Today I visited a fair trade producer group in Kampala as part of Lauren and I’s research for the work were doing with Assetmap.org.

The project, called Agape Shoemakers, is located in the Makindye Hill area of Kampala, not too far from where Lauren and I lived for a month when the Northwestern study abroad students were here last summer. But, this part of Makindye couldn’t be more different than where we stayed. As with many of Kampala’s hills, one side is full of middle and upper-class compounds, and the other side is a slum. This area is filled with small mud/brick buildings smashed together and is divided by a small stream filled with garbage and who-knows-what-else.

Agape Shoemakers occupies one small room about the size of Lauren and I’s bedroom. Inside the room are piles of leather scraps, an old foot-pedaled sewing machine, a radio, some tools, and “the four boys”.

As the title suggests, Agape makes leather sandals. As soon as I walk in to their tiny workshop, though, I realized that they aren’t just any sandals. With their limited resources Agape produces sandals that could easily be sold in J-Crew or The Gap. I bought some to prove it.

The employers of Agape are four young men in their late teens and young twenties. They met as teenagers when they formed a musical group called “The Four Boys”. (They gave me their CD as a gift for coming!) After one of the members traveled to Nairobi two years ago and stumbled upon an Arcade where leatherworks and other supplies for making the sandals were sold, the group got together to start their business. According to them, they are completely self taught, using trial-and-error to get it right. One of them makes the 12 hour bus trip to buy supplies every month or so. Its cheaper to make that journey than to have them shipped, or to buy them in Uganda.

Their leader, Stephen, graduated from Makerere University but failed to find a job upon graduation. He tries to find customers for the sandals mostly by going to trade shows around the country and searching on the internet. Needless to say, his ears perked up when I told him about the work were doing with UGAFAT to build an online tool for connecting producer groups to each other and to new markets.

It’s the type of talent and potential demonstrated by Agape that were trying to highlight with this Assetmap.org project, albeit in a very small way. And, I got some new shoes out of the deal….not a bad gig.

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