A Social Business Incubator In The Eastern Congo

BEst foot forward


Olivier Maheshe is a man with ambition, skill, imagination and tenacity. In the past four years, he has built a successful shoemaking company called Kivu Leather from the ground up. Olivier’s lightbulb moment came on the streets of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, where he discovered that the shoes on sale there were made locally. He figured, why couldn’t someone do the same in his home city of Bukavu? If that someone was going to be him, he was going to need to learn not only how to make shoes, but also research the potential market and figure out how to set up and finance the operation.

Back in the 1960s, Bukavu had a house making plastic shoes in the Kadutu Commune’s industrial district, which served not only Bukavu city, but also further out towards Goma, Uvira, Kindu right down to Kalemie on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Olivier felt encouraged that his idea could work as there had clearly been a previous demand and market for locally made footwear, so he spent three months in the Burundi capital of Bujumbura, training in shoe repair.

On his return, he was fortunate to meet a veteran shoemaker called Lele, who was willing to pass on the skills of the trade. Olivier became his apprentice and student, learning what he describes as “the rigour and modesty” of a shoemaker’s job.

During the six months he spent with the master craftsman, Olivier continued his research, talking with local tradespeople who make leather goods manually using locally-sourced cowhides. This process seemed arduous, with the resulting products lacking the professional quality of sandals and shoes from overseas. Their main advantage was price - the foreign imports were out of the price range of the average Bukavu resident.

Shoemaking is not a prestigious profession in Bukavu. Shoemakers are known locally as ‘Korodo’ - meaning a person only able to live day-to-day. Olivier was risking local stigma by pursuing his goal. But he had bigger ideas than becoming the local cobbler. To help him fund his dream, he took a well-paying job with a large mining corporation. He kept his plans to go into shoe manufacturing to himself, for fear of confirming his peer-group’s opinion that he was just a dreamer. That dream, however, kept him going, along with his mother and father. His parents supported his ambitions, helping him to gather the necessary tools and products to start him off.

The imported sandals and shoes, Olivier saw, were mainly from Uganda, Kenya, China and Dubai. These imports were mainly bought by young people and those who had more disposable income, due to import/export exchange and selling gold and coltan minerals. They were in the market for beautiful, well-made footwear - and Olivier soon realised that they could be his initial target group.

He began Kivu Leather with money from his savings and a small collection of tools and raw materials gathered during his time working for the mining company, including durable rubber for the soles taken from the no longer fit-for-purpose rubber conveyor belts from the mines.

He started out cautiously, making leather sandals for the local market. Olivier paid his staff fairly, managed his finances prudently and continually monitored those initial sales. Kivu Leather’s flagship leather sandals, slippers and shoes all carry the ‘Ngozi Matata’ label, which translates as ‘Strong Skin’ or ‘Solid Leather’. The prices are fixed for the higher end of the local market, ranging from $3 a pair up to $15 for shoes with finely glazed leather.

Kivu Leather has made its location work to its advantage by using qualified locals, pricing their shoes, belts and bags to be affordable and distributing through local kiosks and markets in a 135-km area, including Bukavu and the surrounding areas of Mudaka, Nyangezi, Uvire and Kamituga. Orders are also now coming in from the neighbouring province of North Katanga. The locally-sourced leather is finer and softer than the leathers used by manufacturers in China and Dubai. With eight months of rain either side of the equator, flooding and mud is part of everyday life for local customers - and they need shoes that can handle their weather. Currently, six out of the ten pairs of shoes sold locally are ‘Made by Kivu Leather’, while their top-of-the-range shoes are increasingly being bought for weddings and special occasions. Olivier can also deliver bespoke shoes for customers while they are at his workplace.

Things are different now for Olivier than when he was hiding his ambitions from his peers.  "Everyone envies me," he says. "I look to my future with confidence, I feel I was destined to do this, and that's what gives me confidence, self-esteem and the courage to do better."

Kivu Leather is now a legitimate small-to-medium-sized enterprise (SME), but getting there, sadly, made it vulnerable to certain illegal charges and protection rackets. In a city where some people pretend to be collecting official taxes, it can be very difficult for a business to know how to distinguish true from false charges. But the fledgling business found a way to avoid the bureaucratic harassment that has discouraged more than one young entrepreneur. Perched on the upper floor of a narrow house in the hot and popular district of Kadutu Commune, he was able to hide from opportunistic, corrupt individuals.

The cell that served as a workshop had no electricity and so the few machines could only work on generators. The regular supply of fuel and oils for the machines and their unreliability and untimely shutdowns created additional expenses that ended up putting Kivu Leather's accounts into difficulty. In addition, this workplace hardly inspired confidence in the potential customers. Happily, this situation has been resolved.

Today, thanks to investment from Ensemble Pour la Difference, Kivu Leather are based in a reputable Bukavu neighbourhood, in an airy, illuminated workshop. The staff of 15 people are motivated and dedicated to their craft. Says Olivier , "They can live well with the salaries they earn and are able to educate their children".

Olivier Maheshe is a man driven by more than purely profit. He is on a mission to bring local, affordable quality leather shoes, bags and belts to and from his locale. "I like shoes that attract attention," he says, as we are walking one day in a street in Kampala. He becomes "ecstatic" in front of a pair of sandals, which he eventually buys to take back to Bukavu to make up something similar. "If I had substantial financing, I could put my shoes on to the feet of everyone in Bukavu.” he sighs. We suspect he’s absolutely right about that.