Soles with a Purpose
How a shoe is aiding Kenyan women and leading them towards economic freedom
by Margaret Williams
Zane Wilemon’s energy is palpable and it’s what has driven him to build a business and brand dedicated to empowering the people of Kenya. His most recent endeavor is the Afridrille, a cleverly named spin on the Spanish classic. The Afridrille is the first of its kind – described by the team as “the first fully-customizable espadrille shoe, designed in Austin and handmade in Kenya.” Ubuntu Made grew out of the Ubuntu Foundation, which Zane co-founded in 2003 to provide employment, economic growth and education for the town of Maai Mahiu, a 60,000-person community outside of Nairobi, Kenya.
The excitement surrounding Ubuntu Made’s most recent and certainly most ambitious product, The Afridrille, is inextricably linked to Wilemon’s passion for the Ubuntu Special Needs Centre. The school provides life saving and life sustaining services for special needs children throughout Kenya.
The student’s mothers, once used to providing 24-hour care for their special needs children, were now able to look to the future and came to Wilemon with an idea to capitalize on their sewing ability. The now affectionately termed “maker mums” set the wheels in motion for a sustainable model where their handmade coffee sleeves, beaded accessories and now espadrilles could provide financial security for their own families and the life of the Special Needs Centre. Wilemon and his Austin based team are committed to providing “meaningful jobs so people can live dignified lives” and scoff at the “savior mentality” that so often pervades the work done in African nations.
The shoe itself is set apart by its endless customization options and Wilemon confirms it’s “the first of its kind on the continent of Africa.” With an Afridrille Kickstarter campaign that runs through May 3, I sat down with the infectiously enthusiastic Ubuntu co-founder to learn more.
Margaret Williams: Tell me more about these “Maker Mums”…
Zane Wilemon: The reason why we call them mums is because the original nine women we employed, they were all mothers of children that were at the special needs school. We started the first special needs school in that area and then a couple years into running the school, we’re like this is a constant burn on our funds. How do we sustain this? We’re living and dying by donations and events.
Around that same time the mothers of those children came to us, came to me specifically and were like, we’d love a job. Four or five days a week we had to care for our child with special needs plus all our other children, now we have time on our hands. I’m thinking, wow, is there a way to employ these women to offset the cost of our school? So we started talking about what that would be and it was their idea to sew.
We started with the reusable canvas coffee sleeve. Which was our first big partnership with Whole Foods Market. Then we started to scale up to doing bags, started doing change purses, then love bracelets. But we realized we were always missing that hook product, the one product that we were known for and that would keep the moms working year round.
I saw that was a big issue across Kenya and across Africa. I decided, we’re going to commit. We’re going to pay these women full time, even when they’re not filling orders.
MW: How were you and the team able to turn the model into a business?
ZW: You know that saying, teach a man to fish … The missing piece in that is you still need to teach people how to get the fish to the marketplace. We work together to teach these women how to fish, how to sew, to figure out how to get this product to the marketplace.
That was when we decided, let’s look at opportunities to get into shoes. One of our board members is a co-founder of Zazzle [Jeff Beaver] and it was his idea to do a shoe. We were looking for that anchor product so we talked about apparel but you’re dealing with a lot of variation on sizing. And Jeff was like let’s do a shoe. Zazzle had done a shoe, a venture with Keds a few years back and it was a big win for him. It was his idea to do a customization piece.
MW: Seems like a big transition from making coffee sleeve to shoes!
ZW: We’ve been evolving as a brand and the women have been evolving. Turns out there’s only one Kenya based shoe company that exists. So there’s an opportunity there in Africa, to get in the shoe business. Ethiopia does a lot of shoes, so we actually flew to Ethiopia with the Zazzle team to see if this was a viable option. We initially came back discouraged. But then about 6-8 months after that, one of the team members sent me a home video of this woman who was making an espadrille shoe in her home. In this sort of, very simple, organic way. She had a sole, and had 2 canvas pieces.
I’m like wow, let me send this to the mums and the studio and see what they think. And they said “I think we can do this.” So then we found a partner in Barcelona, which is the origin of the espadrille and they were happy to supply us with the soles. From there it became pretty easy because we already did screen printing, we already sourced canvas, we already sourced beads, we already work with the leather. So then it was like okay, let’s just figure out how to train the mums up. And so the rest is kind of history.
MW: I love the mix of traditional African textile designs with the fun, more typically, Western, designs.
ZW: We wanted to do a variety of patterns to launch and that was a conversation between us and the Zazzle team. Prints they thought would do well and others than we thought could potentially be relevant. And then in Africa we talked about the different patterns with the moms. For the inside we chose a Swahili style fabric called a kanga material. We’re already working on a full kanga shoe and we have a camo shoe coming out later and we’re also working on a full beaded shoe.
Yeah and then with Ali [Hewson] from Edun we’re working on a platform sole. So we’re already looking ahead to 2.0 and 3.0. But this a basic, beautiful espadrille style shoe that anyone can customize to whatever they like.
MW: What would you like to see happen with Ubuntu and the Afridrille a year or two from now?
ZW: I mean the keyword is just consistent, sustainable growth. We want to get larger wholesale accounts, but not such large accounts that it’s impossible for these moms to scale up. We really pride ourselves on being an authentic Kenya based company, and so we want to continue to grow these meaningful jobs alongside these women in Kenya.
And so, success for us looks like consistently growing orders on the shoes and expansion of the factory, getting more and more women employed. And that in turn allows us scale our special needs school.
This interview has been condensed for clarity
The Ubuntu Special Needs Centre currently serves 300 children and Ubuntu Made employs 45 women full time. These women receive above market wages and full healthcare benefits.
To learn more about the Afridrille and how to design your own shoe visit their Kickstarter page. The Kickstarter campaign runs through May 3.
Read more from the Music + Film Issue | March 2018