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Entrepreneur seizes opportunity in leather industry

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Paula Marowa poses for a photo while holding a bag made by Rukanda Pride at her leather shop in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo by: Mike Saburi, bird story agency

By Mike Saburi, bird story agency

An encounter with a leather craftsman as a teenager inspired Paula Marowa to enter the leatherwork business. Now in her late 20s, Marowa owns a blooming business with eight employees.

Upon entering the Rukanda Pride leather store in Harare’s Eastlea suburb, visitors are greeted by the distinctive scent of fresh leather. Further inside, a variety of leather products, known for their detailed craftsmanship, are on display. Customers receive individual attention from knowledgeable assistants, who offer insights into the detailing and story behind each piece.

This high-end experience is a far cry from the early life of the store’s 28-year-old proprietor, Paula Marowa.

Orphaned at 9, Marowa always had to work for a living. She helped an aunt sell products at a flea market until her teenage years and then, as soon as she could, she branched out on her own and started sourcing goods from Mozambique to sell in Zimbabwe for a profit.

Willing to try a lot of business ideas, Marowa first encountered leather through an experienced craftsman who had made a good living from his venture.

“The story of Rukanda Pride started in an unconventional way,” she says. “It was never a childhood passion, but an opportunity-driven business. I started Rukanda in 2018 through intergenerational transferring of skills.”

This skill-sharing commenced when she met a craftsman – whom she still calls ‘Mr Sithole’ – who crafted leather goods beneath a tree at his home in Chitungwiza, near the capital Harare. He left such an impression that Marowa later returned and convinced him to partner with her.

Sithole would handle the manufacturing while she managed sales and other day-to-day business.

“What I would do is I would go to the client and then advertise the product, get a deposit, which would cover the cost of production to Mr Sithole. Then I deliver the product to the client, then get the balance as my profit,” explains Marowa.

However, a lack of capital meant she had to wait some time until she could develop the next phase of her plan.

“When I registered the company I continued with the same way of operation for about two years before opening a store in Harare,” she says.

Today, her business has become a recognised national brand capable of competing with established players in the market and Marowa is among a crop of young entrepreneurs breathing a new lease of life into Zimbabwe’s once-vibrant leather sector.

While Rukanda Pride now employs eight people, as she noted in a 2023 interview, scaling has been difficult due to a general scarcity in the country of expert leather craftspeople. The people she employs had to learn from scratch and there were many mistakes made.

“I remember we made a bag that was very flappy and we had one of our clients complain on social media. As a business person that almost took me out of business because it was the first time that as a company we had public humiliation,” Marowa shared in the interview.

While the Covid-19 pandemic brought some disruption to the business, production picked up so much afterwards that she was able to purchase some machines. Further growth and customer expectations also prompted her to widen her product portfolio.

“We moved from belts to wallets, from wallets to bags, and then we came up with a travel collection of duffle bags and satchels,” she notes.

Rukanda Pride’s major selling point is being able to customise products to the exact needs of the customer.

“Leather is a lifetime product, something that you can live with forever. So we try to give that experience to our clients, and we always try to make sure that we feel the experience before we give it out to our clients,” says Marowa, who now has an even bigger ambition for the company. “Our vision is to grow, expand and be innovative enough to deliver remarkable real leather products within the borders of Africa and beyond.”

The main challenge young entrepreneurs face in Zimbabwe is securing funding, she says. “I have grown Rukanda Pride to this stage through bootstrapping, we have just been reinvesting the profits into the business so that it continues to grow.”

There is certainly no end to the opportunity. Zimbabwean leather is world-renowned and the country possesses a competitive advantage in the global leather value chain thanks to its wide livestock base.

The country lost its place in the global leather market over the past two decades due to crippling economic challenges which resulted in the closure of major companies that employed thousands of workers. However, the sector is now on the rebound and retrenched leather workers are behind the sector’s new shoots, according to Clement Shoko, chairman of the Zimbabwe Leather Development Council.

“When you have a skills base as good as what we have in the leather value chain, chances of establishing new factories, new companies, it’s very easy. The only issue is that we need access to finance, once we have got access to finance, life becomes very easy,” explains Shoko.

“We have got opportunities that are coming our way. We have got excess stocks in terms of the skins. Zimbabwe is an animal country, very beautiful skins, very big skins, the only challenge is that we need to add value on these,” he says.

Africa produces approximately 210 million square metres of leather annually, contributing to about 4% of the global production. With access to some of the largest herds in the world, there’s substantial potential for this percentage to increase. Likewise, Marowa sees considerable opportunities for expansion.

/bird story agency

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