Monday, July 18, 2011

TOMS Shoes

TOMS Shoes is a for-profit American company which donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes they sell, “one for one,” as their motto states.  TOMS partners with NGO’s worldwide to distribute their shoes to underprivileged children.  Before coming to Uganda I had decided that after assessing the need for shoes in the area, it would probably be a project I would want to undertake, as last year’s HELP team had started the project but never completed it.  From their report it sounded as if they couldn’t continue with the project because they lost all of the data they had collected, but little did I know how difficult this project would eventually become mostly due to bureaucracy, not lost data.

TOMS requires a preliminary qualifying assessment, which we did back in May.  After the preliminary assessment was passed, they sent us an extensive 11 page assessment to fill out and send back to TOMS for approval.  Filling out the assessment does not guarantee approval from TOMS, but if it is approved, they will then send an order form to fill out and return, and then you wait for the shipment to arrive!  Sounds easy enough, but we encountered three huge problems.

The first being storage.  We are expecting to donate 17,000 pairs of shoes.  That’s a lot of shoes.  And they must be stored somewhere.  After searching extensively for a partner capable of storing a huge quantity of shoes, we found Noah’s Ark Children’s Ministry-Uganda, an enormous orphanage which houses, clothes, feeds, and schools over 120 orphans.  They also use their facility as a private school to school and feed around 300 more children.  The orphanage was founded and is operated by an extremely wealthy Dutch businessman named Piet.  The vast facility is quite possibly the most inspiring sight of development work in Uganda I have seen thus far.  The gigantic compound is almost entirely self sustainable, as they grow their own crops and livestock for the meals prepared in their cafeterias for the children.  The kids have an incredible amount of room to play and learn in their wonderful classrooms and fields and jungles, all located at this facility.  When we met with Piet, he was not reluctant to let us use some of his storage space as well as a shipping crate for the shoe storage as long as we were willing to donate a mere 120 shoes (of the 17,000) to his orphans.  Of course we were willing to pay that small price.  Piet was reluctant, however, to partner with us because of the importation costs that would follow.  As an extremely experienced and successful businessman, he gave us a few invaluable tips and insights into the dreaded Ugandan bureaucracy, which brings me to my next point.

The most difficult situation we’ve had to deal with so far is that TOMS Shoes requires that the organization wishing to import TOMS Shoes has duty free (or tax exempt) status in the country of distribution.  HELP International is a registered and recognized 501(c)(3) tax exempt nonprofit charitable organization in the U.S., which unfortunately doesn’t transfer across national borders.  So first off, we need to get HELP International as a registered NGO in Uganda.  Then, we can proceed to get the duty free status for our organization.  But here’s the problem (as Piet explained to us)—duty free status does not exist in Uganda.  There is no such thing as an organization being tax exempt in Uganda.  And I guess it makes sense when a developing country refuses to grant duty free status to an organization, because they want all the tax money they can get their hands on.  In short, if we were to import the shoes without duty free status, we would be paying thousands of dollars on import taxes and the shoes probably wouldn’t end up being free at all.

To remedy the problem, we were first told to make a visit to the URA (Uganda Revenue Authority), which deals primarily with importation and exportation of goods.  When we arrived there, they told us they couldn’t do anything about it and to make a visit to Parliament.  So, we made a contact with a Member of Parliament named Honorary Magyezi Raphael, who deals primarily in the Department of Education.  We set up a meeting with him and he loved the idea.  Just that week they had been discussing in Parliament that last month over 100 Ugandan school children died due to lightning strikes.  In Parliament, one solution they came up with was to get more kids rubber soled shoes, which will help decrease chances of death if someone is struck by lightning.  The only problem for them was that they didn’t know where to get the shoes.  Lucky for them we have a solution!  Honorary Magyezi was excited and scheduled a meeting for us to meet with the Speaker of Parliament, which I guess would be like the John Boehner of Uganda.

