Forget the aid, give us jobs!
She grabs the sole, then the laces, and a true piece of artisan craftsmanship is about to begin. Watching her hands it´s hard to tell how many times she has done it. Tying the colourful ribbons, attaching them to the sole and making a slender yet steady sandal.
"Sylvia is the best. She wins our tying contest every year," Ashley Paulus says.
She works as the operations and programmes manager at the Sseko Designs in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. The company was started some years ago, when the founder Liz Forkin Bohannon travelled from the United States to explore Uganda.
She met women stuck in poverty and wanted to help. "But the women didn´t want help. They wanted a job," Paulus says.
As time went by, Forkin Bohannon came up with an idea, how fashion could be a way from poverty into a decent life and even to a college degree. Instead of creating an NGO-type service, she wanted to create a true business that runs on its own and empowers women by offering them genuine job opportunities.
|Kampala-based Sseko Designs was established to give aid for poor women, but they wanted to be profitable. Now the company´s business model opens the door to college, but exporting shoes is a far cry from charity
Paulus says the company wants to employ women because they are totally underserved in Uganda.
"When a woman earns money, 80% of the money goes back to their family or community. Statistically, when a man earns money, only 10-20% goes back to the family or to the community. We employ women, because we believe they can make the biggest impact, and also because we can!"
A doubled salary for tuition fees
Inside the factory there are about twenty women doing their everyday tasks. Stella Aling working with fabrics, Josephine Khainza wiring pearls for bracelets. In the eyes of the stranger it’s buzzing like a hive there. However, it is a far cry from a full house now as the factory is resting between the season pikes.
When working, all women are the same, but at the organisation level the workers can be divided into two categories. The women now present are full time workers. In addition, every year a new group of high school graduates start their 9-month contract at the factory before the term at the college starts.
They earn about 280,000 Ugandan Shillings (around 85 euro) a month.
"We deposit half of each salary onto a savings account that is not accessible before the 9-month period is over. When the girl finishes at us, we give this money out and double it," Paulus tells.
The money is about enough for one year´s tuition fees at the college. The company deposits the money to ensure it will be saved for studies. For the girls coming from a poor background, there is always a risk that the money would be pulled from them to benefit the relatives. This would endanger the promising step-out from the vicious circle of poverty."
We have graduated over 40 girls from our programme in the last 5 years," Paulus tells ands points at a photograph showcasing their former employees.
As an employer, Sseko has one rule: after the girl has completed her studies, there´s no way back to the factory."Our goal is that any of the women coming to our programme isn´t going to be making shoes for the rest of her life.
"Even the women who are here now, my goal is that they gain skills and knowledge, take the expertise and apply it to their own business, or a job that can pay them higher salary."
Growth at steady pace
Over the years Sseko Designs has grown and become the biggest exporter of shoes in Uganda. In Kampala they manufacture ribbon and t-strap sandals, which are being sold at their web store for 54–59 US dollars. Added to this, the company has some 300 retail sellers in the US, the company´s biggest market.
Paulus says Sseko could sign more massive deals with department stores, but they prefer splintering the sales and growing at a steady pace.
"A big department store could order 20,000 units in a month and we could double our employees and machinery. But there´s always the chance they wouldn´t re-order next year, and for us it´s really important that these women have a constant job in their life and they can depend on us."
A story makes a brand
All the things mentioned earlier would be just a nice thought without the carefully-planned selling and marketing strategy. For the women making the sandals, the American way is a true a blessing. Not only does the US have the strongest consumer market in the world but the Americans - I dare to say this without the fear of being accused of generalising - also know how to sell by telling stories.
"We’ve kind of built an ethos around our plan. Our customer is generally cautious and knows where the product is coming from."
In the case of Sseko it is ultimately the story of the company and the workers that brings the bacon home, keeps the business vibrant and to fulfils the workers´ dreams. When someone purchases a pair of sandals, they are shipped with a tag telling which girl has actually manufactured them.
"You can go to our website and read her story there and even send her mail. Creating this connection and making sure people know where their stuff comes from, is very important to our brand.".
Sure, there might be a hidden interest of creating more profit this way, but even a business with a social approach turns into dead aid, if it´s allowed to be unprofitable.
And when one thinks how many products are being imported from far away countries without the faceless employees ever getting credit for them, paying US$59 for a good story doesn´t sound so terrible after all, does it?
Juho Paavola, Kampala
The writer is a journalist and photographer based in Finland. All images by Juho.