Community Ties

That dashing hipster rocking the colorful bow tie in your office may also be helping the residents of a remote African village empower themselves. That is, if the neckwear is a piece from Bow Shoeshoe, a social enterprise started by Edward Wycliff ’11, a Peace Corps volunteer based in Lesotho, Africa.

Bow Shoeshoe (pronounced bo shway-shway) employs people in nearby villages after teaching them the skills necessary to sew bow ties from an inexpensive local fabric called seshoeshoe.

The people of Lesotho, a mountainous landlocked nation in South Africa, suffer chronic unemployment and one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. And despite significant aid money from humanitarian organizations like the Peace Corps, the country’s issues have continued to intensify.

Many of Lesotho’s problems, Wycliff explained, are worsened by its turbulent political system. State actors often force governmental shifts with violence. Since Wycliff arrived in June 2014, there’s been a coup d’état and a high-profile assassination in the country. International organizations are left to bolster the effort to provide aid for remote villages.

After spending a year integrating himself into the Lesotho community and facilitating already existing projects part of his Peace Corps assignment, Wycliff wanted to do more to help improve living conditions. He and his host brother developed Bow Shoeshoe to that end.

“[In] Lesotho, there’s a lot of entrepreneurship or street vending of little crafts,” Wycliff said. “But the problem is that everybody makes the same thing.” Lesotho’s overabundance of thatch grass hats and its scarcity of bow ties that aren’t clip-ons inspired the duo’s idea to use seshoeshoe fabric to create more stylish bow ties—a distinctive craft that would also sell well abroad.

By May 2015, Wycliff and his host brother had practiced sewing enough bow ties to begin training a team of 40 people to make their own. The training session lasted four days, and each member of the production team learned the entire bow tie-creating process: from cutting the fabrics to sewing the shapes together to tying the bow correctly.

By the time the teaching session was over and the twoweek production session began in early June, each member of the team was able to work without Wycliff’s supervision. And by the end of the month, Bow Shoeshoe’s production team had independently created a thousand bow ties that were ready to sell for $25 each to global buyers on Etsy, a peer-to-peer e-commerce website.

With these sales, each of the team members earned roughly $9 per day. Though it may sound like underwhelming pay for people in the United States, in two weeks’ time Bow Shoeshoe’s workers earned about one-sixth of Lesotho’s average annual income. And perhaps most importantly, the production crew had acquired the skills necessary to earn money on their own, despite scarce employment.

“Everybody learns every part of the system,” Wycliff explains. “If we can get this community to, as a group, know the ins and outs of the process—even if Bow Shoeshoe somehow disintegrates when I’m gone—then on their own they can go get a sewing machine and a meter of fabric, produce five bow ties, and sell them at a ridiculous profit margin for the cost of inputs.”

It’s a people-focused method of community development that Wycliff hopes will help alleviate some of Lesotho’s economic and health concerns, rather than leave villagers dependent on outside aid.

The emphasis on innovative development that motivates Wycliff’s operation of Bow Shoeshoe first took root in the politics courses he took at IC. These courses fostered his interest in the political theories of democracy, international relations, and community-centered discourse. As his interest in these topics grew, he was inspired to cofound the IC Progressive Discourse Project on campus with a politics classmate and to eventually earn his master’s degree in conflict resolution at the University of Amsterdam.

So far, Bow Shoeshoe has sold bow ties to customers on four different continents, and Wycliff is preparing to begin another round of production, this time with neckties as well as bow ties. Eventually he hopes to establish Bow Shoeshoe as the world-renowned African bow tie company, owned and run entirely by the community. In the meantime, the next production team will be sewing blue and gold patterned bow ties—a nod to the IC community from Lesotho.