Sandal Crafting Under a Mango Tree Changes a Country
Liz Bohannon’s story of how she is making an impact in the lives of Uganda’s women inspired us to partner with her and now you can too! Here is a simple and effective way for you to get involved! You can find Sseko Designs’ products in the 4word Purchase with a Purpose online store, just in time for the Christmas shopping rush! We have sandals, bucket bags, clutches, scarves, and more! Check out the great selection of Sseko items available, and make a dent in your Christmas list with products that are making an impact for the women of Uganda!
Have you ever looked back on a situation and thought, “Wow! Talk about right time, right place!”? There are many situations and opportunities that present themselves in the most unexpected way possible and turn into one of those life-changing moments. For Liz Bohannon, founder of Sseko Designs, her “right time, right place” moment came when she was a recent graduate who had decided to move to Uganda to carve out a career in journalism. What happened instead is nothing short of a miracle.
4word: What inspired you to invest yourself in the women of Uganda?
Liz: In 2008, after graduating college, I moved to Uganda to pursue a career in journalism. Although I had grown increasingly passionate about women living in extreme poverty, I lived in a world that was so disconnected from that reality. I moved to Uganda first and foremost to learn. I experienced most of the things that I anticipated: poverty, disease, and injustice. But I also found so much hope, progress, and opportunity. Ugandans are deeply committed to their communities and countries—and I knew I wanted to be a part of that. While living in Uganda, 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 am constantly challenged and encouraged by how much Ugandans give of themselves. Their hospitality and openness challenges the selfish individualist in me. The perseverance and strength of some of the women on our team humbles me and gives me perspective and hope. For me, Uganda is kind of this magical place that is all at once filled with so many obstacles and challenges and also so much opportunity and hope. A place to blaze new trails and dream big. And that is intoxicating to me.
4word: What is a Ugandan “gap year” and what kind of struggles do Ugandan women face during this time?
Liz: In Uganda, there is a 9-month gap period between high school and university that is meant for students to go back home, get jobs and earn money for college. However, for a majority of women, this means returning back to their villages where most of the jobs are given to men. So there are a lot of women just falling through the cracks – very bright, passionate young women.
Less than 16% of women in Uganda will make it to secondary school and less than 2% of women will continue to university. In the broader economy, estimates are that 46% of women in the Ugandan labor force are unpaid, compared to 17% of men.
4word: What is Sseko Designs doing to eliminate these struggles for Ugandan women?
Liz: At the very basic level, we provide employment opportunities for women who might not otherwise be able to earn a living in a way that is dignified and life-giving. For every university–bound woman we employ, we employ two women who are full-time, year-round employees.
For women headed on to university, 50% of their salary each month goes into a savings account that is not accessible until tuition is due. This ensures that their income goes towards education. This also protects the women in our program from the social pressure they often feel from their families to give away the money they are earning and perpetuate the cycle of poverty. At the end of each term, Sseko Designs grants university scholarships that match up to 100% of the savings each woman has made during her 9-month session. To date, 100% of the women who have graduated from Sseko continued on to university and are currently pursuing their advanced degrees!
Additionally, we use the time we have with them to stay laser-focused on their goals for the future and how we can help get them there with our programs specifically designed to give them a head start. Our programs range from personal finance to computer training and career mentoring. We believe that these young women will do more for Uganda than we ever could and we try to support them in their dreams to do just that. I talk more about this in the video below!
4word: We hear you had an interesting experience in Uganda’s capital city trying to locate leather to craft the first Sseko Designs sandals. Can you share that with us?
Liz: HA! Well, after looking for days and days in the local markets for leather, I kept running into dead ends. I couldn’t really communicate what I was looking for, because many of the people I was talking to didn’t really speak English. So at one point, I just started “moo-ing” hoping that maybe the universal language of Old MacDonald might help! His eyes lit up, and he led me through the city, at least a few miles away. After about an hour or so trek, he proudly led me to…the local butcher shop where they were selling…steak. HA. Well, not exactly what I was hoping for, but I appreciated his helpfulness!
4word: Now that they’ve seen Sseko’s impact on the women of Uganda, I’m sure our readers are eager to help. How can 4word women help Uganda’s women?
Liz: Spread the Word: Wear Sseko. Tell your friends. Seriously, the only way we’ve been able to grow at the pace we have is because of our incredible fans sharing our story. We’ve got lots of ways to get involved from hosting Sseko parties to joining our team as an intern, employee, or retail partner. So much of our growth has come from our incredible customers who tell everyone about their sandals! We LOVE when our fans help us spread the word. That is really why we can continue to do what we do.
You can also become an affiliate, which basically means that every time you share the Sseko story online with your community you can earn credit towards your next Sseko purchase! You can become an affiliate here.
Become a Sseko Brave: Another great way to get involved and become a part of the Sseko story is to join the Sseko Brave Collective – which is essentially a community of people interested in learning about new tools and ideas to impact women’s lives for good around the world. You can sign up to join the movement here.
4word: What’s next for Sseko Designs? Any exciting things on the horizon that you can give us a sneak peek of?
Liz: We’ve got lots of dreams and plans for growth! Our primary focus is on continuing to grow our production and employment capacity in Uganda so that we can empower women through educational and economic opportunities. Eventually, we’d like to replicate the Sseko model in different communities of women around the world and have a global impact. As they say in Uganda, “Slowly, slowly” but we’re dreaming BIG!
What are some “right place, right time” experiences you’ve had in your life?
Liz Forkin Bohannon is the founder of Sseko Designs. Sseko is an ethical fashion brand that works to educate and empower women. By providing employment and educational opportunities, Sseko enables women to continue their education and become leaders in their country. In four years, Sseko has grown from three women making sandals together under a mango tree, to an international fashion brand that provides employment, educational opportunities and entrepreneurial training to over 50 women in East Africa.