The Akala Project was founded in 1995 when an American and a Kenyan who believed that the world market could offer slum dwellers opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty. With an approximately $2000 grant, the two started making sandals and attempted to market them in Nairobi. The project aimed at building a sustainable community owned project that did not rely on donor funds but one that through creativity, hard work, passion to make a difference and quality products would provide a source of livelihood for the slum dwellers through a decent wage.
Its source of funding was sales, not donations. Finding avenues to market the sandals to customers ten kilometers from Korogocho, in downtown Nairobi, was virtually impossible. Doing so outside of Kenya was an unimaginable pipe dream. It was difficult just to make a phone call from one side of Nairobi to another. Communicating to customers abroad would take weeks or months.
Korogocho residents believed that recycled tire sandals were meant for the poorest of the poor. Once someone from Korogocho had enough money, he would buy "real" shoes. Through 2000, the Akala Project was barely able to sell enough sandals to survive.
After six years of struggling to survive, the Project went online. The incorporation of the Internet as a marketing, sales, educational and business tool brought rapid transformation. With the launch of the website, revenues from sales now provided employment to 33 Korogocho residents (up from five), most of whom were young adults. In this environment, the aim was to produce quality products, ensure reliability, computer literacy, and creativity.
Within a month of the launch, the Korogocho sandal-makers were receiving email messages and orders from around the globe. Hours after the site's launch, it had been viewed on six continents, and the orders in the first week nearly doubled all orders received in the prior six months. Within months the Project grew six-fold and premiered globally with a ten minute CNN profile. In addition, it participated in various global events and received awards in recognition of the use of ICT’s in development. One of the awards was the Youth Innovators Award received in 2002 in Alexandria, Egypt.
The Akala Project is a community-based dot-com story that is on its way up, not out. Throughout Kenya, Korogocho is known as a rough place. Few there have jobs. Violence is rampant. Quality health care is non-existent. Shelter is dilapidated and very temporary. It is a place where most Kenyans fear to walk even during the day.
Michael, currently in his early twenties, is one of approximately 400,000 residents of Korogocho slums. Four years ago, he would wake up each morning and set out in search of some way to live. This involved rummaging through one of the major dumping grounds in Nairobi looking for anything of value, anything that he could sell and get some money to buy food. He never had formal employment and had little education. He tried to achieve his singular goal each day: to find just enough to live through the day.
Where possible, Michael made an effort to raise enough for his younger siblings and to add on to what his ageing grandmother was able to raise. Food was expensive. Quality medical care was never affordable, nor was decent shelter. Like many of his Korogocho peers, it was only in his luckiest day that he got enough to afford a full meal for the day.
As Michael struggled, millions of residents of San Francisco, Stockholm, and Sydney would spend billions of dollars purchasing shoes each year. The Akala Project sought to tap into only a tiny fraction of that market. With revenues generated from skyrocketing Internet sales, Michael was trained to produce sandals and to use computers. With the 26 other sandal-makers employed then, Michael now made a living wage by designing, producing, marketing and selling sandals globally through Ecosandals.com.
Today, everyone of the sandal-makers understands how creative minds, and ICTs are transforming the poor. As orders increased, revenues jumped and an increasing number of people visited the Project's Korogocho workshop, individuals like Michael began to see their own lives in a different light. Michael, previously labeled an idling youth or other times mistaken for being part of a crime gang, became Michael the Webizen, an Internet user who designs and produces quality footwear products and markets.
The problems in Korogocho are many but the sandal-makers have a happy story of a growing number of people, among the poor, who are learning to address their basic needs by gaining access to ICTs and incorporating high technology skills into their daily lives. The Project provides a quality wage, an interesting workplace where workers are encouraged to think creativity and an educational setting giving young adults unique opportunities to learn.
At its initiation, the Project was keen to ensure that those that joined were eager to work hard. During the training period, they were taught that nothing is free and that earnings come from offering high quality services. Project sandal-makers introduce their Korogocho peers to a sandal-making environment that rewards hard work and efficient, high quality production. Sandal-makers are entitled to a 30% share of Project profits.
The Project developed an informal education programme. All sandal-makers learn basic English, Maths, and computer skills and have periodic trainings on relevant health, business, and finance issues. They are taking up evening education classes that will enable those that never got a high school certificate acquire one.
Starting a self-sustaining community business in one of the most materially destitute and violent neighbourhoods in Nairobi, Kenya with minimal initial funding was not easy. Success hinged on the ability to look inward, rather than outward, in building a top notch Project, and inculcating creativity, commitment and fun.
A creative environment means more than simply encouraging new ideas. The availability of information pervades all aspects of the Project's activities. More information leads to better creativity. Sandal-makers are encouraged to correspond with customers and look at marketing studies on both positive and negative aspects of customer's reactions to sandal products. Sandal-makers learn, and are encouraged to solve problems in all areas of their lives by bringing new ideas to old problems. Commitment involves working at odd hours and guarding against the politics of tribe.
Nothing had prepared the project to the harsh realities that came with the global market. First of all, the western customer wants a perfect product or they would demand a refund. Nothing had prepared the Korogocho residents to this reality as they were used to a Kenyan receipt slogan that ‘goods once sold are not returnable.’ In addition, being small, the Akala Project just did not have the needed mechanisms nor the capacity to handle the orders and market that suddenly came to its feet.
Seeking ways to address challenges wasn’t easy either. Access to financing institutions in Kenya was impossible as most of them required major collateral such as buildings, property and such other valuable assets, none of which the Project had in its access. Setting up infrastructure systems within an area like Korogocho was also close to impossible, yet the Project needed a phone and access to the Internet as basic units to help in the running of the operations that relied on the Internet.
Exportation costs, slow internet connections, telecommunications limitations, and community violence all limit potential. The cost of export, for example, dramatically reduces the amount that can compensate makers. With export costs reduced by 50 percent, for example, sandal-makers’ wages could be increased by 20 percent.
Perhaps, one of the sandal-makers will one day revolutionize the Kenyan export industry. Maybe just one sandal-maker will become the telecommunications expert who transforms the Kenyan infrastructure. Perhaps just one of our current sandal-making trainees will bring peace to the streets and alleyways of Korogocho.
What the sandal-makers have begun to recognize is that globalization need not be just about the big multi-national corporation that dominates, educates and dictates to the little developing country. It also can be about the little multi-national corporation dictating terms of sale to customers in far more developed settings and solving their own problems.
By Becky Wachera
Ecosandals Dot Com.