For decades, the world’s discerning shoe lovers have turned to European and US design labels to satisfy their desires for beautiful, handcrafted shoes - but now, Africa is staking a claim on the global footwear map, thanks to a new generation of trendy and creative designers from the continent. Their bold and innovative designs are grabbing attention and winning new fans.
But this exciting new trend doesn't just stop at design - what makes Africa unique is that its women entrepreneurs also lead with higher purpose brands. More and more often, the world is seeing innovative and highly creative women entrepreneurs from across the continent going global, with world-class brands that are intrinsically embedded with a deep social conscience. Over the next decade we are going to see more and more African women entrepreneurs building world-class brands - the difference is that these brands will not only do well, but will also do good. Africa’s women have a real talent for developing products and brands that not only resonate powerfully with their global customers, but they also have a higher purpose. They connect on an emotional level to a buying audience particularly in North America and Europe, that is in search of meaning and value that goes beyond simply products and services, an audience that is looking for a powerful story behind the brand.
“At soleRebels we believe that people around the world want much more from their brands. They want to see that the company that makes the products cares as much about the people who make their products as they do about reducing their footprint on the world. We believe that concern for our workers is real style and something that never goes out of fashion!”
- Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu
So at a practical level, how are these women building their ‘higher purpose’ brands that manage to do well and do good? Firstly, they have great ideas - they are inspiring and touching people emotionally through highly creative, beautifully hand-crafted products with a strong brand appeal. Secondly, they are leveraging their uniquely African back story, a powerful selling tool to connect with global customers. Thirdly, many of these women are focused on creating sustainable and ethical products, whether obtaining Fair Trade-certification, ensuring they are committed to using sustainable and locally sourced raw materials, supporting local artisan skills development, and ensuring ethical labour practices. Finally, they are passionate about working for social good, contributing to the building of strong local communities and making a difference to the socio-economic development of their countries. As a result, Africa's women entrepreneurs are successfully brand building by employing both social responsibility and brand strategy to gain success.
Meet eight of our favourite shoe designers and entrepreneurs from across the African continent, who are creating truly head-turning designs for the feet, all with a distinctly African feel.
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu - Founder of Sole Rebels, Ethiopia
Bethlehem Tilahun Elemu is the inspirational Ethiopian woman entrepreneur and founder of the world's fastest-growing African footwear brand and the only Fair Trade-certified footwear company in the world. Her company, Sole Rebels, based in her community of Zenabwork, creates unique shoes as a platform for inspiration and hope in her country and beyond. Today 70,000 pairs of shoes leave her factory every year and are exported to 45 countries.
soleRebels business model provides a living and breathing example of what can happen when young and motivated grassroots African entrepreneurs take on the global market, compete and win.
So, what is behind the name soleRebels? The inspiration sprang from the whole idea of giving deeply marginalized folks who once had no hope, the chance to become self sufficient, independent and full of hope by crafting innovative footwear from recycled tires, inner tubes, organic cottons and other great natural materials! The company and brand, soleRebels began in 2004 as an idea: to bring jobs to the local community of Zenabwork, a small village in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a place where there literally were none. Bethlehem decided to create a “better life” for everyone in the community by harnessing its incredible artisan skills and channeling them into a sustainable, global, fair trade footwear business. The approach taken to create this amazing new footwear brand, that being hand crafted and eco-sensible, meant that the company could source and make almost all its materials locally, thereby creating an export product from 100% local inputs. This allowed Bethlehem and her team to riff, recreate, and re-imagine the traditional “selate” and “barabasso” shoes, a recycled car tire soled shoe that has existed in Ethiopia for a long time (in fact, it was the footwear from back in the day when the original “soleRebels” fought off the invading forces and kept Ethiopia as the only African nation to never be colonized!). Bethlehem took this wonderful indigenous age-old recycling tradition and fused it with fantastic Ethiopian artisan crafts and excellent modern design sensibilities and turned it into a footwear brand that has universal flavour and appeal is now a market beating export brand being enjoyed by people around the globe! In addition to recycled car tire soles, all the soleRebels footwear styles incorporate as much recycled and sustainable material as possible with ingredients like hand spun and hand loomed organic cotton fabrics, and a pallete of unique natural fibers including Abyssinian hemp and pure Abyssinian boba and Abyssinian pure leathers. All the shoes are handcrafted making it a truly zero carbon production process! The products are made in this low-impact manner because proudly, historically, that is the way it’s been done in Ethiopia! www.solerebels.com
Tetsi & Lynn Bugaari and Nuba Elamin - Founders of Buqisi-Ruux, Kenya
Beautiful shoes and women have long been synonymous with one another. In the case of the three talented women entrepreneurs behind the wonderfully creative Kenyan shoe design brand, Buqisi-Ruux, their design inspiration comes directly from the personal stories of the women around them. Nuba Elamin, Lynn Bugaari and Tetsi Bugaari are taking the art of African storytelling to new heights, creating wearable art for the feet, and individual shoe designs that are named after the African women whose stories inspire them. Genuine inspiration for the soul - or make that sole! This truly unique and funky African shoe brand that represents the diversity, vibrancy and boldness that lies within the African continent. Nuba, Lynn and Tetsi love to say that they create wearable art by putting Africa at their feet. The Buqisi-Ruux shoe line celebrates Kenyan design, producing high-heeled shoes covered in bold and colourful African print material.
