Mabel Suglo, the 23-year-old social entrepreneur behind EcoShoes, a company that employs people with disabilities to manufacture shoes and accessories from discarded tyres and recycled materials.
Mabel, from Kumasi in Ghana, founded the company in 2013 when she was just 19, and two years later has been named the 2015 second runner up of the Anzisha Prize, Africa’s premier award for young entrepreneurs. The title came with a US$12,500 injection into her company.
EcoShoes was inspired by her grandmother, who suffered from severe leprosy, a disease that can result in skin lesions and damage to the nerves, limbs and eyes. With deformities around the hands and feet, her grandmother had only one thumb.
But like many who suffer from leprosy, the real struggle came from the social stigma attached to the disease. Her grandmother was marginalised and feared due to a lack of understanding.
“I never really understood it when I was growing up, but with time started to realise what life must have been like for her,” Mabel says.
“Then one day I went to town, and I saw a disabled man begging for money. One person didn’t give him money, but started telling him that he is good for nothing, useless, and that kind of thing. I just watched and had this mental picture of my grandmother. I really saw how we isolate these people. I thought it high time we make them feel welcome in the community.
“So I just walked up to him and I asked him if he could get a job that would pay better than begging, would he be ready to work? And he said yes.”
Over time, she approached other disabled, unemployed people, determined to provide them with work, although not sure how.
“The idea of using car tyres to make shoes came to mind… My grandmother actually used to wear bits of old car tyres for shoes because she had no toes and no shoes could fit her feet… So she just took a car tyre, cut it into short pieces and tied it with a rope and it worked well. Other farmers did the same too,” she recalls.
With the help of two business partners, Mabel partnered with a local school for the disabled who trained those with disabilities how to make shoes from old tyres and local fabrics.
Each pair is unique and sold through a small distribution network to various retailers across four regions in Ghana.
She is also developing the company’s e-commerce site to target a wider market.