Case Study: Konjo Economic Development Initiative
Konjo is an economic development initiative launched by Life In Abundance (LIA), a nonprofit organization that works in several countries throughout northeast Africa. Konjo sandals are handcrafted by a group of vulnerable, previously unemployed, unskilled women and men in one of Africa’s largest slums—Kibera—in Nairobi, Kenya. The leather sandals are made of locally sourced resources and use recycled tire treads for the sole. Each pair of sandals is one-of-a-kind, just like the people who make them—people who are now gaining a sense of empowerment and breaking free of the poverty cycle. “I used to naively think the poor were just not working hard enough,” notes Justin Ahrens, R29 principal. “What I’ve learned through my involvement with LIA is that the majority of Africans living in poverty have tremendous creative skills that can be used to reach new markets. This is what Konjo has allowed many to do.”
Rule29 helped introduce Konjo by providing both strategic planning advice and creative services. From designing the shoes (which involved creating templates and writing simple instructions for the workers) to developing the name, logo and e-commerce website, Rule29 worked to strategize, collaborate, design and market the Konjo brand in a way that showcases the beauty of both the products and the people.
This project was done pro bono.
The type of research we used included competitor analysis, marketing research, user testing, visual exploration, ethnographic research, as well as qualitative and quantitative research.
Additionally, the Rule29 team researched different types of flip-flops, sandals and shoe materials to determine which type of footwear would be most feasible to produce. We bought shoes and spent time talking to shoe designers and buyers; in the meantime, Life in Abundance worked on finding materials for us to use for prototyping, and they began training local individuals in making the shoes. Rule29 and the team in Kibera then created samples and patterns through trial and error for more than a year.
We used design thinking and collaboration to help create a business around a product we had no experience in producing. Working hand-in-hand with LIA, we researched the viability of a project that would provide economic sustainability, train unskilled labor and create viable product. Our ultimate goal is transformed lives and empowerment. We helped set the initial direction in the beginning, and then we assisted in every stage we could as the shoes were being developed. We had to prove that we could make them first, and then that we could replicate and train Africans going forward. It took many prototypes, patterns, discussions and problem solving, but after a year we were finally confident we could make a viable sandal.
We picked the most difficult place to pilot this project: one of the world’s largest slums. Our thought was that if it could work here, it could work anywhere… We are not shoe designers, and neither were our African brothers and sisters. We had to rely on design thinking processes to figure it all out. Additionally, communication was sporadic at best; we sometimes waited months to receive feedback or new samples. Our first prototypes were really awful: inconsistent and of poor quality. We began the project in 2009 and our first sandals weren’t ready to sell until three years later.
The biggest success is that Konjo is now offering well-made shoes at the rate of five to eight pair a week.
- Women (some HIV positive, widowed, single mothers, uneducated or extremely poor and with few options) are now employed and trained in skills that create a better life for themselves and their community. They are now able to buy medicine and food, and barter for extra shoes.
- The local people followed our initial direction, but they have since made improvements independently, and we have been able to work back and forth effectively
- Konjo developed its own “apprenticeship” program and process
- 100% of sales go back into funding, training and program development
Konjo’s long-term goal is being fully self-sustaining and then expanding into other African communities and countries.
This case study is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.