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Sandal Company Started Accidentally by American Woman Helps Pay for University Education of Women in Uganda

"Souls of Sseko"

We are giving away a pair of Sseko Designs sandals! Find more information here.

There’s more to sandal company Sseko Designs than meets the eye. Liz Forkin Bohannon moved to Uganda to learn more about the world through a humanitarian lens but she unexpectedly found an opportunity to foster social change for local young women. Many powerful young women she connected with had no more than one high school graduate in their immediate family. This motivated Forkin to look for ways to work together with women in the area to help them achieve bigger goals and gain higher educations. Since creating the company almost seven years ago, Forkin and her fellow Ugandan colleagues have created many different styles of accessories in addition to their famous sandals. They have partnered with other organizations in East Africa to produce ethically manufactured handbags and accessories, while advocating for young women to obtain college degrees. Forkin is committed to running a company that invests in its employees’ futures, rather than seeing them as workers who make the maximum amount of product in the shortest amount of time. We got a chance to ask Forkin a few questions about Sseko Designs, the company’s background, and her plans to grow the company and its programs. 

Sseko Designs College Graduates
Sseko Designs College Graduates

What were you doing before you launched Sseko professionally? Were you in school?

I moved to Uganda after graduating university with a journalism degree to learn more about the effects of extreme poverty on women, with the idea that I would eventually work for a humanitarian organization. I began volunteering with a youth development organization based in Kampala and this is where I fell in love with a group of incredibly talented, passionate, and intelligent young women.

 

What's the inspiration for Sseko?

What Sseko has become is somewhat of an accidental result of blind determination. While living in Uganda (I moved there to pursue journalism) I met a group of incredibly talented and ambitious young women who needed economic opportunity in order to continue on to university and pursue their dreams. I knew I was in a certain place in a certain time and that the story of these women would become a part of my story. I didn’t really care too much about how that would take shape. Almost everything about Sseko was born from necessity. We needed to generate income. We had to do something that 18-year-old girls could be a part of for a season and then move on to pursue their goals. We had to create something out of the limited materials available in the East African region. After several other ideas (including a chicken farm) I was reminded of a pair of funky, strappy sandals I made a few years earlier. I spent a few weeks scouring the country for the materials we needed and trying to learn everything I could about making footwear. I hired three young women and several weeks later, under a mango tree, a sandal company in East Africa was born!

 

Do you design all of the styles at Sseko?

I do! I certainly never saw myself becoming a fashion designer, but it’s one of the most fun parts of my job! My goal is to create beautiful, high-quality, on-trend goods that are made in a way that positively impacts both the communities that produce and consume those goods. I want our customers to have (and love!) their Sseko products for years to come!

Can you tell us what “dignified employment” means?

Instead of donating product to help meet immediate needs, we try to go back further into the cycle of poverty and ask how we can empower and enable communities to take care of themselves and one another. We believe that job creation is a key component to that. And there is nothing better than giving a woman the opportunity to work hard in dignified way so that she can provide for herself and her family. Give her the opportunity and she will do the rest!

 

What does a typical workday at Sseko look like?

Well, as you can imagine, our U.S. office and our Uganda office look quite different. A typical day at Sseko Uganda includes the humming of sewing machines, a buzzing design studio where our product development and prototypes are made and the sound of lots of chatter and laughter during lunch and tea breaks. You might also see us conducting our Social Impact Programs—where we cover everything from health and wellness to career development. And there is always the possibility of the commotion caused by lizards in the workshop!

Sseko Designs Sandals

 

Is Sseko a competitive workplace to apply for, especially for students graduating from secondary schools? How many employees are there in your university-bound team right now?

Fortunately, we are lucky to be able to partner with an incredible high school called Cornerstone Leadership Academy (CLA) to find the newest team members, which makes the process an easy one. Cornerstone runs leadership academies across East Africa. They operate two schools in Uganda, one for boys and one for girls. The school accepts 25 students per class on a scholarship-only basis—bringing opportunity to some of the best and brightest young minds in Uganda, regardless of their financial background. As we continue to grow, we hope to hire more and more of their graduating class, until each graduate can find a job with Sseko if they want one. Our current class consists of 11 girls.

 

Is the salary from the nine-month employment enough to sustain a student for her whole college studies?
    
The salary from our program (50 percent of which goes into a savings account that we match at the end of their employment) is at least enough to support these women through their first year of university. We’ve found that if we can give women the initial opportunity for a college education, they are able to support themselves throughout the rest of their degree.

 

Nine months are not very long in terms of the length of employment. How do you manage to sustain a system like this?

Our solution: For every university-bound woman we employ, we employ two women who are full-time, year-round employees. Every year we hire a new class of women and it is our veteran team that keeps the wheels turning during the time of hiring and training our newest class. Our veteran team consists of everyone from our cooks to sandal makers to managers. It is important for us to build a company that is sustainable and will continue to meet needs year after year and building an excellent full-time staff that we hope will be with us for a long time is part of how we do that.

 

What's the plan for Sseko's future development?

The hope is that we’ll continue to grow our production, employment capacity, and impact in Uganda with Sseko sandals, and begin to replicate the model, working with other communities of women all across the globe making additional products. As they say in Uganda, “Slowly, slowly.” But we’re dreaming BIG BIG!

Right now our biggest focus is growing the Sseko Fellows program, which is allowing us to involve women right here at home in our mission, as well as helping to grow our impact in East Africa.

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