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In a Backyard Zimbabwe Shop, Entrepreneur Brothers Make Shoes That Others Can Afford

 
 
Ishmael Chifamba uses an old machine to sew shoe leather. He and his brothers started a business to serve Zimbabweans who can no longer afford to buy shoes in retail shops. Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe

A high unemployment rate has spurred informal businesses in Zimbabwe, and these five siblings moved from being shoe salesmen to being shoemakers, to serve patrons who don’t have the money for footwear in retail shops. The brothers are successful in marketing custom-order shoes at wholesale prices, despite competition from Chinese-made products and some difficulty in getting materials.

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — In an unmarked backyard workshop, five brothers who were once shoe sellers are hard at work designing and making shoes for a specific clientele: Zimbabweans who can no longer afford to buy footwear in retail shops.

Their workshop is simple. It’s stocked with just the essentials — a small paraffin stove, an old sewing machine and a grinder used to smooth soles.

The brothers aren’t trained shoemakers. But Zimbabwe’s turbulent economy inspired them to transform themselves from salesmen into entrepreneurs.

Their workshop is simple. It’s stocked with just the essentials — a small paraffin stove, an old sewing machine and a grinder used to smooth soles.

They began selling shoes in 2010. But three years later, they realized that average Zimbabweans could no longer afford to buy shoes in retail shops. Today, they operate a successful workshop where each day they make 20 to 25 pairs of shoes and serve 15 to 20 clients.

Mark Muchemwa, one of the brothers, says they spent some time studying how their suppliers made shoes. And then they started their own business, making custom-order shoes sold at wholesale prices.

“We specialize in men’s shoes, and female shoes are done by order,” says Muchemwa, who adds that the brothers take pride in offering high-quality footwear to customers who can no longer afford to buy premium labels in stores, thanks to the cash shortage and economic crisis here.

Muchemwa says they are creating jobs, too.

Some customers buy wholesale shoes from the brothers to resell on the streets of Harare.

According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, also known as Zimstat, the nation’s unemployment rate is 11.3 percent, but other sources say unemployment is as high as 95 percent. Africa Check, an organization that promotes accuracy in public debate and the media, says most of the available unemployment figures are unreliable, because they are not based on primary data.

The crisis has spurred informal, or backyard, businesses. According to a 2014 Zimstat labor survey, 94.5 percent of the population is engaged in informal employment. Since 2011, informal employment has grown more than 10 percent, according to the same survey.

Manufacturing is a fast-growing sector for informal employment, says Wisborn Malaya, secretary general of Zimbabwe’s Chamber of Informal Economy Associations. While the association doesn’t keep exact statistics on informal shoemakers, he says he believes the trade is growing.

“The shoemaking business is quite a big industry and has played a very big role in terms of employment creation,” Malaya says.

Despite growth in the trade, the unstable economy means increased risks for entrepreneurs who face challenges due to lack of capital and weak customer bases.

Muchemwa says those challenges have affected the brothers’ shoe business in recent years. In particular, the flood of cheap shoes manufactured in China has hit sales this year.

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Mark Muchemwa (left) and Matthew Chifamba make shoes in their backyard workshop. Shoemaking is now their main source of income.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

“We sell our shoes at a wholesale price of $10 and retail price of $20, which is often negotiable,” says Muchemwa, referring to U.S. dollars, the primary currency here. Chinese-made shoes that are sold on the street can go for less.

Stanford Nyatsanza, a customer, says the quality of the brothers’ shoes is better.

“The shoes that are made by people in the informal trade are more durable than the ones we get in boutiques,” he says.

Matthew Chifamba, oneof the brothers, says the poor economy also makes it difficult to get the materials, like dark leather, needed to make shoes. In the absence of basic materials, he says, they are often forced to improvise.

“At times, we use white leather and tint it to either black or brown to meet demand,” he says.

The brothers are hopeful that local regulations will emerge to curb the influx of Chinese-made shoes. But in the meantime, they are optimistic about the future of their business, despite the local economy.

Malaya says quality shoemaking businesses like the brothers’ are becoming an essential part of the mainstream economy.

For his part, Chifamba says he’s just happy the shoe business is making enough money to feed their families.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some sources in the story are related.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.