In the Ugandan school system, a nine-month gap exists for students between the end of secondary school and the beginning of university.
This break is designed as a time for college-bound students to raise money for their education, but in this male-dominated society, many women fall through the cracks, failing to find fair work and finish their education. That’s where Sseko Designs comes in. The company that sells handmade sandals was founded to provide a safe, supportive place for women to earn money for their college degrees.
How the story began
Liz Forkin Bohannon traveled to Uganda shortly after graduating from college with the intention of working for a youth-development organization. Instead, she fell in love with its community of inspiring women, passionate about their education and determined and hopeful about their future despite their seemingly dismal circumstances.
These intelligent, driven women had aspirations to become doctors, teachers, and lawyers — of using their knowledge to better Ugandan society. “For most youth in Uganda, very little is guaranteed. Because of this, women see education as a privilege, gift and the key to a better life,” says Forkin Bohannon. This made her determined to help and to find a way to employ these women and ensure they would earn their college degrees. Thus began Sseko Designs, born with little more than a sandal design and a dream.
How a dream became reality
Forkin Bohannon sold the sandals made by the first class back in the U.S., earning enough money to send Rebecca, Mary, and Mercy to university, and inspiring her to continue the program. “My friend Tyler sent me a short video when he told those first three women that we made enough money for all three of them to continue onto university,” said Forkin Bohannon. “Their elation, joy, sense of pride, and accomplishment stopped me dead in my tracks. It almost felt like we had no other choice but to walk forward.”
How it is making a difference
Sseko Designs labels itself as a “not-just-for-profit” business. It is more than a charity that hands out money; it provides stability and a sense of worth to these women who work to achieve their goals. Sseko Designs ensures each member of the program is able to use their money for college by putting 50 percent of their monthly salary into a savings account that is not accessible until tuition is due.
Additionally, the company grants university scholarships, ensuring that because of their time with Sseko, these women are one step closer to reaching their goals. “If you read the stories of our women, you’ll find that many of their career dreams come from their own life experiences. For instance, when Teddy [a university-bound Sseko student] was about 10 years old, her father died from a very curable respiratory disease simply because there were no doctors in their village to treat the condition. She is now pursuing a career in medicine in an effort to make healthcare accessible to families like her own. Amazing! “ she says.
Q&A with the founder
SheKnows caught up with Sseko founder Liz Forkin Bohannon and discussed in more depth how the designs are making a difference in Uganda.
SheKnows: How much time do you personally spend with these women and how have you seen them grow through the program?
Liz: I have the privilege of spending a few months of every year with our incredible team in Uganda. The growth I’ve seen has been out of this world. The fun part of it all is that I’ve been growing right alongside our women. Their confidence in the craft [and] their ability to create and provide for themselves and their families has been such a joy to watch.
SheKnows: What can fans like us expect in the future from Sseko Designs?
Liz: We’d like to be the largest employer of women in Uganda. My hope is that we would be a significant factor in building industry and employment in Uganda. Someday, we’d love to take the Sseko model and go all over the world, finding incredible groups of people and making beautiful things together.
SheKnows: Besides providing a safe, lucrative workplace for women, what other ways does Sseko Designs inspire your workers to continue their education?
Liz: We try to inspire and take care of the “whole woman.” One of the ways we do that is through a mentorship program through which we match Sseko women up with professionals in their desired fields. We have a health and wellness program (which includes full healthcare coverage (certainly not a standard in Uganda). We do personal finance, budget training, and professional development work. Our goal is that every woman that comes to Sseko is actively becoming more healthy, whole and happy.
SheKnows: The Sseko motto is that “every sandal has a story.” Do you have a story about the moment you knew Sseko sandals were making a difference?
Liz: While we were in full swing with our second class, we learned that Mercy from our pioneer class had been elected as the Minister of Women’s Affairs for her university class. When we first met Mercy, we had to lean in to even understand her soft, timid voice. Now she is representing thousands of female students to the school’s governing body?! I was thrilled and decided right then and there we have to give it our all to keep this thing going.
SheKnows: Do you keep in touch with the graduates of the program? What are they doing now?
Liz: Yes! Every year we have a great big reunion bash, where our alumnae from all over the country come for a night of celebration and reconnecting. We get to hear the update on where they are now and where they are going. Currently, every woman who has graduated from our program is enrolled in a University in Uganda and is pursuing her degree.
SheKnows: How are you spreading the word about Sseko Designs in the U.S. and other countries outside of Uganda? What can readers do to help?
Liz: Wear Ssekos! Tell your friends! Every time a woman shares the story of her sandals, she’s helping us grow our impact. It is amazing to play a role in the world and make it a little more beautiful, one sandal and one story at a time.