Young Ghanaian entrepreneur builds footwear company with a difference
Ghanaian Mabel Suglo (21) is the young social entrepreneur behind EcoShoes, a company that employs people with disabilities to manufacture eye-catching shoes and accessories from discarded tyres and recycled materials. Her business is based in the city of Kumasi.
She started 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 $12,500 injection into her company.
The idea behind 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 – a pariah that society feared due to a lack of understanding. She lived alone, and as a child Suglo saw how others refused to interact with her.
“I never really understood it when I was growing up, but with time started to realise what life must have been like for her,” she said, adding that her grandmother died when she was 12 but has remained strongly in her thoughts since.
“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.”
She did the same with a couple of other disabled, unemployed people, and very soon had made a list. She was determined to provide them with work, but was not yet 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.
Suglo found two business partners who helped get her idea off the ground, and 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. Suglo is also developing the company’s e-commerce site to target a wider market.
Today the company employs five disabled people, and has the capacity to produce 200 pairs of shoes a month. Her team also manufacturers belts, slippers, bags and jewellery.
Developing managerial skills
Suglo says she has faced a number of struggles as a young social entrepreneur. With no experience running a company, she admits she found the administration side difficult. And with also trying to juggle her studies in health science education, she has learnt valuable lessons about the importance of effective time management and delegating work to team members.
Her advice to other young entrepreneurs is to start saving as soon as possible, be patient and stay focused on their goal – especially during the tough times.
“Be determined because the road to success is not smooth, it is very rough… And don’t be just a big-talker. I think one problem many of us young Africans have is we talk too much – and we don’t have a lot of doers. Give it a proper try… and if you fail, just pick yourself up, shake the dust off and continue to try again,” she added.
“One thing I know about most successful people is they never really got it right at the first go. They had to try over and over and over again.”
5 minutes with... Janthana Kaenprakhamroy, CEO, Tapoly
Founder and CEO of award-winning insurtech firm Tapoly, Janthana Kaenprakhamroy heads up Europe’s first on-demand insurance platform for the gig economy, winning industry awards, innovating in the digital insurance space, and leading with inclusivity.
Here, Business Chief talks to Janthana about her leadership style and skills.
What do you do, in a nutshell?
I’m founder and CEO of Tapoly, a digital MGA providing a full stack of commercial lines insurance specifically for SMEs and freelancers, as well as a SaaS solution to connect insurers with their distribution partners. We build bespoke, end-to-end platforms encompassing the whole customer journey, but can also integrate our APIs within existing systems. We were proud to win Insurance Provider of the Year at the British Small Business Awards 2018 and receive silver in the Insurtech category at the Efma & Accenture Innovation in Insurance Awards 2019.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to be as inclusive a leader as possible. I’m committed to creating space for everyone to shine. Many of the roles at Tapoly are performed by women and I speak at industry events to encourage more people to get involved in insurance/insurtech. Similarly, I always try to maintain a growth mindset. I think it’s important to retain values to support learning and development, like reliability, working hard and punctuality.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
Build your network and seek advice. As a leader, you need smart people around you to help you grow your business. It’s not about personally being the best, but being able to find resources and get help where needed.
How do you see leadership changing in a COVID world?
I think the pandemic has proven the importance of inclusive leadership so that everyone feels supported and valued. It’s also shown the importance of being flexible as a leader. We’ve had to remain adaptable to continue delivering high levels of customer service. This flexibility has also been important when supporting employees as everyone has had individual pressures to deal with during this time. Leaders should continue to embed this flexibility within their organisations moving forward.
They say ‘from every crisis comes opportunity’, what opportunities do you see?
The past year has been challenging, but it has also proven the importance of digital transformation in insurance. When working from home was required, it was much harder for insurers to adjust who had not embedded technology within their operating processes because they did not have data stored in the cloud and it caused communication delays with concerned customers at a time when this communication should have been a priority, which ultimately impacts the level of customer satisfaction. This demonstrates the importance of what we are trying to achieve at Tapoly in driving digitalisation in insurance and making communication between insurers and distribution partners seamless.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
Start sooner, don’t be afraid to take (calculated) risks and make sure you raise enough money to get you through the initial seed stage.