The rise of a humble cobbler (Me & My Business)
In the late 80s, Onkabetse Thabo was a common sight along the dusty streets of Letlhakane.
Under the shade of a mophane tree, the young man made ends meet as a shoemaker in the bustling Boteti mining village.
A self taught cobbler, Thabo’s ultimate dream revolved around receiving more shoes to repair, as it was the only way off making enough money to put bread on the table.
As fate would have it, he became acquainted with some skilled traders in Zimbabwe who imparted their sandal making knowledge.
Going against the adage that a cobbler should never judge beyond his shoe, the Letlhakane native felt he could make better leather products.
“In 1993 I introduced sandal making to my business. People who dropped their shoes off to be fixed also bought my sandals. This encouraged me and I made more sandals,” explained the 49-year-old.
The shoemaker was one of the many exhibitors at the recent Business Botswana Northern Trade Fair under the wing of Botswana Investment Trade Centre (BITC).
His wide range of leather products included: formal shoes, sandals, hats and belts made out of genuine leather.
“I have a natural talent for working with leather. To improve my trade I did formal trading at Rural Industries Innovation Centre (RIIC) in Kanye through some government schemes meant for small enterprises,” said Thabo, adding that he went for more training in Mochudi to sharpen his skills.
He further said he was a beneficiary of the Financial Assistance Policy (FAP), a financial support programme introduced in 1982. The programme was set up to facilitate the development of new productive enterprises and the expansion of existing productive enterprises with the purpose of creating employment for citizens (particularly for unskilled labour). It also focused on assisting in diversifying the economy, which was overly dependent on the mining and cattle sectors.
“I was later funded by Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency (CEDA) with over P1 million. I set up my factory and employed 20 people,” Thabo said with nostalgia.
Hard times, however, were never too far away, as Thabo and his business, King’s Leather Works, would soon find out.
Following the 2008 credit crunch Thabo’s venture was one of the most affected.
“I couldn’t understand what was going on. All of a sudden there was no money coming in and I had salaries to pay. I had to retrench 16 of my employees because I could no longer afford to pay them,” he recalled with a sad grimace.
Speaking with the advantage of hindsight, Thabo admitted to over the top investments, adding that a little financial prudence would probably have averted the disaster.
Although times have improved since then, the resilient businessman still faces numerous obstacles.
“My other challenge is that I get all my raw materials outside the country. There’s no leather factory in the country and I spend a lot importing materials,” he highlighted glumly.
“I also compete with big shops who have the financial muscle to sell at cheaper prices. I’ll still keep doing what I’ve been doing and will never compromise on quality,” Thabo said with serious conviction.
The leather man was however happy to have BITC in his corner during this trying time.
“They have been a shoulder to lean on. BITC has taken my products to the global market and for that I’ll forever be indebted to them,” Thabo ended, as his attention immediately shifts to a curious group of students at his stall.