Ubuntu Made and Adorama: Storytelling with Impact in Kenya

On April 3rd, Ubuntu Made launched its Kickstarter campaign for the Afridrille, a customizable espadrille style shoe from Africa. A team of Kenyan mothers in a small town in the Great Rift Valley handmake individual shoes to the exact design of customers worldwide. In less than 24 hours, the project hit its initial $25,000 goal and within a week, influencers from Jimmy Kimmel to Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings were sharing support online, prompting a new wave of support with over 500 people backing the project.

One of the top pledge levels for the Afridrille Kickstarter campaign is an adventure trip to Kenya to visit these ‘Maker Mums’ and Maasai beaders who hand craft each pair of shoes. The trip will be led by travel writer and photographer Erin Outdoors and, like the Afridrille, nothing about it will be ‘off the rack.’ In addition to visiting the Ubuntu projects in the Great Rift Valley, these backers will be camping in the bush alongside the Maasai families who craft all of the products’ beadwork, including the signature Ubuntu beaded tab on each pair of shoes.

A key component of this experience will be a give back component in which the traveling team will help to install a water tank for these Maasai families outside of Kajiado. It is not a secret that there is a water and sanitation crisis in Kenya. More than half of the population of the entire country relies on unimproved water sources, and even more use unimproved sanitation solutions and store water in open barrels, leading to breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. In addition, many of the mothers in this area spend six or more hours every time they need to replenish the water at their home. Thanks to the generous sponsorship from Adorama, this installment will bring a clean, reliable source of water to the entire local community.

“We’re honored to have the opportunity to partner with Ubuntu and contribute to such a worthwhile program that not only empowers the Maker Mums but gives consumers a unique footwear option that they can customize and feel great about wearing,” says Lev Peker, chief marketing officer at Adorama. “More than just a retailer, Adorama is a community of Makers. As experts in photo and video, we’re constantly inspired by what our customers create; we’re excited to embark on the trip to Kenya with Erin and Ubuntu to document this once-in-a-lifetime journey so they can continue to promote this incredibly important cause and showcase the beauty of this country, its people, and the invaluable work they’re doing.”

Giving back to the community is not new for Ubuntu. The organization started 15 years ago with the focus of providing life changing care to children with severe special needs. Their social enterprise branch began as an employment and empowerment venture for the mothers of those special needs children, making simple products like coffee sleeves and bandanas for corporate partners like Whole Foods Market. Now they’re focusing on more sophisticated and higher value added products that are beautiful, fashionable, and distinctly African.

“Are we going to support sustainable jobs by making half-baked products with a feel-good story?” says Ubuntu Co-Founder and CEO Zane Wilemon. “That’s not going to work. We’ve got to maximize on design and sell something innovative and high-quality. We want our customers to fall in love with the product first, and then learn about how much good we do.”

This conviction is what led Ubuntu to design and launch the Afridrille shoe. 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 endless 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,” says 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 skill set 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.”

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