When Emmanuel Simugomwa, 35, was orphaned in 1995 at the age of 14, he had no clear vision of what he would do to survive.
The idea that he would turn leather into bread did not even come closer to the proverbial figment of his imagination at the time.
But there was a messenger of hope. It came in the mold of a student of a tanning school enthusing him in the vocation.
“One of the children who had gone there told me they were acquiring skills in tanning leather and making shoes from it. But when I heard that, I asked how it was possible that a person could make shoes from leather,” Simugomwa said.
He was later selected by World Vision to attend Tannery Training Centre in Ruramba Sector, Nyaruguru District, although he maintains it was more of ‘curiosity purposes’ than a desire for a fulfilling career.
“I went there after two weeks when others had started studying, but like someone sightseeing, intending to have a look at what was happening. While there, however, I realised there were extraordinary things. It was only then that I fully enrolled for the course with body and mind,” Simugomwa told The New Times from his working place in Kibeho Sector.
He was only a teenager then. His father died when he was seven and his mother passed away in 1995 when he was 14.
Born in Kibeho Sector, Nyaruguru District, Simugomwa is one of the orphans who benefited from World Vision’s tannery training from 1998 to 2001 in Bukoro, Ruramba Sector in Nyaruguru District.
He started working alone but in 2006, he started imparting the leather skills to others.
Simugomwa is now the president of Twitezimbere, a cooperative of artisans who make leather products in Kibeho Sector. The cooperative started operating in 2008 with seven members he trained in shoe making. Now it has 11 members. The cooperative makes shoes, belts, purses, play balls, bags and other leather products.
He is now heart and soul in tannery.
“We studied and within four months, I had already acquired skills to make shoes and I used to sell a pair of shoes at Rwf3,000 at school,” he said, adding that he earned Rwf6,000 from the sale of banana beer in 1999, which he started with.
The capital was invested in buying equipment with the help of his trainer.
Simugomwa said, as an orphan, he had grit and determination to become a self-reliant entrepreneur.
“As as an orphan, I had to properly manage the Rwf3,000 I got from each pair of shoes because sometimes I did not go home. I had to spend Rwf500 for lunch and supper and save the balance,” he said.
“Every year I set a goal. I resolved that this year I have to buy a shoe sewing machine, the next year, will leave me with shoe form.”
As his venture picked up, he managed to buy equipment and later graduated from the training school with a Rwf60,000 sewing machine and two pairs of shoe form.
What he has reaped
The cooperative Simugomwa represents now boasts equipment worth over Rwf2.5 million. He bought a plot of land and constructed a Rwf15-million house.
“I also married in 2010 and had a good wedding. I have three motorcycles for commercial business (taxi-moto) and I own a cow,” he said.
Simugomwa said their cooperative sells covered leather shoes from Rwf25,000 to Rwf35,000, sandals from Rwf6,000 to Rwf15,000, bags from Rwf20,000 to Rwf30,000, while a play ball goes for Rwf30,000.
It also sells belts for wearing when travelling by a motorcycle to protect one’s back. The belt costs Rwf25,000.
Its clientele mainly consists of Kigali residents most of who go to Kibeho as pilgrims. Others get to know of their products during exhibition.
The cooperative also got a stall in Kigali’s Ikaze Show room, which they were awarded by the Ministry of Trade and Industry in 2012, after winning the second place in a countrywide competition for leather products making entities.
He said the cooperative is helping its members fulfil their needs.
Alphonse Karangwa, 25, a resident of Kibeho and one of the cooperative members, said he dropped out of school while in Primary Six due to lack of fees.
“I got shoe and other leather products making skills. Training here [in the cooperative] have instilled in me technical know-how in making bags, shoes, belts, purses, soles, among others. I have managed to buy two shoe sewing machines worth Rwf370,000. I also bought a plot of land for Rwf200,000 and I built a house worth Rwf2 million,” he said.
Challenges facing their operations
Simugomwa said they are facing challenges of getting raw materials and equipment that are only found abroad. He said also the cooperative has not enough means to buy required equipment.
He said they are still depending on manual operations which affects their business.
He said they lack machines to stitch the sole and the upper part like for ‘godas’ shoes and this slows their work.
“Machines could help us do our work quicker and perfectly. Within the same time, if one is making shoes manually, they can produce five pairs of shoes, while a machine can make up to 30 pairs of shoes,” Simugomwa said.
In addition, he added, there are people who are still buying leather products like shoes from abroad because the leather industry in Rwanda is still burgeoning and people were accustomed to leather products from abroad.
However, he said, people are starting to get interested in their products.
“People are realising the quality and uniqueness of products. We even make tough soles from tyres, which are durable, different from the other soles that tend to develop holes or break after being used for a while,” he said, adding that they give a one-year guarantee for their shoes.