VENTURES AFRICA – Behind a burgeoning international market for their environmentally conscious sandals is the inspiring entrepreneurial story of a group of Kenyans who have toiled over the years to build a shoe making brand that has not only given them a steady source of income, but also given them a share in a company deemed to revolutionize textile industry in the region.
Ecosandals, located in Kariobangi, one of Kenya’s most populous informal settlements, produces an environment-friendly product with raw materials sourced from the local market. The sole is made from used tires and the strap and lining from second-hand denim or camouflage or any other recycled cloth.
The result is a product that champions its informal settlement origins and, in so doing, overturns the entire understanding of what it is: place for creativity and entrepreneurship and not poverty and hopelessness.
Ecosandals began when Matt Meyer, a visiting American student, came to Kenya in 1992 to work with street children through the foremost local African NGO of the time, Undugu Society. “I came here wanting to help. You want to do something….but it is hard to know how to engage,” he said. Earlier on, he learnt two important lessons, both of which contributed to the character of the company that he went on to co-found.
First, that the NGO culture in Africa was doing more harm than good. “I found that when I gave someone $1, they came back the next day for $2, then $5. And so I found that when I gave people money, I was actually helping myself more than I was helping them,” he said.
Second, Kenyans had the answer to their own challenges; they just needed to be given their own challenges; they just needed to be given the right opportunities. “I wanted to give Kenyans some way to engage with the world outside. I wanted it to be something where they had responsibility where they weren’t recipients.”
The Ecosandals business began in 2000. A pair of Ecosandals costs $10 to $40 depending on the make. Although the emphasis on Kenyan market, two retail stores in the United States that stocks the sandals, including the globally known Walmart and Home Depo, have been overwhelmed by the demand that they have been forced to increase order from Kenya from a paltry 20 sandals each to now 300 sandals each every month. “The whole idea is that Kenya can build a globally recognized fashion brand,” Mr. Meyer said.
The business started with a grant of $10,000 from the Samuel Huntington Fund in Massachussets, and later attracted an additional investment of $50,000. When the business experienced a growth spurt from online sales, its value shot to $1.5 million, but Meyer is unsure of what it is worth today. The staff base fluctuates between six and 40.
This year, Ecosandals initiated aggressive rebranding and marketing to development store displays, which will ideally pre-empt their growth into boutique stores and leading supermarkets in the country. Ecosandals is also planning to move its workshop to a larger location buoyed by growth.
Mr. Meyer attributes the company’s growth and its successes to three key things. The first is the ownership structure of the company: the workers own the project.
“We’re a for-profit business. Our sandal markers are shareholders who, like any other shareholders, want to maximize profit. And because they are shareholders, they buy into the project,” he said.
The idea started by offering a financial incentive for every worker who came up with a new design but with time, Mr. Meyer started offering them ownership and encouraging them to develop new ideas. “It was too complex and it didn’t work,” he said. “Instead, they bought into the company and wanted to make cool stuff.”
This bottom-up structure of management and ownership were a key turning point as it gave the workers a sense of dignity, which was some ways more important than money. “I am definitely not running this,” said Mr. Meyer. And so Ecosandals is no different from a private business except that the workers own a bulk of the shares.
“Everyone who works for our project for over three months is not just an employee. They are owners. They have the skills and knowledge to run it. And when they need money, I ask how many shares will give me?”
Each sandal is developed on a theme, which is linked to the concerns of the workers. So, for instance, some of their designs are called Amani (peace), Zuri (beautiful), Mbele (forward) and Safi (clean). The second step that Ecosandals took was to embrace social media in marketing.
“The Facebook thing is good for business. Keeping in constant contract with the customers and pushing messages out to them on a regular basis is good. But also having our workers feel like they are directly interacting with their customers as human beings.”
The company’s’ third strategic decision, which syncs with making workers shareholders and allowing them to engage with their customers through social media, is to break the anonymity of the worker.
By putting a card on each of the sandals which has the sandal makers name and their email address, direct contact between the maker and the customer is established- which ultimately bridges the gap between the two and prevents an intermediary from eating into the profit margin.
Mr. Meyer says this is probably a revolutionary idea for the textile or the fashion business since through the card, the sandal maker is given a voice and granted them recognition and respect.
Mr. Meyer talks openly about the management problems that the business has experienced. “We had put up a website, and when the business on the web was taking off and we got a lot of press from it. But then a lot of people were stealing money. We tried to put controls but when you are making $20,000 every day, multiply that to what the shilling was then, and put that in the Kenyan slum terms and that is a lot of money. There’s a lot of temptation.”
Ecosandals prides itself on the tried and tested tagline that their sandals are good to wear for five years or for 5,000 miles.