls thousands of miles away a future budding with new hope.

These sandals aren’t Bohannon’s to keep. By selling them, she’s helping send young Ugandan women to universities where they can reach their full potential.

“These women are going to be teachers and lawyers and politicians and leaders of their country, but these sandals are just a means to getting there,” Bohannon said.

That’s how Bohannon’s life became her work.

Bohannon is the founder of Sseko Designs, a company created to provide some of the top female students in Uganda the opportunity to earn enough money to attend college. Sseko, which comes from the Lugandan word enseko meaning "laughter," has a second goal of contributing to the overall economic development of Uganda through a progressive business model.

The Sseko story began long before the dream to make a change came to fruition. Bohannon traveled to Uganda in September 2008 as part of a master’s degree project with the MU School of Journalism. She went to write and photograph for a quarterly magazine published by the Cornerstone Leadership Academy, a program for talented young students from under-privileged backgrounds to grow as leaders. But during the first month and a half of writing and taking photos, her ideas about how to help Uganda began to shift.

Bohannon spent time with Cornerstone students, writing profiles of the schools and the children. Bohannon visited the girls’ school regularly, and although at first, she went just to do updates for the magazine, she began to spend significant time with the students. As her relationships with the girls became stronger, so did her recognition of their potential as leaders.

But there was still a major snag.

“Their vision for these students to be the top in the country kind of stops without having an income,” she said.

Students in Uganda have a nine-month gap between graduating from the academy and the first day of university classes. During that lag time, most get a job to raise money for tuition. Because of gender gaps, however, it’s much easier for young men to find jobs than young women.

Bohannon couldn’t ignore the disparity and wanted to help the girls. She thought about coming back to Missouri and raising money for them, but she didn’t want to stop with a cash contribution. As she read and learned through experience and conversation, Bohannon found a solution she thought could be bigger than simple aid.

“It was born out of the fact that they needed a job, not a check,” she said. “They had the skills, they had the desire, they had they the opportunity, they had the time.”

Bohannon knew the girls needed to find work that was good and noble, and whatever that might be would require an American market, because that’s ultimately where the money is and where she could work long-term. So, she began brainstorming ways to give the women a fair chance to work. However, there were many questions about where in the marketplace those solutions might be.

Social mission, capitalist fuel

It wasn’t until a little more than a year ago that Bohannon began to question the notion of aid. It would be better, she thought, to help Ugandan women meet their needs rather than simply provide for them. That is the idea behind the sandal business. Bohannon employs women to make sandals in Uganda, with as much of the materials originating there as possible. Then, the sandals are sold to a U.S. market because that’s where the fashion interests and disposable income meet.

Bohannon calls this idea “not-just-for-profit": The cause for their business model is social, but the propelling force behind it is profit. In order to grow and reinvest in the community and the economy, money allows the business to survive, she said.

“Money can be a good thing, but it’s the love of money and seeking money and making it as a priority that is bad,” she said. “If we have more money to help more people and do more good things then, yeah, let’s make more money.”

It’s a progressive belief that businesses such as Sseko and others have. Money can’t be the only goal. That’s why Sseko is built upon not one bottom line, but three.

British economist John Elkington coined the term “triple bottom line” in 1994, when he envisioned companies being accountable in three areas: profit, people, and planet — also known as the three P’s. By doing this, Elkington reasoned, business can be profitable and socially and environmentally sustainable to increase the well-being not only of itself, but also of others around the world.

“I’m convinced that business confers a transformative role in underdeveloped countries,” said Tyler Schooley, investor and former business partner with Bohannon and her husband, Ben Bohannon. Schooley met Bohannon in Kampala, Uganda, while he was looking for opportunities to start small businesses in the country. Now, he spends most of his time heading most of the logistics for the business part of Sseko in Uganda.

“Sseko’s become the focus of my time now,” he said. “I really feel the time is right to pursue socially conscious business ideas. I feel there is this growing trend, especially amongst young people, towards looking at the source of their products and being globally minded.”

University student representatives on campuses across the country, together with Sseko’s Web site, have allowed for a very grass-roots approach to selling its sandals. Columbia has definitely been the hub, Bohannon said, but people are wearing Ssekos in Virginia, Oregon and New York. The sandals cost either $40 or $42, according to the Web site. Customers can buy additional straps to switch in and out of their sandals; designs are priced at $7 and $9. Since their May 2009 release, Sseko has sold about 1,500 pairs of the shoes.

Sseko also is looking for investors.

“If how much you are impacting a social good became a new form of competition amongst companies in general, then capitalism becomes this incredibly powerful force for social change,” Bohannon said.

Eventually, Sseko would like to help every woman who graduates from Cornerstone Leadership Academy to spend nine months working for the company before they attend university, but that isn’t possible until the company grows. Still, Bohannon said she is not just looking for people to donate to the cause or to become another non-profit organization.

“We’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re offering you an opportunity to do something really cool and also make some money,” Bohannon said.

She hopes investors will see the effect their venture could have. If they invest $10,000, for example, and get back $12,000, maybe they’ll consider reinvesting in another company to help even more.

The three Ugandan girls currently working for Sseko each earn between 300,000 and 400,000* shillings per month — about the same as a school teacher’s wage, Bohannon said. Eighty percent of the money will be put directly into a savings account to pay for tuition; their wages aren’t intended to help them live off Sseko forever but to pay for a college education.

“We feel like a far greater gift to them would be teaching them how to support and educate and contribute to their own families than for us to do it for them,” Bohannon said.

The sustainable relationship goes both ways: Sseko relies on the women as much as they rely on the company. Bohannon has invested so much time and money into the women that if something were to happen to one of them, the effects would ripple all the way through to her apartment in Kansas City.

