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Sisters Changing the World One Handmade Sandal at a Time

With Wazi Shoes, sisters Alice Majid and Heather Smith discovered a way to celebrate their African roots and leave the world a little better and more beautiful than they found it.

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It’s another languid, sun-soaked morning in the village of Jambiani, a stretch of Zanzibar dusted by palm-thatch huts and fishing boats that line the Indian Ocean, so vividly turquoise that it could be its own shade of blue. Alice Majid and Heather Smith meander down a sandy street, content to be together instead of FaceTiming between continents to share new ideas for Wazi Shoes, the sisters’ sandal brand. The concept behind Wazi is simple—support local artisans to make beaded sandals, sell them in the United States, and give a portion of the proceeds to worthy organizations, including one that offers financial support to nurses in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Across the ocean on Tanzania’s mainland, it’s a work day in Dar es Salaam. The early morning rain blends a note of earthy loam with the city’s signature acrid, burned scent. There’s a guy selling peanuts in the street. He has a stack of change, which he throws up into the air and catches, making a ching-ching-ching sound. There’s the signature click-clack coming from another street merchant selling cold water. Each takes a seat in the orchestra of modern-day East African living, with car horns, bicycles, and jaywalking pedestrians filling out the other sounds and sections. Majid, 39, happily lives here with her husband, Abdul, and her 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter, working to incorporate HIV into the nursing curriculum
and more broadly enhancing public health in Tanzania.

Majid adores these sights and smells—they feel like home—and Wazi (the name means “open” in Swahili) gives both sisters a chance to share that love with the world. Beyond the visual openness of the shoes, the word describes the overall philosophy of the brand. “Our giving back model is about open hearts, open mind, and the open road,” Smith says. “If you’re meditating with what is around you, you can feel surrounded by this beautiful material object and feel awareness of the energy that was put into it.”

Each handmade sandal is a carefully crafted ode to the sisters’ African roots and an appreciation of the people, the culture, and the many distinct sights and sounds. Wazi Shoes are locally sourced and made by fundis (Swahili for worker) using time-honored techniques and beadwork at a hand-chosen factory in Dar es Salaam, the most populated city in Tanzania. “I love seeing this every day,” says Smith. “I love feeling the leather. I love looking at the beadwork. I love thinking about the hands that wove these shoes.”

At present, their factory can produce a maximum of 2,000 shoes a month, which are shipped to U.S. households by way of a distributor in Chicago, also selected with care for their socially conscious methods.

For Majid and Smith, sustainably and ethically making something that celebrates the beauty of a culture they were born into and love, and sharing that with consumers in the U.S., while also having a chance to give back, is deeply satisfying and meaningful. Wazi Shoes provides these women with a distinct opportunity to realize that dream together and sew a change in the world bead by bead, shoe by shoe.

 

Back in Africa

The love affair with Africa is deeply rooted for both sisters, who were born in Kenya and lived there until they were 3 and 5 years old. Wazi began percolating 9 years ago when Smith fell in love with a pair of handmade leather sandals during Majid’s 30th birthday celebration on the island of Lamu in Kenya. For the next 5 years, she wore them everywhere, garnering compliments and inquiries around her Princeton home—friends and co-workers (and even strangers) wanted to know where they could get their hands on a pair. That’s when the idea was born to create Wazi Shoes, which turned into a chance for the sisters to build an international business and give back to the world and especially to Africa, which Majid had gladly made her home once again.

In 2009, Majid was working as a bedside nurse at the University of California San Francisco and writing her master’s thesis in nursing, which focused on preventing and reducing the rate of transmission of HIV. “I randomly got this email from an advisor who asked me if I would be willing to go out to Tanzania for a project doing important work around HIV,” she says. “I came out for that temporary assignment for 3 months, and I’ve now been here close to 8 years.” She felt at home in Tanzania, and she met and fell in love with her husband, Abdul, a Tanzanian, and they began to build a home and a family.

For Smith, the idea for Wazi Shoes began to form organically. “Every time I went back the U.S, I would wear different pairs of shoes, and all my friends would ask about them. I have a couple of friends, one who has a great children’s clothing company, and another who does screen printing for Etsy, and they planted the seed that was like, ‘This is a really good business idea,’” Majid recalls. “So, I pushed Heather that we could do this, especially since Abdul and I are based in Tanzania, so I was the driving force in the beginning. We designed our first line of shoes, we had them photographed, and my husband did an amazing amount of legwork on finding a factory that we believed in.”

The concept was simple—find local artisans to make beaded sandals, sell them in the United States, and give some of the proceeds to worthy organizations. They came up with the name Wazi on safari with help from a Swahili man named Hashim. “We just needed that time to brainstorm and think and be so we could find that inspiration,” says Smith. “Then we had the chance to really dream.”

While the idea for Wazis was straightforward, the planning and execution took an incredible amount of legwork and logistical wrangling. Beyond the typical challenges of creating a new companyy—designing the products, figuring out materials and labor costs, marketing, and profit margins—the sisters faced an uphill battle, despite the fact that Majid was based there, while Smith worked out of her Princeton home with her husband and three young kids. Smith’s husband, a financial analyst, helped give them the fundamentals regarding growth models and financial projections, but the greatest difficulties proved to be in the details.

