Revolutionary Minds: How A Leprous Grandma Inspired An Award Winning Enterprise

“The vision of Eco Shoes is to build the capacity of people with disabilities to create wealth, maximize their potentials and take steps towards their long term financial and personal well-being.”

That’s how Social Entrepreneur Mabel Suglo summarized what the noble entity she started alongside two others at the age of 19 does in an interview with the Revolutionary Minds Project. For Mabel, happiness, dignity and self-respect should not be reserved for only the abled in society. The disabled also deserves it. That’s what inspired the setting up of Eco Shoes, a company dedicated to the employment of disabled person to produce clothing using recycled materials including car tyres.

It’s a triple edged sword that is empowering the vulnerable in society to fend for themselves, keeping our surroundings clean from mounting refuse that refuses to go away, and preserving the environment for future generations. Four years after its establishment, Eco-shoes today produces more than 1000 shoes, sandals, slippers, bags and necklaces every month from recycled materials for sale to customers in Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, America, Belize and other countries, employing more than 13 disabled persons. “We empower and transfer the skills of shoe making to people with disabilities to hand-make shoes from truck tyres, used fabrics and other sustainably sourced raw materials,” she explained. “We are therefore providing employment to people who otherwise would be below the poverty threshold whiles inspiring people to be creative about reusing materials, extending their life- cycle and at the same time contributing to waste reduction,” Mabel Suglo added.

An idea straight from heaven

What is even more interesting is how Mabel started Eco-Shoes which has today become a talk-of-town organisation that is bringing financial stability to many of society’s vulnerable and is helping create a sustainable environment. It was all inspired by anger over the mistreatment of those who can hardly speak for themselves, meeting and a firm, robust passion to make their lives better. Mabel’s late grandmother was a leprosy patient who had lost her fingers and feet to the disease but still cultivated food crops on a parcel of land to feed her family with just a thumb. Growing up, Mabel watched on with a lot of heart break as society condemned the old woman to solitude, just as the numerous disabled persons she sees on the streets every day. No one will give her a job, no one will offer her a shoulder to lean on, and society didn’t care how her young ones fed. But grandma never shirked her responsibility to work at creating a better life for her children and grandchildren.

“I will do something great to help these disabled people in future so they don’t have to suffer like grandma,” Mabel told herself even at a tender age of 13. She didn’t go to bed on those dreams. Six years later at age 19, she started Eco shoes. “I believe that if the vulnerable who are stigmatized and marginalized in the society are given the opportunity, and provided with the right resources and platforms, they will do amazing things but we first need to give them the chance,” Mabel told the Revolutionary Minds Project. The idea to use recycled car tyres as a major raw material in the production of clothing at Eco Shoes was again inspired by the grandmaa. Because she had no feet, Mabel’s grandmother used to walk in a slipper she made herself using cut-car tyres, tied with a rope ( straps from car tires). When the idea came to start Eco Shoes, Mabel knew recycling car tyres just as grandma did would not only make the availability of raw materials easier and less expensive, but will help put wasted materials to good use and eventually save Planet Earth.

Humanity and the environment

Mabel believes climate change is real, the environment deserves a chance to live to its fullest and that protecting the environment is not just fun but a moral call that every human being on earth has an obligation to respond to positively. That’s why she takes the duty of lifting the vulnerable out of poverty as seriously as preserving the environment. “We manufacture 100% biodegradable shoes which decrease emissions of greenhouse gases there by making life cycle of our products environmentally-friendly from start to finish as the raw materials are also recycled products” she explained. “We have a team of outsourcing suppliers who supply us with the processed tires, recycled fabric waste and other materials used in making the shoes. All the materials used in the production of our products are sourced locally. We don’t import,” she explained.

Difficult beginnings

Mabel’s exploits and successes started at a very tender age. Born at Nanville in the Upper West Region, Mabel represented her school in various competitions and won a number of prizes including the best Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) student in the region in the year 2010. Thanks to this prize, she got a presidential award with a scholarship package that took her through Senior High School Education. Her entrepreneurial skills are also from old. “My mum made sure I had everything to be comfortable in school but I did a lot of business to keep myself busy. I sold iced water, ice-cream, ice kenkey and other items to make money. I am the kind of person who does not like being idle,” she explained.

When Mabel started Eco shoes, not everyone thought it was a good idea. “Initially I had a tough time getting the approval from friends and family because they said I was deviating from the normal trend of the family. They are all government workers and wanted me to just go to school, study hard and get a good job,” she disclosed. “It took a lot of perseverance and determination to make my vision a reality and now that they have seen the fruits of the vision, they are highly supportive,” Mabel added. Today, she is the winner of several local and international awards including the Anzisha Prize Second Runner Up, the winner of the People Choice Awards, SEED Initiative Award, and Ye! Rising Award.

An inspiration for all

For Mabel, the ultimate goal is to lift all disabled persons out of poverty and help them live independent lives without having to rely on others. Some of the recruits used to beg on the streets for alms to survive but not anymore. “The idea is to get my disabled artisans understand they need to take ownership of their lives and not depend on people and charity,” she said. “My grandmother was able to do something worthwhile with her life even though she was marginalized and stigmatized. I want to send that same message to people living with disabilities and the vulnerable that they can make it if they try. And it’s also about time society changed their perceptions about such persons,” Mabel added.

Mabel is urging the youth to take their destinies into their own hands and create a better future for themselves without having to rely on others. “I want every youth to know that they should not be building their aspirations and dreams around anyone or the government but to take ownership of their lives and believe in their can do spirit because the only person that can stop you is you,” she advised. “And they should think of ways of solving problems identified and not join the masses to just complain about those problems and challenges. They should be problem solvers even if they did not create them,” Mabel added.

Writers’ note:
This write up by journalist Joseph Opoku Gakpo with additional files from Nana Aba Kanga Forson is part of a series of articles by the REVOLUTIONARY MINDS project to put the spotlight on unnoticed individuals engaged in radically, inspiring activities in their communities. The focus of the project is to tell the stories of young persons engaged in activities they would ordinarily not be doing. Every month, the project publishes the story of one “Revolutionary Mind” on www.josephopokugakpo.wordpress.com, and this website and aggressively shares it on social media to the reach of as many people as possible. The objective of the project is to inspire all young people to do something ground breaking in their communities.

REVOLUTIONARY MINDS…. Do something Daring