Orders are piling in and new workers are being recruited at the Courteney boot company. Leather cutter, Misheck Sibanda, is on another hectic shift, as he tries to keep up with soaring global demand.
The south-western Zimbabwean company, founded in 1993, has recently ramped up production to just 30 pairs a day, all of them made meticulously by 14 employees in a one-room workshop in the second city Bulawayo.
Sibanda uses his sturdy cutting machine to press shapes out of locally produced leather skins at the start of a process that turns out boots selling for between $140 (Sh14,000) and $500 (Sh50,000) a pair.
“We sell internationally — to the first world, even though we are a third-world country. That alone makes me smile,” Sibanda said, deftly handling the soft leather skins. “People are tired of manmade materials, they want natural products like ours.”
Sibanda and his colleagues are behind the business story based on a skilled workforce, traditional methods and decades-old stitching machines to produce classic outdoor boots and shoes. Each shoe can take up to two weeks to make, and three extra staff were employed last year to boost output. Prized by a small band of aficionados, Courteney boots have soles made from natural tree rubber — imported in blocks from Malaysia — and uppers made from the hides of Zimbabwe game such as buffalo, kudu, wildebeest and crocodile.
Exporting mostly to the United States, Europe, Britain and neighbouring South Africa, the boots are paid for in precious US dollars.“We asked our current long-serving staff to select the new ones,” said manager Helen Emerick in the factory amid smells of leather, hot rubber, glue and machine oil. They know exactly what skills are needed and how much hard work it takes. They want the company to grow and we want a happy team.”
Using exotic game skin leathers such as crocodile, buffalo, hippopotamus and ostrich – all from Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora approved and renewable sources – its boots remain much in demand around the world. In Bulawayo’s colonial-era city centre, Jay Giga, owner of a menswear store on Robert Mugabe Way, says he waits impatiently for each new batch of supplies.
“A guy from South Africa came in yesterday and bought nine pairs for him and his friends, I sell them as fast as I can get them in. We are always asking them to make more.” Giga said.
Back on the production line, Sibanda says that he expects Zimbabwe’s renewed troubles to test the company to the limit in the years ahead. “It is so difficult here,” he said. “But we are going to survive because we are unique”.