At 22, Liz Bohannon was an idealistic young college graduate headed to Uganda to help youth development organizations with their communications. Within a few months, she became a dedicated capitalist, bent on providing women opportunities in education and work.
It all started when Bohannon met some women graduating from a selective secondary school program. "They came from poverty, and most had lost parents to AIDS or war in Uganda, but they all had lots of academic potential. These women were my peers, getting ready to graduate from college prep program and go to university."
In Uganda, there are no student loans, so students have to test into a college and pay upfront with cash. They graduate from high school in January, and most spend nine months working to earn money for their education. Once in school, they sometimes work while studying. "The first bit of money is the essential part," says Liz. And her friends couldn’t come up with it—there just weren’t any jobs in their villages. Even if there were, those positions would go to the boys.
"Of all the things I witnessed and saw in Uganda, this gripped me the most," she said. "They had incredible dreams and wanted to contribute to society, and instead they’ll probably go home and get married and have kids, just because they couldn’t get over this nine-month gap."
The experience inspired her to come up with a scheme to create a business that would support this gap for Ugandan women. First she tried a chicken farm, but soon found that it wouldn’t raise enough money.
Then Bohannon remembered some sandals she had made in college: flip-flops tied up with ribbon so they didn’t flip or flop so much. "I thought it was funny that people like them so much, and to be honest, it was like well, I don’t have any better ideas."
Thus, Sseko Designs was born. Bohannon found women that were academically gifted, and in need of jobs, and collected locally sourced materials in Kampala. Then she taught the women to make her sandal design, using garbage bags full of rubber, shoestrings, and leather. "For the whole first year, our factory floor was a patch of grass under a mango tree."
The women would make the sandals and mail them to Bohannon, who had returned home to Missouri. She sold the pieces out of the trunk of her car, trying to raise enough for the women’s education. "At the time, I had a goal in mind. There was a specific number of sandals we needed to sell to get them to school. I came to the States in January of 2009, and by June, we had sold the amount we needed, and demand started outpacing supply," she recalls. It costs about $4,000 per year to attend college.
From there, the business has grown to a full-time staff of 38 women, as well as a rotating nine-month program. With Sseko’s help, 30 women have gone through the program—and 100% of them are in university pursuing their degree, says Bohannon. Sseko also offers women a grant program: Each participant is required to save 50% of her salary into a fund for school, and the company matches 100% of what she saved for college.
The sandals can be tied in dozens of different ways, and they are gaining popularity worldwide. "Our dream would be a lifestyle brand, where we are making lots of products in an ethical and social way," says Bohannon, adding that she sees a market opportunity for shoppers who want to have beautiful accessories but also to contribute to making the world better.