“Beautiful Shoes Are Universal”: Creating Impact Through Footwear

Caleigh Hernandez is a Resolution Fellow (Class 7) and is the Founder of RoHo.

I first came across our primary sandal supplier, Lydia, in Kampala, Uganda after weeks of shopkeepers in the city telling me to look for this woman. “Not the skinny Lydia. She’s a big woman, the Kenyan. You’ll know her when you see her.” After hours of searching, three motorcycle taxis taking me to the wrong parts of the city, and several minutes of me cursing my inability to speak Lugandan fluently, I finally found her.

Caleigh Hernandez, founder of RoHo and Lydia. Photo: Gabriella Hernandez Photography

I can only imagine the sight I presented upon arrival — a disheveled, sweaty college student, trying desperately to explain to her how much I loved her shoes and wanted to learn more about the people who made them. And yet we clicked right away. My Swahili and Lugandan left much to be desired and her English wasn’t perfect, but we made it work. Beautiful shoes are universal. We sat on tiny wooden stools in one of her pop-up craft shops speaking for nearly two hours. I explained my idea about importing her shoes to the United States and creating a social enterprise, and she told me about coastal Kenya, her background as a single mother, the artisans she works with, and the intricacies of sandal making.

And so a business relationship and friendship started, in a slightly unorthodox, possibly stalker-ish way. We realized that by creating partnerships with women’s groups and cooperatives, we could create a sustainable business model that incorporated several layers of social impact.

Several women beaders working on RoHo products. Photo: India Bulkeley Photography

Today, RoHo is a socially conscious fashion line committed to providing our customers with beautiful, handcrafted Kenyan products and ensuring our over 400 artisans are being paid fairly for their efforts. Our artisans are paid higher than the industry standard and we are dedicated to ensuring their working conditions are safe. By securing access to consistent markets, these incredibly talented artisans are able to generate a steady and fair income.

When we inquired about other ways we could support our artisans, they told us to support their children. So we’ve now tied artisan retention to education grants to quality local schools for their children. The longer our artisans work with RoHo, the more of their children we send to school.

Our business model is centered around a concerted effort to listen — I’ve come to realize that my role in this whole process is really to be a conduit. There are incredibly beautiful products that exist in Kenya that we don’t ever have an opportunity to see. I am trying to bridge the gap that divides these unique goods and the customers who might otherwise never know they existed.

Reception to RoHo has been exciting, as many consumers want to do social good but are unsure how they can be involved. Part of RoHo’s mission is to educate the public about thoughtful and impactful consumption. We have expanded and have partnered with four additional artisan groups across Kenya who handcraft scarves, jewelry, coin purses, and one-of-a-kind cowhide tote bags. Made by artisans in Nairobi with leather that comes from Nanyuki, a small town near Mount Kenya with few economic opportunities, the workshop is partially female-owned and employs 40 artisans who are paid fairly and in accordance with Fair Trade practices. While we’re far from perfect, we continue to learn and adapt with feedback from our artisans. Our impact has grown steadily, and we’re only getting started.