Sandals That Send Girls To School: Founder of Sseko, Liz Forkin Bohannon

Written by Kassia Binkowski, Contributing Editor to The Good Trade

Meet Liz of Sseko Sandals

Sseko began as a way to generate income for high potential, talented young women to continue on to university in Uganda. And it is working! Every woman who has graduated from Sseko is currently pursuing her college degree or has graduated from university and is on her way to making our world a more beautiful place. We recently sat down with Liz Forkin Bohannon, founder of Sseko to hear more about her work to provide opportunity for women in East Africa and create a beautiful line of sandals and accessories.  

Very few businesses combine creative design and social impact the way Sseko does. Tell us, of all the products you could have chosen how did you end up producing sandals? What is the story and inspiration behind your brand?

What Sseko has become is somewhat of an accidental result of blind determination.

While living in Uganda (I moved there to pursue journalism) I met a group of incredibly talented and ambitious young women who needed economic opportunity in order to continue on to university and pursue their dreams. I knew I was in a certain place in a certain time and that the story of these women would become a part of my story. I didn’t really care too much about how that would take shape.

Almost everything about Sseko was born from necessity. We needed to generate income. We had to do something that 18 year old girls could be a part of for a season before moving on to pursue their goals. We had to create something out of the limited materials available in the East African region. After several other ideas (including a chicken farm!) I was reminded of a pair of funky sandals I had made a few years earlier. I spent a few weeks scouring the country for the materials we needed and trying to learn everything I could about making footwear. I hired three young women and several weeks later, under a mango tree, a sandal company in East Africa was born!

A mango tree? Wow. Well, you’re obviously not just a sandal company. Tell us about the impact can your customers expect to have when they purchase a pair of Sseko sandals?

We focus our work on four distinct areas of impact. At the core of our model, we create educational and career opportunities for high potential, academically gifted young women in Uganda. In doing so, we close the gender gap by creating pathways for women to pursue leadership positions in society. All of our artisan partners are provided a sustainable fair-wage and dignified employment. And at the end of the day, we are building the economy in East Africa by creating jobs and supporting the local industry.

When buying Sseko sandals, a customer is making a direct impact in all of these areas!

It’s the depth of this impact that we find so impressive, especially in light of how challenging it can be to run an international business in a resource-constrained environment. What are some of the challenges you have faced in your dual pursuits of manufacturing footwear and providing opportunities for women in Uganda?

Because there are not many businesses of our kind in Uganda (specifically, production intended for export) the infrastructure for production and logistics is still very limited. Our hope is to not only to make Sseko successful but in the process, to contribute to the overall climate of doing business in East Africa. We are tackling these challenges through ongoing training, identifying great partners on the ground, working with existing technical training facilities, and introducing new technologies from around the world to East Africa.

I love that while Uganda may be your backyard, East Africa at large is within your vision for change! How do you help your customers understand the scope of your work when the impact is thousands of miles away?

Our hope is to increase consumer engagement and awareness by building a brand and a community that speaks directly to our consumer, wherever she is today. It can be difficult to connect with something going on halfway across the world, which is why our brand message is about inspiring women to Be Brave, wherever we are. In addition to celebrating and highlighting the stories of our team in East Africa, we hope to do the same for women here in the US as well.

That makes perfect sense. Despite completely disparate circumstances, women everywhere are faced with so many of the same decisions. Just look at the fashion industry. With so many options available to us, the choices and considerations can be very overwhelming. Tell us, what do you look for when you’re trying to purchase clothing and accessories responsibly and ethically?

It can be very difficult! But I look first and foremost for transparency from the companies I support. I also try to buy items that I know I will use for a long time and that play an intentional and thoughtful role in my wardrobe. I also try and support the Shared Economy and either borrow, rent or buy second-hand to limit my footprint.

Well your footprint may be small but the social impact your leadership is lending to your business is anything but that. You have built an impressive company combining beauty and responsibility to engage consumers and propagate change. We’re curious, how are the values you’ve built into your business reflected in other aspects of your life?

The Sseko Manifesto is made of tenants that I run our company by, but also that inform my personal life. The way that I pursue community, intentional living, my own consumer habits, service and learning are all guiding by the same principles found in our brand manifesto - dignity, bravery, generosity, and adventure. From how I view my own marriage, to the urban commune we’re currently building with friends, to our work with refugees and vulnerable populations here in our hometown of Portland, I strive to be guided by principles of grace, courage and intentionality in everything I do. 

Kassia Binkowski is a Contributing Editor at The Good Trade and the Founder of One Thousand Design. She grew up in Madison, WI and traveled her way around the world to Boulder, CO which she now calls home. Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Kassia supports innovative organizations from Colorado to Kathmandu tell their stories of social change through writing, photography, and design. Kassia is an eternal optimist and forever a backroad wanderer.