Sneaker Start-up Empowers Communities Across Africa

This funky sneaker brand goes beyond creating unique kicks.

A West African woman holds colorful fabric.

(Gerhard Pettersson / Shutterstock.com)

From Chanel to Dior, French designers have long been the among most storied names in the fashion world. Following in the footsteps of their countrymen, two friends launched their own ethical line of shoes called PANAFRICA, creating a huge hit with sneaker lovers all over the globe. 

PANAFRICA sneakers, a social enterprise created by Hugues Didier and Vulfran de Richoufftz, go beyond providing consumers with a unique look. The brand is dedicated to ethical sourcing and manufacturing, empowering communities across the African continent. 

Didier and de Richoufftz, who created PANAFRICA in 2015, spoke to French sustainable fashion site Slo we are about the origins of the project. They explained that after meeting at university, Didier left for Africa and lived in Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo. Upon his return, he excitedly showed de Richoufftz fabrics he found in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast.

They both loved the vibrant colors and patterns so much, they became inspired to take this a step further. Didier and de Richoufftz began exploring ways to incorporate the traditional West African patterns into ready-to-wear clothing. They realized that sneakers were the perfect way to subtly integrate the designs into their day-to-day wardrobes.

For these aspiring designers, their project was about more than creating funky sneakers with eye-catching designs. Central principles of sustainability and long-term impact for African communities shaped PANAFRICA’s business model from the beginning.

“Our goal is to take human and environmental well-being into consideration in every phase of the production of our products, from the purchase of raw materials to the sale of our sneakers,” de Richoufftz told Slo we are.

Before launching the brand, de Richoufftz and Didier started off with a crowdfunding campaign, explaining their commitment to ethical manufacturing and sustainable sourcing. Within a month, according to Slo we are, they sold 2,000 pairs of sneakers, which reassured the pair that public interest in the project was strong.

The next step for Didier and de Richoufftz was establishing PANAFRICA’s supply chain for each step of the shoemaking process. Rather than using subcontractors, the pair engaged in extensive research to use local suppliers that respect workers’ rights, according to their Ulele campaign.

Many companies run charity campaigns in which a certain percentage of profits are periodically donated to nonprofit organizations. But PANAFRICA’s unique business model has giving back built-in, creating a more long-term impact than seasonal donations. 

Didier told carenews that their vision for PANAFRICA didn’t focus on empowering just one community. Wanting to engage people across multiple countries, they purchase  fabrics from places in West Africa, wax from the Ivory Coast, and cotton from Burkina Faso.

“In the two assembly factories located in Morocco, we have ensured good working conditions for employees and we guarantee our suppliers long-term production so that they can hire staff,” Didier told carenews.

In addition, the company helps an association in Burkina Faso which teaches women techniques for dyeing and weaving local cotton and then PANAFRICA buys this canvas for their shoes. They also pay for children’s tutors in Benin and Cameroon.

Farmers, vendors, artisans, and laborers are employed by PANAFRICA year-round, giving workers much-needed financial security which, in turn, leads to overall community development. PANAFRICA is forward-thinking in both fashion and ethical sourcing, showing that community empowerment begins from the ground up. 

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