Bringing Joy to East Africa

In the fall issue of Delighted, I interviewed Liz Forkin Bohannon, founder of Sseko Designs. Her story is inspiring...full of hope and great style. Check out Sseko's site for great gift ideas: Sseko Designs.

What is Sseko Designs?

Sseko Designs is a footwear and accessories company based in Uganda. Sseko was created to educate, empower and provide employment opportunities to high-potential young women in East Africa. Sseko began as a way to generate income for high-potential, talented young women to continue on to university. Sseko has graduated three classes of women. Every woman who has graduated from Sseko is currently pursuing her college degree. In addition to our university-bound team, Sseko also employs a full-time team of women from all walks of life. By creating an environment of dignity, honor, creativity and dedication, Sseko Designs provides the opportunity for women in East Africa to end the cycle of poverty and create a more equitable society.

What inspired you to start Sseko?
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 couldn’t have cared how that took 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 and then move 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, strappy 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!

What does Sseko mean?
Enseko is the word for Laughter in Luganda
You turned a dream of helping women in Uganda into a business that truly benefits those you want to help. What has been the greatest challenge in getting where you are today?
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 sustainable business in East Africa.

What has been most rewarding since starting this venture?
Sseko graduation, when our women graduate from our program and start university! It is such a joy to be a part of watching them take the next step to pursuing their dreams.

What does a typical day look like for you?
No such thing! It might include being in East Africa, scouring the market for new materials or sitting at my desk in Portland, outlining our marketing plan, managing interns or speaking on a college campus. Or let’s be honest, making a Post Office run or emptying the trash at the office. We all wear lots of hats. The joys of a small company.

What is the best business advice you have received since starting Sseko Designs?
To do for one person what you wish you could do for many. It is so easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged while working for social justice. But great things don’t happen in a day. It is about being faithful, and putting one foot in front of the other and walking slowly towards to goal. One person at a time!
What advice would you give to others who are considering starting a business that gives back?
Know that you can’t solve every problem in the world. If you try you’ll fail. But even worse, you’ll become discouraged and burnt out. Focus on one thing you’re absolutely die-hard passionate about. And then run towards it with all your might. And don’t forget to celebrate the small victories!
I love that there are so many ways to tie the sandal straps to create unique looks on a whim. Who comes up with all of the tie ideas? And what is your favorite way to tie your sandals?
We’re always coming up with new ties! Honestly, a majority of the most popular ties have been designed by our customers. We’re always getting photos or videos from super creative Sseko lovers who are AMAZING at styling their Ssekos! We love sharing their creations with the rest of the Sseko-wearers who need a little inspiration. If I am being super active, I always opt for the Classic Tie because it is so comfortable and sturdy. But when I’m in the mood to spice things up I opt for a style like the Braided Thong with a metallic strap. An elegant and classic silhouette—with a twist.
What are some ways readers can be part of what Sseko is doing in Uganda?
Wear Ssekos. 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 (order 10 or more pairs and you’ll receive free shipping and 10% off your order!) to joining our team as an intern, employee or retail partner.

Interview with Liz Forkin Bohannan. Photos courtesy of Sseko Designs.