"The Buqisi-Ruux brand celebrates the success of the African continent and its women, as each shoe is named after an inspirational African woman and her story is shared with the world."
The inspiration for Buqisi-Ruux came from a combination of love, curiosity, interest and opportunity, all of which inspired the entrepreneurial trio to start up the brand. The company’s founders are all close family members and this aspect has played a large role in their business and their brand values. Lynn had, or rather has, an obsession for shoes; Nuba has a thirst for knowledge and a wider experience of the African continent; and Tetsi brings to the company a passion for fashion and the desire to create. Together, they realised that there was an opportunity to utilise the beautiful colours, prints and patterns on African fabric to create a wide variety of differently styled, highly distinctive, high-heeled shoes that any woman would be proud to wear. Aside from the stylish comfort the brand aims to provide with each pair of shoes designed and produced, the hope is for people to engage with thebrand for the positive and uplifting African stories it shares with its customers. Each shoe has a unique and particular significance, being named after an inspirational African woman whose story could encourage and motivate someone else's story. www.buqisi-ruux.com
Adhiambo Mula-Lauwers - Founder of GALAGO, South Africa
Adhiambo Mula-Lauwers is a highly talented designer and entrepreneur based in South Africa who is turning the traditional concept of shoe design on its head and in the process creating a truly unique and proudly African footwear brand. GALAGO is a footwear brand with a difference. It not only celebrates an African aesthetic, embracing the traditional techniques and craftsmanship renowned on the continent, but also brings in a uniquely customised aspect for the wearer. Galago draws on craft, talent and traditional techniques, creating fresh contemporary products infused with soul. The company manufactures and sells African inspired footwear under 2 lines. Firstly, GALAGO "Design-your-own" concept footwear. These on-trend, handcrafted sandals consist of full leather soles complemented by a variety of interchangeable uppers, utilizing a design-registered technique. Secondly, “Ready-to-wear” footwear consisting of pumps, loafers, and soon to be introduced slip-ons.
"We handcraft our sandals in our sunny studio in downtown Johannesburg, sourcing our raw material in South Africa and employing talent, primarily women, from the community. We are an ethics driven brand, big on Fairtrade, big on Africa."
GALAGO is a footwear brand with a difference. It not only celebrates an African aesthetic, embracing the traditional techniques and craftsmanship renowned on the continent, but also brings in a uniquely customised aspect for the wearer. Adhiambo’s inspiration for her focus on sandals came from being born and raised in the sunny costal town of Mombasa, where no-one ran around barefoot, instead they all wore sandals - all kinds of them - from intricate Masaai beaded ones, to the “Akala” - the hardy tyre sandal. So the design journey began, taking the sandal concept one stage further, allowing the buyer to customise their sandals in terms of colour, style, and texture, one style for every day of the week. That is how Galago was born. www.galagoonline.co.za
Ysolde Shimwe and Kevine Kagirimpundu - Founders of Uzuri K & Y, Rwanda
The art of fine shoe-making is a specific design discipline and one that hugely excites the entrepreneurial design duo behind the Rwandan shoe brand, UZURI K&Y. Ysolde Shimwe (CFO & Co-Creative designer) and Kevine Kagirimpundu (CEO & Co-Creative designer), are combining their substantial design talents to create some of the hottest shoes on the continent. Their startup story is one of creating beautiful handcrafted shoes with a unique Rwandan aesthetic, and their company and brand, UZURI K&Y, is a Rwandan enterprise based in Kigali and registered since June 2013, designing and manufacturing a line of shoes through a celebration of craftsmanship. With the impact of creating jobs in Rwanda’s handcraft sector, the two partners, Ysolde and Kevine, have trained a team of 13 shoe makers and are currently training 5 more who produce high quality handcrafted shoes for women and men. Ysolde and Kevine are both creatives from the University of Rwanda, and are young self-taught fashion designers. They used to dream a lot of the future, sharing life perspectives and entrepreneurial dreams, and it was fortuitous that their desires converged to become a common vision.