They wanted the shoes to be made of high-quality leather and produced as sustainably as possible, which all proved to be tougher than it sounded (“lost in translation is not just a turn of phrase in Tanzania—it’s a way of life.”). Since Majid’s husband, Abdul, is Tanzanian, he was best qualified to maneuver around language barriers and municipal challenges, so Majid and Smith gave him guidelines and parameters, and he set out to help them find everything they needed. “It was like he was a detective searching out all the pieces of the puzzle,” Majid says. “He went by bus to the different places, found out their stories, asked about wages and support, and whether employees liked their jobs. We wanted everything to be as local as possible, so he found where they do the tanning of the leather.”

While they wanted the sandals to be reasonably affordable, quality was paramount, Smith says, which made production a little tricky, especially in the early phases. “We spent the first year working on shoe construction. Initially, the leather quality wasn’t high enough for the western market. This beading wasn’t wonderful. The suede backing wasn’t the greatest quality. And the foam needed to be more enhanced,” Smith says.

Even when it felt like they started to make progress toward producing the shoes they wanted, both Majid and Smith had the sense they were taking one step forward and one step back. “We’d get something just about right, and we’d say, ‘Let’s run a line like this.’ But then the shoes would come back, and something else would be wrong,” Majid says. “I remember at one point going in the factory, and I just crumbled and cried. My husband was there, and he was ever optimistic. He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll do another sample round.’ It was like we would get something right, and then something else on the next batch would be wrong.”

Those early days were challenging, and they both learned very quickly that the vision and the hard work was only part of the equation and didn’t guarantee that everything would come together. “Yes, you have this passion—that’s where it starts—but then it’s also like there are all these practical things that also have to happen to make it work,” Smith says.

 

Making It Count

While the current line of Wazi Shoes features about 10 different styles and they have ironed out many of the inconsistencies in the beading and stitching, Majid says the process still requires a great deal of oversight to maintain quality. They sell Wazi Shoes in several stores in Princeton and at periodic pop-up sales, but Majid and Smith are also looking to bolster their Web sales this year, so shoes are shipped directly from the Chicago distributor to the customer.

But beyond the products themselves, the venture also gives the sisters a chance to give back to a profession of nursing, which saved Smith’s life as a premature infant (“All for Love”) and that is the backbone of Majid’s profession. Early on, Majid and Smith identified the Gretta Foundation as the organization they wanted to support with funding. Gretta works to provide financial support to nursing scholars primarily in sub-Saharan Africa in the form of tuition, room and board, living allowance, books, school uniforms, and clinical supplies to students. This gives Majid and Smith the chance to give back to Africa and directly impact chronic nursing shortages, which undermine efforts to improve maternal health, decrease child mortality rates, and fight the advance of diseases like HIV.

With Majid focusing her career on public health in Africa, and specifically HIV prevention and the reduction of transmission, the Gretta Foundation’s work really spoke to her. According to the World Health Organization, sub-Saharan Africa has 24 percent of the global disease burden but only 3 percent of the healthcare workforce worldwide.

With its attention focused on Africa, Meg Styles started the Gretta Foundation in 2007 to honor her mother, a nurse, in an effort to provide nursing education to impoverished people living in disease-burdened nations while bolstering depleted healthcare workforces and improving patient care and outcomes. “We have scholars who were born in the bush while their mothers were kidnapped. We offer them an opportunity to empower their lives. They work hard to get there, and they work hard in the program,” says Meg Styles, president & founder of the Gretta Foundation. “We have 100 percent success rate—everyone is graduated and everyone is working. [Nurses in Africa] see on average about 70 patients a day, so the more we support, the more lives we empower and save.”

Wazi reached a milestone in December when they fully backed their first Gretta scholarship recipient. “I would like Wazis to be a sustainable organization that can make an impact on these nursing scholars through the Gretta Foundation,” Majid says. “If Wazi Shoes can sponsor three or five or 10 nursing scholars every year on a consistent basis, that would truly be an amazing thing.”

At this point, for each pair of sandals it sells, Wazi donates 10 percent to the Gretta Foundation. “That $12 could be the equivalent of clinical supplies or something, and that’s how you start making a change,” Smith says.

She is also working to highlight “Wazi women,” showcasing people wearing their sandals, in hopes of creating an international community of women who share common worldviews and social consciousness. To that end, Smith posts comments on the Wazi website like, “My Wazis made it up Mt. Kilimanjaro! Wazi sandals are hardy yet unique and exquisitely beautiful,” said Dr. Susannah Wise.

Majid sees Wazi women as people who are passionate, dynamic, and looking to use their talents to make the world a little better than when they found it. “I just see all these women doing amazing things, and they’re doing it because they love it, and they believe in it, and that’s what a Wazi woman should be.”

And that’s exactly what these two sisters are.

Author :

Jessica Downey

Jessica Downey is the editor of Real Woman magazine.

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