Shoes for Good

Austin's new customizable shoe is designed to empower African women

Austin's new customizable shoe is designed to empower African women

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The shoes are fully customizable. Ty Clark
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The Afridrille is designed in Austin and handmade in Kenya. Claire Schaper
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Ubuntu co-founder Zane Wilemon with "Maker Mums" in Kenya. Ty Clark
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For more than 15 years, Ubuntu Made has been working to create economic and social change in Kenya. The Austin-based nonprofit sells handbags and accessories made by “Maker Mums,” the mothers of children at the Ubuntu Special Needs Centre. 

While Ubuntu Made has gained notoriety with initiatives like a coffee partnership with Whole Foods Market and a bottled-water business, the latest product, the “Afridrille,” is a fully customizable espadrille-style shoe designed in Austin and handmade in Kenya — and it's a lot more tech-focused than one might expect.

The original inspiration for the Afridrille came from a conversation with co-founder and CEO of Ubuntu Made Zane Wilemon and Jeff Beaver, the co-founder of the online marketplace Zazzle. Ubuntu was looking for “an anchor product,” Wilemon told CultureMap. “Something that would grow our brand and bring something unique to Africa,” he said.

After traveling to shoe factories all over East Africa, Ubuntu opened what is now one of only four shoe factories in Kenya and created the concept for what Wilemon calls “the first fully customizable shoe on the continent of Africa.”

Because of the Zazzle technology, customers are able to choose everything about their shoe, from the color of the canvas to the exterior pattern (think geometric shapes, pineapples, or even leopard print) to the color of the interior lining, directly from their phone. Less adventurous fashionistas can choose from classic colors like black, natural, safari, and gray. “We loved the idea of combining Africa craftsmanship with Silicon Valley technology,” Wilemon explained.

Ubuntu Made’s mission is to create a connection through direct impact, explained Wilemon, and that doesn’t only mean for the Maker Mums who earn above-market wages and are able to invest in their families with that income. He sees the customization aspect of the Afridrille as a direct extension of that personal connection.

When you allow people the option to make something more personal,” Wilemon explained. “You are in a sense empowering them to make their purchase even more meaningful and therefore even more impactful for them as well as for the Maker Mums in Kenya. It makes the transaction from maker to customer that much more special.”

Ubuntu and Zazzle seem to have hit on something — a Kickstarter they launched for the Afridrill surpassed their original goal by nearly $100,000 by the time it ended on May 2. (Wilemon celebrated in Africa with a massive cake in the shape of an Afridrille shoe.) “None of us ...  knew how to sew seven years ago," he said. "Now we're making Africa’s first fully customizable shoe!”

With the Kickstarter complete, Wilemon expects to start taking pre-orders on Zazzle and Ubuntu's website this summer.