"Inspired by our African heritage, our footwear is designed in Rwanda and handcrafted by local people. Creating employment especially for women and youth is at the heart of our business."
For almost three years, the pair have invested their time, money and skills learning, and formed a good team to produce unique and much sought-after shoe designs from Rwanda. They have developed original techniques to handcraft each pair of shoes, all featuring their unique design styles and patterns, not to mention a particular way of preparing materials, all helping to differentiate UZURI K & Y from the rest of the pack. Their products differ from those of their competitors in various ways such as colours, patterns and original concepts, all generated using local materials such as Agaseke patterns produced by local artisans and also showcasing traditional old techniques into new ways of application. Our products also differ from others in the combination of materials used, which are mixed with African sourced fabrics, as well as using different soles such as TPU, TPR and recycled tires. This is one hot African shoe brand tipped for big things in the future. www.uzuriky.com
Liz Forkin-Bohannon - Founder of Seeko Designs, Uganda
Liz Forkin-Bohannon is an American social entrepreneur and founder of Sseko Designs, an ethical fashion brand based in Uganda. In addition to handbags and accessories, Sseko makes beautiful leather sandals with interchangeable fabric straps that can be styled in hundreds of ways. The line began as a way to generate income for high potential, talented young women to continue on to university. By creating an environment of dignity, honor and dedication, Sseko Designs provides the opportunity for marginalized women in East Africa to end the cycle of poverty and create a more equitable society. To date, Seeko Designs has enabled 60 women to continue on to university, and currently employs 50 women in Uganda from all walks of life.
"Sseko Designs uses fashion to provide employment and scholarship opportunities to women pursuing their dreams and overcoming poverty."
Liz and her team at Sseko Designs believe that every woman has a dream. When she is given the opportunity to pursue those dreams, we are collectively walking towards a brighter and more just and beautiful world. In addition to the company’s work in Uganda, Sseko Designs also source ethically made products from across East Africa, partnering with organisations in Kenya and Ethiopia who produce all the company’s woven textiles and fine leather goods, believing that good business can be an incredibly powerful force for positive social change. Sseko products are all made in Africa and create jobs, empower artisans and help end the cycle of poverty by building healthy communities and economies. www.ssekodesigns.com
Mabel Suglo - Eco-Shoes, Ghana
Mabel Suglo is a rising star on the African footwear scene and a recent prize winner for her entrepreneurship activities on the continent. Her company, Eco Shoes, offers an assortment of shoes and accessories that are fashionable and Afro-themed, using recycled materials. Eco-Shoes is a Ghana based social enterprise that reinvests in the environment by upcycling waste into something of greater use and value. Mabel believes in empowering and transferring the skills of shoe making to people with disabilities to hand-make shoes from truck tyres, fabric scraps and other sustainably sourced raw materials, thus providing employment to people who otherwise would be out of a job or living below the poverty threshold. Eco-Shoes links the physically challenged artisans at the base of the pyramid to the markets at the top of the pyramid. By selling durable and versatile footwear made from up-cycled tires and fabric waste, Eco-Shoes creates jobs which benefit people with disabilities and the communities in which they live, whilst at the same time inspiring people to get creative about re-using materials, extending their life-cycle, and at the same time contributing to waste reduction.
EcoShoes, a company that employs people with disabilities to manufacture eye-catching shoes and accessories from discarded tyres and recycled materials.
