Quick! Send in the Holiday Shoes



In a world with intractable problems, shoes are an easy thing to solve, right? Kenyans from all walks of life are gearing up to provide in goods, including shoes to the needy this holiday season in the spirit of Christmas, and for many in the private sector, egged on by corporate social responsibility drives. On the surface, it seems a great way to provide for those who are in need, kill the news stories on foot-related ailments and make us all feel a little better about the less-fortunate in society. Good news Kenyans, we are not alone. The idea of sending shoes to needy Africans is not limited to our festive charities, globalization has made sure of that. As I gear up to do my own holiday giving, my intent to do good is not enough.

Here is a fun fact, if you can access a US retailer, you can buy a pair of TOMS shoes, and another pair is sent to a shoeless African somewhere. If you read widely on development and African issues, this is not news to you. 2009 – 2010 was dominated by reactions to the “band aid” work of TOMS shoes, and the rage against the t-shirt donation machine and we are still not done wondering. The huge hook is that for every pair of shoes you buy, the non-profit sends a pair to kids in Africa who walk around barefoot. Some would say that is good enough, even admirable. I say, it is not good, and not enough for our continent. TOMS is a for-profit company that operates a non-profit subsidiary called Friends of TOMS based in the US. Teddy Ruge, a development and Africa writer and thinker shared his disappointment that Africare is partnering with TOMS Shoes, and I share his sentiments.

Yesterday, Kenya’s leading newspaper Daily Nation reported that 40% of Kenyans still use bushes to relieve themselves, so on the surface, it would behoove one to wear shoes more frequently to prevent spread of disease, more specifically, soil transmitted helminth(WHO) infections. Forgetting for a minute that only about 300,000 of Kenya’s 40+ million population has access to newspapers, this was news indeed. Should we then have shoes sent immediately to 40% of Kenyans? Granted, over the last 2-3 years we have also heard more loud clamor against jigger infestation of citizen’s feet in parts of the country, spearheaded by Ahadi Kenya trust, whose website is aptly named http://www.jigger-ahadi.org/ – and I kid you not. Should’nt we send in the shoes now?

Particularly for the often holiday-gift-laden private sector, I think not. 

Teddy’s blog post on why Africare’s partnership with TOMS Shoes is a bust recorded:

“…it is baffling that they thought giving away shoes to communities was a sustainable solution to either hygiene or economic development. Bad bandaid projects are excusable for guilt-ridden start up organizations fueled by good intentions, but they are inexcusable for an organization that has been around since the 1970s.”


TOMS solution is a temporary fix for some larger issues such as lack of adequate access to clean water and sanitation, and grinding poverty. It seems, however, that TOMS partnership with organizations like Africare is the model that a number of private organizations have taken to engaging with global NGOs. I wonder if global private sector organizations are well-informed about ways to champion African issues, or whether TOMS is an outlier among many. Take for instance the September 2013 Private Sector luncheon for Every Woman Every Child initiative, held at the same time as the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, where the commitments included: 

– Sesame Street’s commitment to health education for children and their families to the Zinc Initiative working with mining companies to promote the availability of zinc, an essential intervention along with ORS to treat diarrhoea.

Tom’s Shoes pledged to donate one pair of shoes for every shoe that is bought to help children go to school and women collect water over long distances.

– The Lions Club International dedicated 30 million in financial resources and will use its 1.5 million volunteers to help deliver essential interventions.

These examples are a small sample of …”Between 2010 and mid- 2013, nearly 300 organizations, including more than 50 private sector organizations…” (WHO)” which have made commitments from 2010 – 2013 in support of EWEC. This seems like the way the river is flowing, with large initiatives receiving the support of private sector organizations such as TOMS – even though the model of operation may not respond to the needs on the ground in sustainable ways. Out of the three above, the Zinc Nutrient Initiative (health intervention) and Lions Club International (direct service assistance) make sense, as part of a systematic intervention placed in a network of organizations and individuals.

Shoes for Africans – as implemented by TOMS, seems to be the square peg in the Africa shaped board since around 2009, but it keeps on giving and giving and giving. 

You ask me, why is it wrong? TOMS supply of shoes – upsets the balance of trade by upending the competitiveness of delicate small scale businesses, some of which are sustained by the very women and children the shoes are intended to assist,  and shoe-production domestic industry – the kind that cannot compete with freebies, which sometimes provide employment to Africans and support where they live, work and play. There are other issues, with the model TOMS uses – outlined by Teddy’s article and further in Good Intentions are Not Enough

My issue is that in the area of providing material goods made in Africa – are there organizations that can provide an alternative to default selection of TOMS. The simple answer is – Yes. Do we know about these organizations on a global level? Yes, Teddy mentions:  Liberian Women’s Sewing Project. – which even appeared on CNN, one cannot say one does not know better than TOMS.

The biggest question for me, is – how do you redirect the default – how do you harness the increased ability of Africans telling their own stories (My Africa Is – digital short films on Africa, and Africa Knows – providing African images to the world) on the outside to tell the stories of others like the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project. Furthermore, on the inside corridors of private sector commitment, how do you find champions for these alternatives, who are able to inform the decision-making and steer their firms to solutions that appeal to their shareholders, that make sense for Africa and are sustainable – a not-so-new concept called the Triple Bottom Line – 

Triple Bottom Line – John Elkington (1997) – “a traditional measure of corporate profit—the “bottom line” of the profit and loss account. The second is the bottom line of a company’s “people account”—a measure in some shape or form of how socially responsible an organisation has been throughout its operations. The third is the bottom line of the company’s “planet” account—a measure of how environmentally responsible it has been.”

However, because the Triple Bottom Line – expanded further by Savitz and Williard cannot be measured in terms of cash profit, what then can Africans, and others concerned about Africa do to change the conversation when private sector impact is limited to financial terms? 

I venture that our concern as Africans, has been and will be to:

economic (Dambisa Moyo, Economist and Author, Dead Aid) 
political (Mahmood Mamdani, Politics and Government Thinker) 


  • continue to curate and write about solutions that work, and those that do not, particularly leaning on Africans and friends of Africa in the continent and abroad to exchange ideas, work together and move forward.

But for goodness sake, let us not just send in more shoes. That includes us Kenyans.

Or just be in Africa to make a profit, and that might be the best way to do good

(PS: Thanks to Teddy Ruge for the posts that prompted this extended response) – Photo: 3-in-1 jewelry Box Set/India – Credit/ @sunnykay


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