Kampala. From unisex sandals to school shoes for children to closed shoes for men to soldiers’ shoes, John Byabashaija’s office is a small store of fashionable footwear. The small shoe store doubles as a training ground for young men and women. As the shoemaker tells us why his brand is “web shoes”, a youthful man sits at the back of the room, making a pair of shoes, three months after his first cobbling lesson.
“The spider builds a web and catches most of the small insects. I will not catch insects but catch the local market,” he says as the young trainee stitches away.
The shoemaker is still producing below capacity. Despite this, he is a man of many desires. He wants to satisfy the Ugandan shoe market. He wants to train more young people in the shoe-making process so that they are employed in their own country.
Mr Byabashaija, a 52-year-old adult with several years of shoe making experience under his belt, has simple beginnings. Having completed Primary Seven, he pursued a course in craftsmanship at Kahaya Technical School in Bushenyi.
This landed him a job as a sample shoe maker in Bata Shoe Company. The same job opened doors to a training in Italy where he learnt how to manufacture shoes using machines.
When he returned, he worked on a leather project under United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).
In 1997, he started making different tailor made designs and in 2000, he began running operations as executive director after the project ended.
Quitting formal employment
Passionate about shoemaking, nothing gave Mr Byabashaija more oomph than seeing the works of his hands. He decided he wanted a business of his own. To his work mates’ surprise, he resigned.
“They said, how can John leave work? They thought I had another job,” he says.
He had a plan though. “I wanted to start my own business and find out whether my skills can be practiced outside this job.”
However, he did not start from scratch. He had set up a shoe workshop in 2008. His resignation meant that he had the opportunity to run his business daily as opposed to the part time supervision he had done for more than two years.
In 2010, after years of earning Shs360,000 and saving Shs95,000 every month, he withdrew Sh3.5m in personal savings. He arrived in Mutungo, a Kampala suburb, with new equipment and started making shoes. As part of the process, he had to learn aspects of business and marketing was one of them.
Looking back, he remembers the days he distributed brochures to supermarkets and schools. Some days he went as far as personally engaging school administrators to get sales up. Business cards were part of the package and these came in handy because referrals grew.
However, without his salary anymore, life became difficult for his family. The family later learnt it had to persevere because his only hope lay on an account in National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
“I was always visiting my account to see how it was increasing with the interest at the end of the year,” he admits. By October 2016, his withdraw benefits were ripe for harvest and he received his savings three days after his application to NSSF.
“The total was Shs19.5m. When I reached home, my wife told me things were about to change,” he recalls.
He immediately made a budget that resulted into allocations of Shs2.2m to equipment, Shs2.8m to leather materials and accessories, Shs10m to a banana plantation and Shs4.5m to his children’s tuition fees. These allocations turned his business around and things changed just like his wife had said.
Mr Byabashaija says his workshop is smiling. “I had no production at all and I had gone down. My capacity was less by five pairs a day,” he says. Each sandal, at the time, cost Shs25,000 while closed toe shoes cost up to Sh75,000. His inability to produce at full capacity kept profits low.
He could barely meet his rent and electricity costs at the end of the month. With Shs5m in the business, the level of manufacturing grew.
“My capacity increased from 20 to 25 pairs of shoes per day,” he says. “The quality also improved because I purchased enough quality machines which empowered me to increase the sales and profits. At this stage, I could cover my costs.”
Eight years of business have been no stroll in the park. Two years ago, Mr Byabashaija was earning Shs3 to 4m every month. Today, his store is a one-stop centre for schools, retailers and bulk buyers. That number has since snowballed.
“After investing, I am realising Shs10-15m in gross sales every month. There are some bad and good months,” he says.
More than one year on, he is harvesting 80 to 100 bunches of bananas in a month from his two acre piece of land in Bushenyi District. With more fertilisers, he expects to earn between Shs10,000 and Shs20,000 from 150 bunches of bananas by the end of this year.
Part of his success story is attributed to sharing his ideas with his family. His daughter markets his shoe line especially among young people.
Should he walk away with Shs30m from the NSSF Friends with Benefits projects, he hopes to turn his small shop into a mini factory that produces about 100 to 500 pairs of shoes a day.
He is optimistic that his capacity would increase by 50 per cent and grow his employee numbers to 50.
As he waits for his plans to mature, the NSSF beneficiary advises people who are working but not remitting money to the social security body to ensure their organisation meets their savings requirement.
Obstacles. Mr Byabashaija continues making strides, the business has obstacles. He has enough workers but will not increase production with his old machines. The growing scarcity of genuine and quality accessories has made him think about the need for a local shoe accessory maker.
“You need to get modern and strong buckles so that you do not disappoint your clients. We get leather from a tannery in Jinja but sometimes it gets problems with its machines and we get from Kenya,” he explains his setbacks.
He is, nevertheless, forward looking. He wants to train more youth to make shoes. He believes this is an area that can earn many youth money especially with a growing population.
“We are 30m people and everyone has to wear shoes. You cannot even satisfy the market. So the jobs are available,” he says.
To vote for John Byabashaija in the NSSF Friends with Benefits competition, dial *254# or go to www.nssfug.org/fwb