Jean Batiste Ingabire, 26 years, is one of the thousands of Rwandans who relocate annually to Kigali City looking for greener pastures.
In 2003 at the age of 18, Ingabire relocated to the city where he currently makes a living as a shoe-shiner. He wanted to find a better life in Kigali away from the poverty shackles in his village.
“I was 18 years old when I left home because my parents could not afford to send me to high school. We are many siblings in our family. I was advised to come to the city where I worked as a motorcyclist but later quite because the risks of riding in the city were too high,” he said.
Ingabire settled in Kimironko sector because he wanted to work and live closer to his elder brother—one of his several siblings—who had relocated to this area. His brother, a shoe-shiner in Remera-Giporoso taught him the elements of the trade that involved shoe shining and mending.
“Due to his love for me and my family, he equipped me with the skills of the trade. Today I can proudly help other members of my family. I am proud of him because of his hard work and motivation,” the shoe-shiner said.
Armed with his business tools—a brush, shoe polish in different colour shades, nylon threads and polishing sponges—he neatly arranges them beside him. In silent harmony, he goes about his business, cleaning, polishing and mending torn shoes. He says he makes enough to support and finance his family’s needs—something he derives comfort and satisfaction from.
“When you pay all the bills, get home when everything is in place, dinner ready and see your kids well dressed and sleeps decently, and at the end of the day, are getting a good education, it makes you feel kingly in your area. That is exactly what I feel,” he beams.
“On a monthly basis, I manage to save between Rwf150,000 to Rwf250,000. This excludes my daily expenses,” Ingabire said.
“I describe myself as a working person who does not go home every evening empty handed. I am the breadwinner of my family,” he added.
Now a prominent shoe-shiner, Ingabire boldly admitted that his job suits him. He said that it was quite appropriate because it required a very minimal start-up capital.
“All I needed was to acquire a stool, a chair, a set of brushes and a box to store them in as well as a few tins of shoe polish and cream,” Ingabire said.
Previously, shoe-shiners were invariably categorised under the unemployed. However, that trend has changed; they have grown to represent the newly discovered informal sector.
Ingabire said that his income is immediate.
“It is not even necessary to apply for a bank loan to venture into this trade. Unlike farmers who wait for a whole season to harvest, this shoe-shining trade offers immediate harvests,” said an enthusiastic Ingabire.
Not surprisingly, a large part of his day is spent waiting for customers.
“As shoe-shiners, we provide a service that our customers want; this is evidenced by their willingness to pay for it,” Ingabire exlained.
“I believe that well polished shoes are not only an important feature of any formal outfit for a man with a good taste, but also play an important role in making an impression on people who are involved in formal businesses,” he said, adding that, “women with good taste claim to judge men by the kind of shoes they wear and their cleanliness.”
According to Ingabire, over one thousand people are employed as shoe shiners.
“My clients fall in three quite distinct categories; city dwellers, those from the country, and tourists. The demand does not come from the more affluent, because they have servants who clean their shoes at home,” he observes while he cites his popular customers as, “shop assistants, office clerks and civil servants of the lower grades. Majority of them don’t have servants but have to look smart.”
Ingabire says that his peak shoe-shinning hours are in the morning and at lunch time. Additionally, he gets more clients at the end and beginning of the month following pay days.
He says that customer care is vital in his business. From offering chairs for customers to wait their turn, to entertaining them and most importantly offering credit to regular customers who pay at the end of the month, Ingabire has earned his livelihood.
Additionally, he confides that he could tell a person’s character just by looking at his shoes.
“A lady’s hair style speaks volumes about her character and personality; similarly, a man’s elegance is not complete without a pretty pair of shoes,” assures Ingabire.
In his perspective, this shoe-shiner describes life as a remarkable journey that has taken him up and down the different roads of happiness, growth, interaction, love, fear and sometimes pain and hardship. He professes that he is proud of what he has become today.
“I know that I am destined for greater things. I am looking forward to that time when I will be using automated machines to repair shoes. And I know it is possible,” he said.