He is a young man, with a good head on his shoulders. He is a lad that has tread a terrain usually characterised by dropouts or never do wells. Adesola Omotayo Benson is an Ikorodu-born shoemaker who is gradually carving a niche for himself. His passion for shoe making was ignited 30 years ago when he was barely 13 years old. Three decades later, Benson is living his dream and is living proof to doubt Thomases that you can actually excel in any field if you put your mind to it. He spoke to Funke Olaode about his sojourn in footwear manufacturing and how he intends to make Ikorodu a Mecca of sorts for shoe aficionados in the country
How old were you when you ventured into shoe making?
I was in Junior Secondary School two (JSS 2) when I stumbled into it and I have not looked back. Honestly, it wasn’t my initial ambition, dream or plan to go into shoe making. My mother was working with the then former military Governor of Lagos State, the late Air Commodore Gbolahan Mudasiru. I went with my mum to visit the governor that fateful afternoon and I joined the children in their playroom. After a few minutes, the governor’s wife came to remind the children not to forget to pick up their shoes at the shoe maker’s place. She asked me if I wanted a pair and I said yes.
So I followed them and saw how the guy was making shoes and I got interested. I got that pair of sandals and when it got spoilt, I went back there and got another one. Of course, my passion was ignited and I looked for a shoe maker very close to my house. Every afternoon I spent four hours learning shoe making. And I was going there throughout my secondary school days. My mum didn’t know that I made shoes. But when I got to class five she caught me with a pair of shoes. Since then I have been doing shoes.
How has the response been?
Well, in Nigeria it is not a vocation that has been tapped into, because I studied it, and if you count four people in Nigeria who studied footwear, I will probably be one of them. You know people have been doing it the way they like. But I see more prospects in it as time progresses.
What is your wife’s response to this unusual job that people believe is meant for drop outs?
Before I got married, my wife knew that I am into shoe making. One day she said her mother has been asking her what I do for a living but she had not said anything to her. I said ‘but you know what I do now’. I am not a lawyer, engineer or medical doctor but a shoe maker. She accepts me that way. While I was going abroad, some people challenged my mum that your son is going abroad to study shoe making. As a matter of fact, most of my friends then don’t associate themselves with me because I am a shoe maker. It is now that they have realised that that is my passion and that I have been doing this for close to three decades. They don’t have a choice if they want to tag along with me.
When did you float your Nigerian company?
After my training, I worked in the United Kingdom but decided to come back home two years ago. I floated my outfit Shola Benson Exclusive Shoes Company four years ago in Sabo, Ikorodu. My family stayed back in the UK and shuttles every now and then.
What do you think set you apart? And why the empowerment programme for 100 shoemakers?
I am fortunate to be educated, apart from what I do, because most of the guys in the footwear industry are not educated. So, I want to empower 100 shoe makers in Ikorodu. I mean people who are not opportune to go to the university or don’t have the financial means to go and learn in the university like I did. I want Ikorodu to be like a city in Italy renowned for shoe making. You know if you come to Italy now a part makes men’s shoes, another makes women’s shoes, children’s shoes and even furniture. Just tell them what you want and they will tell you where to go to. I want Ikorodu to be a Mecca for shoes in Nigeria so that other states in Nigeria can emulate us.
What could have prompted this?
It is because I have passion for humanity and it is just one minute between a rich man and a poor man. A poor man’s misfortune can change to fortune within a second. And because of the situation I found myself I just have to tag along.
Any breakthrough since you started shoe making?
Well, I had made shoes for APC national leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. But the one that brought me to the limelight was a pair of shoes that I made for Ooni of Ife, His Imperial Majesty, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi. He is a man of humility and peace who believes in the unity of Nigeria. His humility humbled me. He is a young man that encourages others to grow. I don’t know him personally. I just admire him from afar and was looking for someone who knows his size. You know everybody kept telling me it is not possible, and somebody even discouraged me that he doesn’t wear made in Nigeria shoes. That put me off.
I took up the courage and made a pair of half shoe for him and looked for a way to get it across with a proposal on developing a footwear industry in Ile-Ife. I was happy when I learnt that he embraced it and he loved the shoes. Up till date, I have taken six pictures of him wearing the shoes I designed for him. He wore the same shoe when he met with the Cuban Ambassador and wore the same shoe at his traditional wedding to Olori Wuraola in Benin City recently. When he went to see President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, he wore the shoe. That has been my major breakthrough. Since that day, I have been getting calls from people that I should make shoes for them. They said the fact I could make shoes for a man of timber and caliber shows that I can make shoes for them as well.
Do you support the call for made in Nigeria goods?
Yes. On my part, I have been able to train about 10 shoe makers who stayed with me for four years. Training is my area of specialisation and from time to time I have been able to ensure that I supervise them. The local shoe makers will have breakthrough if federal government can encourage local manufacturers like us to make shoes for para-military personnel instead of importing. This will not only encourage us, it will also boost the nation’s economy by patronising made in Nigeria goods.
What challenges do you face in shoe making?
The major challenge is manpower and getting capable hands to work for me. Nigerians are not trained enough to understand how standard shoes are made. For the next two and half years, I was busy training people on how shoes are being made. We have passed that now and moved to shoe manufacturing.
How do you source for your material?
Interestingly, they are locally sourced. We get it mainly from Mushin in Lagos. Ironically, Nigeria is one of the greatest countries that produce leather. We have so many of them in Kano but 90 per cent of these leathers are exported and later imported back to Nigeria as Wet Blu; it is like a processed leather. They leave it in plane white and bring it back to Nigeria. As manufacturers we can now turn it into the colour of our choice. For me, the 10 per cent left in the Nigerian markets is what I buy and use locally. So, I am happy about the recent gospel of made in Nigerian goods being propagated by the federal government. It is another way to empower local manufacturers and also boost the nation’s economy.
There is this general belief that most products made locally are sub-standard. What makes your products tick?
My training over the years has really helped me and distinguished my products. I trained in the best schools of fashion and shoes in developed countries. Also, I use pure leather inside and outside for my shoes. I remember I made a shoe for a guy who came back after one year that I should make another one for him. His testimony was that he wore the same shoe for 365 days in a year and its quality has not diminished. I explained to him that I used pure leather for all my shoes. Quality standards have really stood Shola Exclusive Shoes out over the years. I believe so much in quality.
How affordable are your shoes?
I try to make it affordable because I want every living soul to be able to afford and wear my shoes in Nigeria, Africa and, nobody can tell, the world. The cheapest right now is N7, 000
You embraced this vocation at a very tender age and 30 years on, you are still waxing strong. Are you fulfilled?
Absolutely. You know all of us cannot work in multinationals. I have chosen this path and God has been faithful. A few days back, two graduates walked up to me that they wanted to learn shoe making in two years. They said they have been following my trajectory in shoe business in the last one year and made up their minds after the mandatory one year service to toe my line. This is encouraging. Each time I see that people appreciate what I do, I am encouraged to do more.
What is the future of this vocation in Nigeria?
In as much as government has banned the importation of shoes, the future is bright. Most African countries don’t produce shoes and we have a chance to export to African countries. But if Nigeria still imports sub-standard shoes, it is going to have negative effect on local production.
Where would you be in the next 10 years?
I am hoping that in the next 10 years, I would have put down a legacy and become an icon that before you do anything concerning shoe making you have to consult me. If I am able to train 300 people and they in turn train others, the multiplication effect, no doubt, will trickle down on the country’s economy.