Matthew Meyer is a third-year law student at the University of Michigan. In 1995 he cofounded the Wikyo Akala Project, which today sells used-tire sandals around the world at Ecosandals.com.

Monday, 14 Jan 2002

ANN ARBOR, Mich.

I first set foot in an African shantytown in 1992. As I walked through the Mathare Valley, a sprawling line of dilapidated huts and feces-laden alleys that hundreds of thousands called home, the images shocked me: People today should not be forced to live this way. As I spent more time in neighboring Korogocho, Nairobi, I learned that the poorest of the poor lead lives based almost entirely on re-using other people’s garbage.

A slum in Nairobi.

Photo: Matthew Meyer.

Being forced to live off other people’s trash is a tragedy, no doubt. But out of tragedy can come commercial opportunities for the people of Korogocho, as well as environmental lessons for the rest of the world. A few years ago, my friend Benson Wikyo and I started a community-based sandal-making operation that now sells globally and employs 27 sandal-makers from Korogocho. The sandals, made with durable soles recycled from old car tires, last five years or 50,000 miles. And they are providing an increasing number of unemployed young adults with job opportunities and rewards to last a lifetime.

Each day this week, I will write about Ecosandals.com, a website I started last year to promote the Wikyo Akala Project of Korogocho, Kenya. Growing up in the U.S., I always thought environmentalists and pro-growth economists were inevitably in conflict. The development of an aggressive capitalist business model, I thought, necessarily involved some amount of degradation of the Earth. But after nearly 10 years of working in the field, I have learned that environmental preservation and, more specifically, trash reduction, is critical to the provision of basic daily needs in materially impoverished urban areas in the developing world.

Making sandals in Korogocho.

Photo: Matthew Meyer.

Korogocho is one such place. There, being an environmentalist is less a selfless commitment to the Earth and more a commercial necessity. If you walk about half a mile from our workshop to the sprawling Mukuru landfill, you see thousands of young people, many under 10 years old, combing through the trash, looking for anything they can use or sell. In nearby Soko Mjinga, a large outdoor marketplace sells many of the wares found in the trash heap: old pipes and plastic bags, worn books, and old, half-broken cassette tapes. Virtually everything is wrapped in used newspaper. For the hundreds of millions of humans across our planet who live on less than $5 per day, scavenging through trash for food and anything of value is about survival. Yet, ironically, the great tragedy of mass poverty begets a culture of recycling and reusing that many in the developed world would do well to imitate. That is the cornerstone belief of the Wikyo Akala Project. And that is, in essence, the mission of Ecosandals.com.

Hours ago I arrived home from Nairobi, where I spent a month working with the project on-site. Over the next few days, I will bring you back to Korogocho with me, as well as take you on a quick safari through our Ann Arbor, Michigan, all-volunteer operation. My objective is to help you appreciate the people of Korogocho a little better, to see beyond a single image of wretched poverty and human tragedy, and to understand how some people become environmentalists out of necessity.