A career in the cutthroat world of footwear design can be a certifiable challenge for young entrepreneurs. But when they established the California-based Freewaters Footwear, founders Eli Marmar and Martin Kim not only planned to develop high-quality sandals for an increasingly competitive market, but they also hoped to combine their professional endeavors with a unique, yet pertinent form of philanthropy.
"Martin and I really started at the base level and said, 'Hey, we want to be part of something that’s a real fundamental need rather than a niche need,'" recalled Marmar, 38. "Water has been a part of ritualistic healing for centuries. ... It's a really powerful element."
The Freewaters Footwear company is now the driving force behind ProjectFreewaters, an organization dedicated to improving access to clean drinking water throughout western Kenya. Marmar and Kim said that for each pair of Freewaters sandals or shoes purchased, their organization is able to provide enough clean drinking water for one individual for a full year. Since its establishment in December 2010, ProjectFreewaters officials have built a total of five wells throughout the region. They say creation of the wells has already had a significant impact on the health and well-being of the Kenyan community, and the team now incudes Kenyan residents in positions as both educators and facilitators.
Of the conditions in the region prior to ProjectFreewaters' involvement, 36-year-old Kim noted, "When you actually are there and see where some of [the residents] are drawing their water from, it's really shocking. A lot of their water sources are stagnant... Just by looking them, you can tell it's a really unhealthy place to be drawing water from."
During their first two-week stint in Kenya last winter, however, the Freewaters team faced a series of logistical hurdles in getting their projects up and running -- particularly when it came to involving the locals, which they say was always a big priority.
"We had a lot of challenges, which are pretty much status quo for working in Africa ... just in terms of traffic, weather and getting materials," Marmar said.
Despite an extreme level of poverty throughout the region, neither of them claim to have been overly concerned for their safety: "Within minutes of leaving the airport, you immediately see severe...urban chaos," he said, before going on to note that they are planning a return trip to Kenya in the next few months. "You quickly get a sense of how much work needs to be done there...but the people right off the bat were very genuine and straightforward. We both felt completely safe right away."
Interestingly, the pair -- who met as fellow students at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena -- say water has always been central to their personal and professional relationship. "Martin and I bonded really quickly and maintained our sanity by surfing once in a while," Marmar recalled. "As surfers, we've always had a connection to water and its healing effects."
As for the future, both Marmar and Kim say they hope to expand their outreach to include domestic projects as well. "Even here in the U.S. we have and continue to have major issues in terms of access," Marmar said. "We want to do something here domestically to educate and inspire people here to get more involved with water issues here and globally."
Watch video of the ProjectFreewaters team at work below:
For more information on Project Freewaters, click here.