Popular Maasai Sandals Under Attack from Copycats
Written by Mwenda Micheni
On a recent Tuesday morning as birds still lazily emerged from their nests, the Maasai Market was already abuzz with vendors and customers deep into negotiating for best deals on akala sandals.
Inspired by the rugged tyre sandals Maasai herders have worn over the years to protect their feet from thorns, the akalas sold today are an artistic hybrid that barely relate to the originals. And as they boom in popularity with Kenyans and tourists alike, behind the scenes artists and exporters jostle for profits, while copycats lie in wait to seize upon popular designs.
Martha Muriga, a businesswoman from Coast province, says she comes to the market twice a month, carrying back about 20 pairs of Akalas to sell in her two Mombasa outlets.
“My customers in Mombasa, where I sell the sandals, prefer them for their uniqueness and the durability they come with,” she explained.
Like others from around the country who throng the chaotic market in Nairobi’s central business district each Tuesday to purchase their wares, Ms Muriga strives to get the latest innovation. But that does not come easily as the market is now flooded with copycats, and the hottest designs sell at high end prices.
The artists who design the sandals, compete to offer something fresh.
Among the success stories is Wilburn Njuguna, 30. He said having new designs is not only creatively satisfying but financially smart.
“I keep away from what the rest of the market is offering,” he says with a chuckle. “When an artist introduces new designs into the market, they cut a competitive edge and are always able to dictate prices.”
At the moment, Mr Njuguna’s “Nibore” design of men’s sandals sell for Sh1,500 a pair. Less unique designs which go for as little as Sh300 look wrinkled and dull in comparison.
“It is the artistry that goes into the sandal that forces me to price it at that much,” he said.
A pair of the hand-made sandals takes artists up to three-quarters of an hour to complete. Mr Njuguna, who spends up to Sh500 on materials, draws patterns and cuts them out before attaching them to the shoes and stitching them—a tedious process that must be done with patience. And when the product is complete it must fit the foot it was designed for.
Customer’s tastes vary, and so do the shoemaker’s designs, from simple to sophisticated, despite the inspiration being the rough and functional tyre-bottomed akala.
Entering the trade in 2004, Mr Njuguna has experimented with wood, sisal mats and even fake leather but found many designs quickly reproduced en masse by competitors.
The trail of not-so-creative copycats lying in wait, forces sandal-makers to be cautious about to whom they show their newest wares.
“We choose not to display openly for fear of losing to these money hungry guys who will shamelessly pounce on your idea, and sell it at a very low price, making the competition so unfair,” said Mr Njuguna.
Still, the artist has been able to spread his sales territory. Initially starting at Maasai Market, he currently has orders from as far as Uganda and Mombasa and struggles to keep up with demand, as he can only make 210 pairs of sandals in a month.
In his workshop, only 10 pairs of Akalas remain unsold, on the shelf.
The chairman of the Maasai Market, King David, also an akala designer says that competition for the sandals is stiff. “This asks the artists to arm themselves with the best of creativity,” says David.
To beat competitors, David displays more ordinary designs at the market, but keeps what he considers the best at his home-based workshop. Part of that private collection are what he calls “therapeutic sandals,” made of old tyres; with a well-cushioned foot-bed with pieces of beads stitched on to provide comfort and aesthetics. These can take two weeks to produce, and command a steep Sh3500. But they are a hit. Since he started making the therapeutic sandals, Mr Njuguna has been swarmed with orders. He has shipped six pairs to Norway, and is working on orders from South Africa and Nigeria.
“Creativity is always leading us onto new opportunities,” he quipped.
At the market, knowing little of the inspiration or struggle behind the sandals, tourists simply appreciate, and buy, Akalas for their simple pleasures.
“It certainly is a comfortable thong sandal,” said June Collins, an American tourist at the market. “Decorated with cowry shells and beading, the thong is perfect for the beach, showers, and with sundresses,” she enthused.
Currently, Kenyan artists are the only producers of akala sandals. Mr Njuguna adds that a new bright spot is Kenyans’ appreciation of the indigenous footwear. For local consumers, like Mary Auma, a 23-year-old student at United States International University, the unique sandals are hard to resist.
This article was published in the Business Daily Africa newspaper on Friday 13th April 2007