This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
Will leather sandals give Kenya’s economy legs … or should we say, feet?
Some speculate Africa’s footwear market will become a billion-dollar industry over the next 10 years, but for now Kenya’s documented leather shoe exports amount to just $3 million, hardly a nascent footgear empire.
Today, only 2.9 million Kenyans can count on a regular paycheck, while 15 million are engaged in jua kali, the vast, informal economy of traders and artisans hustling for erratic wages in sweltering markets or along the roadside. (Jua kali is Swahili for “hot sun.”)
“When you’re working hand-to-mouth, your timeframes are shorter. It’s a lot easier for you to do many things of lesser quality, rather than something that’s meant to last.”
Among that 15 million are leather workers and shoemakers who can’t make a reliable living solely through their craft, though some of their work is exquisite, as Caleigh Hernandez discovered when she came across a pair of hand-beaded sandals in 2013.
As an international aid worker, Caleigh understood that opening up western markets to Kenyan shoemakers and other artisans would create higher income, allowing them to escape the vagaries of jua kali and fashion a more stable future for their families.
To that end, in 2017 she launched RoHo Goods, an online shop that helps to support nearly 400 women artisans by offering ethical, handmade goods from East Africa.
But first, she had to find the talented maker of those beaded sandals.
Local Tradition Meets Western Taste
“I first travelled to East Africa when I studied abroad through a program where you were matched with a nonprofit partner organization,” Caleigh explains. “I worked with a small community-based organization in rural Uganda. We were helping the poorest of the poor, who were deemed not credit-worthy by banks, create informal savings institutions.”
“Within that program, we also helped create both short- and long-term income generating activities. Being on the ground, doing that work, lit my fire … I saw it as my way forward.”
It was during her 2013 tour that Caleigh found the sandals that inspired her, but the idea for RoHo didn’t fully solidify until she returned to East Africa the following year to get an accurate snapshot of the sandal industry in general – and “her” special sandals, in particular.
Searching for weeks, she finally found Lydia, a skilled shoemaker who routinely travelled to Uganda to sell the sandals made in her Malindi, Kenya, workshop.
Like many local makers who lack export connections, Lydia’s income was tied closely to the tourism sector with its ebb and flow. While Malindi lies only 250 miles from the port city Mombasa, tourist activity had ground to a halt due to incidents of terrorism in the area, leaving Lydia and her artisans without an outlet for their beaded footwear.
Beading takes considerable time and skill to master, but many Kenyan women find themselves in short supply of the former asset. In many cases it’s not feasible to invest time into creating high-value items, especially while balancing motherhood responsibilities, as most craftswomen do.
“When you’re working hand-to-mouth, your timeframes are shorter. It’s a lot easier for you to do many things of lesser quality, rather than something that’s meant to last,” says Caleigh.
Not so with these particular sandals, but the superior quality wasn’t the only thing that struck Caleigh. A woman from Malindi’s Italian community taught Lydia her craft, imbuing her with an understanding of Western tastes and expectations. Though a lack of modern design prowess hampers the Kenyan footwear industry at large, Lydia’s style sense made her a perfect match for Caleigh’s new social enterprise.
Expanding the Vision
By partnering with Lydia, RoHo was able to offer educational benefits and wages 50% higher than industry standards to 42 women artisans. But that was just a start, because “people can only buy so many pairs of sandals,” as Caleigh realized. Product diversification was key to growing the impact: Today, RoHo’s line includes jewelry, home goods, bags, and more.
To support more artisans, RoHo began partnering with Amani ya Juu, a tailoring enterprise assisting women displaced by violent conflicts. Vibrant designs adorn the coin purses, reusable bags and masks Amani sews for RoHo. Kitenge, the traditional fabric chosen for such creations, is printed by alternately applying wax and dyes using a technique known as batik.
Next came a foray into cowhide bags and rugs in partnership with an artisan group co-owned by a local woman. “In Kenya, ‘factory farms’ don’t exist in the same way they do in the US,” Caleigh says. “These cowhides come from government-approved tanneries that are committed to using every part of the cow.”
Personally, she’s a big fan of the Tsavo Tote Bag, one of RoHo’s best-sellers. “It’s a bucket bag, so you can fit everything in it. It’s perfect for taking on an airplane. They travel with me everywhere, and I’ve always loved how each hide has such unique markings. They tell a story.”
Income, Education, and Hope
Cow bones are also incorporated into some of RoHo’s jewelry, further underscoring the commitment to use readily available resources and honor the whole animal. Last year, RoHo launched a new beaded jewelry collection made by a cooperative of 280 Maasai women from the community of Esiteti.
“It’s been our most challenging partnership so far,” Caleigh remarks. “I don’t speak Maa, the local language, and most of these women can’t read or write because there wasn’t a formal school in the area until 10 years ago. So we’ve had to get creative on how to communicate.
“We’ll cut a measuring tape to show how long a bracelet needs to be. We draw a lot of pictures to plan what designs we think would do well, based on what they can do and have done, and what sells well in Kenya. Then we translate it into a Western repertoire, always honoring the techniques and design.”
The jewelry initiative creates opportunities for Maasai girls to get an education, not to mention helping the entire community access quality healthcare. So far, profits from RoHo have sent four young women to vocational college, where they’ll train to be nurses, teachers, or mechanics, then return home and use those skills to lift up their community.
Sending kids to school isn’t limited to the Maasai group. Back at Lydia’s workshop, RoHo has sponsored tuition for 16 of the sandal artisans’ children, including three kids belonging to Maimuna, one of the workshop’s best beaders and a friend of Caleigh’s.
As a single mom, Maimuna previously struggled to make ends meet for her family, but the steady work RoHo provides has changed all that. Nowadays, her situation is far more financially stable. There’s no threat of having to skip meals, and two of her kids are currently in secondary school – a great source of pride for Maimuna, who never had a chance to finish her primary education.
For Caleigh, that’s the kind of impact that keeps her focused and hopeful.
“We’re so very new, we’re not here to tell you we’ve changed the world yet,” she says modestly. But as she and Maimuna both understand, a reliable paycheck can transform a woman’s everyday reality from an unmanageable slew of subsistence activities, to a life of safety and hope for the future.
Spend for good: From hand-beaded sandals and jewelry to one-of-a-kind home decor items in traditional patterns and materials, every purchase you make at RoHo Goods helps to empower women artisans in East Africa. Just in time for the holidays, look for RoHo’s signature sandals on sale at more than 60% off.
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