Ekure working on a shoe design

Michelle Ekure is a young female entrepreneur making exploits in the production of high quality shoes. For most female folks, this may not be the best of options especially with the increasing crave for fame and fortune. Ugo Aliogo, Eberechi Imo and Chidinma Okonkwo report

How long does it take to produce a female or male slippers? A client asked. “It depends on how much you are willing to pay, if you want an express work, the price is different from a normal work. In a day, I can make close to 20 slippers. There are times, where I can make five male shoes without stress. But you can send the sample of the shoe you want on whatsApp,” Michelle Ekure, a budding shoemaker replied a client.

She sat on the wooden bench, filing a shoe sole with the filing machine. The process was strenuous for her due to the slowness of the machine, but she enjoyed the frenzy of what she was doing. On her table were shoe soles, sewing gum and cut to shape leather patterns. She has a strong knack for aesthetics. Her array of design models are in tandem with those of Europe and America. As an exceptional artisan, she is concerned about details and quality.

Ekure is a graduate of International Studies and Diplomacy (ISD) from the University of Benin. She hails from the Urohobo extraction in Delta State. Growing up, Ekure’s dream was to become a diplomat, interfacing on behalf of Nigeria in the international community. She also had an ambition to venture into brand modeling because of her strong love for fame. No doubt, these were top notch aspirations for a young lady, but providence had other plans for her, a far cry from the aspirations she had nurtured as a young child.

In 2011, after her graduation Ekure came to Lagos to carve a path for her modeling career. But she faced some unpleasant conditions which she was not in line with her values and beliefs. She put modeling on hold to take up a paid job, “where I was working, my employer was paying very little and owing us for months. I could not take it because the experience was becoming frustrating and unbearable for me. To survive the difficult times then, I took up another job with a company producing slippers, souvenirs, and bags. It got to a point I had to quit my job because of unpaid salaries,” she espoused.

“I didn’t choose this career path, God directed me. When I graduated I did not picture myself doing shoemaking. I had a strong passion for modeling than building a career. Career was a second option. I’m still very much interested in international relations, because I feel there are many unresolved issues such as the Boko Haram insurgency. I have an idea on how this unrest can be addressed,” Ekure said with smile on her face.

“When I stopped working, it was a challenging period for me. Growing up, I have always been an independent person, but at the point when I stopped working to search for a new job, I had to rely on my family for financial support. It was embarrassing for me,” she noted.
Through divine revelation, Ekure saw a clear vision of what God wanted her to become. The vision was for her to go back to the company, where she was buying slippers and request that they produce her own shoes with its unique design.

The first purchase she made was paid for by her family. It was a start-up experience for her. She was not fully pleased with the company’s price. Therefore, she found a good cobbler who could make shoes for her at a cheaper price. Ekure was not comfortable with just purchase, but she felt a craving to learn the shoe production processes. This step undoubtedly will become the channel to hone her skills in the craft, “I pleaded with him to teach me how to make shoes, initially he didn’t agree, but finally agreed. I learnt the basics of shoemaking within a period of one month. Though, I paid for a six months training course under him.”

The important thing about shoemaking is to understand the basic processes involved and how to apply them. The cuttings, and stitches may not be perfect. But if the individual is consistent, there is great room for improvement, “I didn’t leave his shop immediately, when I had jobs I took them to him to assist me produce while I also made some myself. After working with him for two years, I continued giving him jobs to help produce,” she explained.

“Shoemaking is personality driven. If you are a patient person, it will reflect in the way you cut, stitch and apply gum. If you are a carefree individual it will also reflect in your work. Detailing is an activity that is very vital in shoemaking. Some shoes are very easy to make compared to others, for instance the Brooks shoes are very technical in producing. It involves a lot of time in producing,” she stated.

She remarked that there are some slippers that are very easy to make, while others are very complicated to design, adding that the processes are different from each other and they have various prices. “The time used in producing some slippers, will be enough to produce some bachelor shoes. In a day, I can make close to 20 slippers. There are times, where I can make five male shoes without stress. In producing a shoe what you have to consider is the cutting and the drawing,” she added.

From the time she started in 2014 to present, the journey has not been rosy, but she has kept faith and moved on. Her tenacity and commitment has led her to training and mentoring other youngsters in the craft. Financially, she has shouldered the responsibilities personally.
Most small-scale businesses and start-ups are usually faced with financial challenges, especially during their initial stages. From findings, it was discovered that the collateral and other requirements for obtaining the loans in commercial banks are not very favourable for SMEs.
When Ekure approached the bank for a loan, she was not given. Rather, she was asked to run the business for a period of two years before getting any loan. “But I told them that I needed to get my business running, get equipment that will ease my work and allow me produce 50 pairs of shoes daily and reduce the stress. I need a cutting, filing, industrial, and laxing machines. If I have the cutting machine, it can cut 10 shoes at a time. The collateral and other requirements for obtaining the loans are not favourable for start-ups,” she noted.

The viability of the shoe industry in Nigeria has been of great concern to stakeholders and producers. The infiltration of the market with substandard shoes and the high demand for Italian and Europe made shoes; raises critical questions whether the local market has the potentials to rival the leading industries on a global scale.

For Ekure, she has a different theory. She believes that the local industry has strong potentials. She said getting substandard or high quality shoes depends on individual’s request. “If you pay for high quality shoe, it will be produced and if you pay for low quality shoe it will also be produced. They make those low quality shoes so that people can buy more and sell them. People in America place orders for my shoes. There is no difference between Nigeria made and Italian shoes.”

In the area of shoe production processes, she explained that the European market has attained a level of advancement especially in the area of finishing and use of technology, which helps to raise the standard of their product. Another important area is the gum used for production. The shoe gum used by Italy and Nigeria are quite different. The gum used for making Italian shoes is not very suitable for Nigeria weather.

“Nigeria shoes can stand their weather. The Italians doesn’t apply much gum to their shoes, which does not make it very strong in holding gum. But the Nigeria shoe has the ability to hold gum, because the gum is very thick. The leather is treated very well before it is polished and they are very detailed in production,” she noted.

Ekure said if the local market aspires to rival the Europe in shoe production, government needs to provide advanced machines to improve quality and increase production, adding that producing shoes manually is very demanding; but with a machine it is easier. “Government should also build a company that can refine the quality of leathers to the standard of Europe. We buy leathers at a very expensive price due to the exchange rate. Therefore we increase the price of our shoes,” she said.