Uganda Parliament

On Tuesday we had our big meeting with Honorary Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, Speaker of Parliament.  It went well and she seemed pretty committed to getting our import taxes paid for us when the shoes finally come.  The first step though, is to get the NGO status (which she will also assist in speeding along the process). 

Now, we just have to wait to get the proper documentations and then send off the TOMS application for approval.  And if it’s not approved by TOMS, that’ll be a huge bummer.  In any case, check out the TOMS website and buy a pair of shoes from them.  It’ll go to a good cause.

The kids here in Uganda suffer from a lot of different ailments due to not wearing shoes.  If you’re interested in some light reading about the health impacts shoes would make in Uganda, here’s an excerpt from our project proposal to TOMS about why these kids need shoes.

a.            Disease prevention
Hookworms are a major problem in many rural communities in Uganda.  Most people use squat toilet latrines which tend to be extremely unsanitary, especially when people are barefoot and already have cuts on their feet.  Because of the urine and fecal matter which can be all around the squat toilet latrines, hookworms can easily enter the body through the soles of feet through minor cuts.  These problems could be easily prevented if people wore shoes while using the latrines.
Another problem arises through the extraction of jiggers.  If unclean tweezers or other tools are used to extract jiggers, it may also facilitate the spread of HIV/AIDS.  By giving shoes to children and decreasing the jigger infestations, the spread of HIV/AIDS in conjunction with jigger removal will also be greatly decreased.
b.            Other health impacts
Jiggers, or Chigoe fleas, are often found in tropical climates, such as Uganda.  They tend to live in soil and dirt, thus making them easily transmittable to impoverished children who live in unsanitary conditions, sleeping on dirt floors, and sharing living quarters with chickens and other domestic animals.  Jiggers cause itching and pain, but are most dangerous because they can lead to severe inflammation, fibrosis, ulceration, lymphangitis, and gangrene, which can cause death.  Through education about jiggers and if the children had shoes, jiggers could be easily prevented and treated.
According to recent news, over 100 school children in the last month have died due to lightning strikes at schools.  Schools are unequipped with lightning rods which help divert the lightning.  Even Uganda’s Parliament has begun to discuss ways to get children rubber soled shoes which can help to greatly reduce the chance of children being killed by lightning strikes.
c.             School attendance
Children with jiggers often find it nearly impossible to walk to school due to the pain and itching.  Many children actually end up dropping out of school because of the problem.  In an article published last year in IPS Africa, Michael Wambi states:
“According [to] the national Department of Education, only 20 percent of pupils who enroll for primary education end up completing Grade 7, the highest level in Uganda’s primary education. Although the department does not have statistics on how many children drop out of school due to jiggers, it acknowledges that the sand fleas are a key contributor to the problem in rural areas.  Some education experts believe the flea epidemic is actually hindering the country from achieving Millennium Development Goal 2 of achieving universal primary education by 2015.”
Not only this, but many children drop out of school due to the stigmatism placed on those with jiggers.  The same article states:
“Eight-year-old Derick Ntalo from Mayuge district in Uganda’s east is one of the many jigger-infected pupils who refuses to go to school because he feels discriminated by his peers. ‘The teacher and the other children are laughing at me,’ he explains why he dropped out of Grade 3 eight months ago.  Local government councillor Charles Mukiibi confirms that absenteeism at schools is high because of the stigma attached to the epidemic: ‘The children are teased because they keep on itching their hands and feet in class and cannot concentrate.’  He believes many more children would be attending primary school in eastern Uganda, if the health department would bring the epidemic under control.”

A picture we took of the consequences of a child not having access to adequate footwear

A picture from the internet of the impact of jiggers on the toes


  1. Kev I love this! I'm so happy things are working out and that you kept pushing forward on Toms. It's such a daunting project and you are definitely making progress. We ain't no lazies on the Lugazi team!!

  2. Oh, this is so cool to read! I'm so glad you're pushing for this project so much. What a great experience. Hero!