From a Special Needs School to an Empowering Sustainable Fashion Brand

By Fashion Revolution

5 years ago

When Ubuntu Made first came to Maai Mahiu, we found a community of children with special needs and their mothers being mistreated and secluded. The stigma and lack of understanding surrounding special needs in Kenya means extremely limited access to essential services such as education, affordable healthcare, physical rehabilitation, and vocational training. This leads to limited opportunities for social inclusion, many social and economic issues for their families, and ultimately limits their ability to live the life of dignity that they deserve. Ubuntu first created the Ubuntu Special Needs Centre (SNC) to combat this stigma and injustice by providing therapy, education, and vocational training to youth with special needs in Maai Mahiu. Caring for these children had been a full-time job for their mothers, so soon after enrolling their children in the SNC their Mums started a new conversation with the founders: “Now that our kids are out of the house, can you help us do something productive with our time?”

The answer was a fashion line, initially imagined to create jobs for these Mums. Today, those same women have formed into a sisterhood revered in the community: women who provide for their families, purchase land, and venture into their own successful entrepreneurial efforts. Which is why it’s not simply about creating jobs.

“Plenty of people have been given opportunity, but they don’t feel empowered,” explains Zane Wilemon. “There’s something magical about our culture and creating a job within that; it then empowers the whole community.”

This conviction is what led Ubuntu Made to design and launch the Afridrille. At the intersection of customization and sustainability, the Afridrille merges customer experience with genuine connection. Based on the popular espadrille style shoe, their version marries modern on-demand manufacturing technology to an artisanal production process. Customers can choose from an incredible array of styles, choosing from a range of canvas colors, printed patterns, pattern colors, and African kanga linings. There are over 23,000 different design options, so each pair represents the personality of the individual customer. That means that each pair must be made to order, not produced in bulk in advance.

The key to making this process work is technology and expertise provided by Zazzle, a Silicon Valley company that makes customizing anything a possibility. They’ve applied their cutting-edge technology to enhance the customer design process and have dedicated hundreds of hours of senior staff time to help Ubuntu develop the new product, in a collaboration that re-defines what true “corporate social responsibility” represents today.

“At Zazzle we’re thrilled to extend our platform and technologies to Makers who craft products with soul, made from the heart. And there’s perhaps no better example of this than the Ubuntu Mums,” explains Jeff Beaver, Zazzle co-founder and Chief Product Officer. “Through our partnership with Ubuntu we’ve learned that providing economic opportunity is exponentially more impactful, and sustainable, than handouts or charity. These Afridrilles are more than just awesome shoes, they are a celebration of the human spirit, and every single pair empowers these Mums, their special needs kids, and their larger community. What’s better than that?” 

Crowdfunding the product launch via Kickstarter allows Ubuntu to build up production capabilities, expand the skillset of their ‘Maker Mums’, and perfect a complex operating process with the support of the Kickstarter community.

“Never underestimate the power of the entrepreneurial spirit and what can happen when people collaborate on something bigger than ourselves,” says Wilemon. “With the support of Zazzle and an eager crowdfunding audience, together we will scale up production and empower thousands of women and families in Kenya.”

At Ubuntu, empowerment means more than providing handouts or even a sustainable job. It means offering people a chance to create their own lives and livelihood. Ubuntu Made pays above-market wages to all of our employees – up to 4 times as much as they would have been able to find elsewhere in the community. We also provide health insurance to all our employees and their families, a rarity in Kenya where less than 20% have access.

The job skills our Mums learn and the money they earn empower them to buy homes – more than half of Ubuntu employees are homeowners compared to 1% nationwide. They are able to provide for their families, and sometimes start their own enterprises. They earn more than money; they earn respect in their community. Together, by providing disabled children with the healthcare and education they need, we empower them to realize their fullest potential.

That’s empowerment. That’s Ubuntu in action.