Mabel’s employee-base is made up of predominantly disabled individuals and she aims to increase their economic participation through real job opportunities. Mabel believes that disability is not inability and employs people with a variety of disabilities to create products that she sells into wholesale and retail markets. “There are millions of discarded car tyre stockpiles and waste materials in Ghana which pose an environmental and health hazard,” says Mabel. Eco-Shoes rescues some of the millions of tyres and other material waste creating an environmental nuisance, to make fashionable and comfortable shoes. The company seeks to build a community of conscious consumers with a forward thinking team who believe re-using and recycling can turn trash into treasure. www.ecoshoesgh.com
Nana and Afua Dabanka - MONAA, Ghana
"We want to be one of the most relevant footwear labels that was established in Africa."
German-born Ghanaian sisters, Nana and Afua Dabanka, created the luxury footwear label, MONAA, in homage to their regal Ashanti heritage. Made in Ghana by expert artisans, MONAA sandals are constructed from the finest, globally sourced leathers, and refined with African-inspired embellishments. Exquisitely handcrafted, MONAA reflects the designers' transcontinental sensibility. As young girls, Nana and Afua were completely enamoured with their father’s handmade leather Ohenema slippers, as well as their mother’s intricately woven Kente silk ensembles. While maintaining strong family ties with Ghana, and as a result of their regular travel to Ghana, their childhood in the small German town of Wetter and respective moves to New York and London made Nana and Afua adept at authentically fusing multiple cultures fashionably. The name MONAA combines Afua's nickname, "Mo" with "Naa", the affectionate abbreviation of Nana. Likewise, the brand combines craftsmanship steeped in tradition but designed with a global perspective. Hence, the sisters present a luxurious new footwear option and a personal labor of love: MONAA is a proudly ‘Made in Ghana’ brand, for the customer who makes herself at home anywhere in the world she may be. www.monaaonline.com
Olubukola Asafa - OBA Couture, Nigeria
There is a growing interest right now in AfroLuxe, bespoke finely crafted luxury items all proudly designed and created here in Africa. OBA Couture, the brand created by Nigerian entrepreneur Olubukola Asafa, is a new name in the world of luxury leather shoe and accessory brands emerging from the African continent, to add to the list of those brands currently winning legions of fans around the world with their high-end, luxury products. OBA is a Nigerian luxury brand that manufactures handmade sandals, shoes, handbags, and other leather goods with a culture of fine craftsmanship, design and innovation. OBA also offers bespoke made to measure shoes and sandals that are specifically made to fit perfectly. The label offers dynamic fashion that is simple, unique, feisty and distinct. Olubukola has a flare for business, and while studying for and after she obtained her MBA degree, she knew she wanted to start a business of her own right away, so she started buying and selling shoes and handbags of different brands. After a short while she knew she wanted something more, she wanted to stand out and be different. So she began to ask herself a lot of questions like, ‘why do I keep buying shoes and handbags abroad?’ ‘Why can’t I sell my own brand of shoes and handbags?’ ‘Why can’t I make shoes and handbags in Nigeria?’ ‘How come I cannot buy, let alone wear a ‘Made in Nigeria’ shoe or carry a ‘Made In Nigeria’ handbag?’ So she started to do research on ‘Made in Nigeria’ shoes and handbags, and found a couple of people in Aba and Lagos, who made product samples for her but they were so badly done she was very disappointed at the extremely low quality. After that she was on a mission to find the best way to make quality shoes and handbags in Nigeria, yet still all to no avail. She kept looking and doing her research until eventually, she had no choice but to seek to have them made in China. She had some samples done and her first ever branded OBA shoes were made in Ankara fabric and leather - they looked great and everyone loved them, people were excited, she was excited too but not for long because it wasn’t what she wanted.
"Today, my vision of taking ‘Made in Nigeria’ goods onto the international scene and ensuring they can compete favorably with their global counterparts, is what drives me to attain more - this is the significant impact I wish to make for the benefit of my nation, Nigeria."
She didn’t want her products made in China, she wanted them made here in Nigeria. She had become passionate about having her products ‘Made in Nigeria’, and felt that she had to make her own brand of leather goods and change this inferior perception of ‘Made in Nigeria’ products. She wanted to be able to boast about wearing a ‘Made in Nigeria’ shoe or carry a handbag ‘Made in Nigeria’ - it could never have happened before, but now she wears and carries them every day. Today, OBA handmade leather goods are of very high quality - they are made with genuine leather, original skins like snake, crocodile, ostrich etc. and precious metal hardware. She says she is privileged to have taken courses in Florence, Italy and London, where she learnt the craft of shoe making and handbag making which gives her a competitive advantage because she has learnt from the best. www.obacouture.com