America is often afraid to ask Africa for anything, Bohannon said. “When someone can see in you that you don’t trust in them or believe in them, then that’s not promising,” she said. But working together makes for “really beautiful, authentic relationships.”

Relational investments

With an ocean and a dozen countries separating Bohannon and Sseko headquarters from their partners in Uganda, a relational investment in the women who work for the company might prove difficult. But Bohannon’s goal isn’t to just support the girls financially but to be an integral part of their lives. That’s one of the reasons Sseko sent current MU senior Kelly Schwartz to Uganda last summer.

While Bohannon was trying to figure out whom to send to Kampala for an internship, Schwartz immediately came to mind. Bohannon and Schwartz didn’t know each other very well, but they attended high school together at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis. They’d gone to coffee once in a while to talk over the past few years in college, but she had no idea of Schwartz’s passion for Africa. Still, something just felt right about asking her, so Bohannon did.

Bohannon’s call caught Schwartz off guard, she said. But she had done mission work in South Africa in the past, had a real desire to do more on the continent and strongly admired Sseko. After considering the offer and praying about her decision, she said yes.

“Sseko is amazing,” Schwartz said. “It’s absolutely incredible what (Bohannon is) doing for these girls.”

From June 21 through Aug. 24, 2009, Schwartz worked and lived with the three women – Mercy Ahurira, Mary Enyaru and Rebecca Lunkuse – who made Sseko sandals. For two months Schwartz spent time with them making sandals, having sleepovers, dancing and developing close friendships. She saw the utter poverty they were born into, but she also saw their wisdom and their drive neededto reject the status quo and fight for a chance improve their lives. But Ahurira, Enyaru and Lunkuse have something others in the city don’t.

“They want it so bad, but there’s just no opportunity,” Schwartz said.

Many of the older women in Uganda make beads, but it’s difficult to find a market for them. For the academy graduates, Sseko bridges a gap, providing a product, a market and an income, Schwartz said.

Lunkuse is a long-term witness to the despair many Ugandans face. She’s seen places scorched by war and domestic violence, girls who marry far too early. The basics of life are often inaccessible, she said during an interview through Skype. Diseases such as malaria run rampant, and medicine is out of reach.

“People are living in very terrible places,” Lunkuse said.

Her mother and father have died, but through her time at Cornerstone and later with Sseko, she found a group of people who love and nurture her, in what she describes as school in a home environment.

“Life in Uganda is challenging,” she said. “It has good things about it and bad things as well.”

Being a woman in Uganda can be quite difficult, Lunkuse said. In underdeveloped regions, women must be submissive to their husbands, and they’re given very little responsibility. But in other places, among the educated, some aspects of sexism imprinted upon generations have begun to fall; there are several women in the country’s parliament.

“Women who are educated, they are given dignity and respect in the society,” she said.”

Sseko has given Lunkuse an opportunity to learn management and social skills, along with the spiritual wisdom to be a leader of her country someday, she said. After finishing university, she feels she will be destined to help others in society as a social worker or administrator.

“It really aligns with what I want, and I’m sure that God is calling me for that,” Lunkuse said.

Schwartz has seen similar glimmers of hope in Ahurira and Enyaru as well. One afternoon’s event stands out: While staying with the three women, Schwartz sat at the edge of a bed and reached for Enyaru’s Bible to check a verse from Scripture. As she opened the pages, a note card fell out, and on it was a list of expenses and a total circled near the bottom. Underneath it, in large letters, she had spelled out a prayer fulfilled: “GOD PROVIDED.”

Schwartz asked Enyaru how God provided the money. She just replied with a big smile, and said “Sseko is how he provided the money for me.”

Future steps of laughter

Bohannon returned to Uganda last month to meet the next class of Sseko employees from Cornerstone. The Sseko class doubled from three to six, and Ahurira is staying on part time as a supervisor while she attends college. Bohannon said Cornerstone gets hiring authority because its staff knows the students from past years.

“We basically let the school decide who are really high-potential girls who would have the hardest time finding employment if they went back home,” she said.

Sseko also just hired its first full-time American staff member who will be in Uganda for one year. Julie Becksprom was hired by Sseko right out of college. She’ll be filling many of the roles Schooley used to perform, such as searching for materials and acting as liaison between the Uganda operation and Kansas City headquarters.

Bohannon said she is also looking to hire three summer interns who would volunteer part time at positions in marketing and public relations, Web and social media, or administration and management, all based in Kansas City.

“We’ve made a pretty big leap of faith by doubling our employment,” Bohannon said. “But I’m confident we can do it.”

Sales are up as well, as Sseko’s nationwide grass-roots college campus campaign puts the business on the radar. Sseko hopes to extend its product line into retail stores in several cities by late spring.

Sseko saw a large jump in sales came during the Christmas season, Bohannon said, when the Martha Stewart 2009 Holiday Gift Guide featured it's sandals. After that publicity, Bohannon’s Kansas City office was out of sandal stock in less than two weeks. She was overjoyed.

“What? Really? I mean we think Ssekos are the bomb diggity,” Bohannon wrote on her blog. “But Martha Stewart does, too? Goodbye quiet winter. Hello, back-ordering and sold out-ness and late night sandal packing parties with my trooper-sandal-packing-guru husband.”

As this still-small start-up company with a broad vision continues to spread its wings of hope across two continents, the drive remains alive for the women of Cornerstone to get the education they deserve. And as the first three students that Sseko helped move onto a university and the next six employees begin, Bohannon is seeing the good a business can do when the benefits of profit extend beyond pocketbooks. It benefits people such as Lunkuse, Ahurira and Enyaru, who Bohannon has grown to know and respect in faith, in work and in friendship.

“We’ve entered into this commitment and promise with each other,” she said.


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