Sneaking into business

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iol lif july 16 st sneaker maker_COUNTRY_E1

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Sifiso Dlamini with some of his company's sneaker designs. Pictures: Boxer Ngwenya

One of the first things you notice about 24-year-old Sifiso Dlamini are his cool sneakers, tan-coloured half-boots with checked fabric insets.

If you’re a label nut, you might subconsciously click through your list… Adidas? Nike? Reebok?

None of the above, actually. They are the work of Dlamini himself. Well, Dlamini and his team of four, beavering away in a factory in Linbro Park near Alexandra township.

His label is Eish Hade, which comes from township slang meaning “oops, sorry!”

“Let’s say you step on someone’s toe by mistake when he or she is wearing brand-new shoes, you say, ‘eish, hade!’ That’s how I came up with the name,” chuckles Dlamini, a diminutive, soft-spoken young man with intelligent eyes and a quick pace.

I find Dlamini at his workshop, with his busy team in a sparsely kitted out space containing a couple of long work tables and two sewing machines. The workshop is deep within the cavernous premises of the brand activation specialists, Zinto Activation Group.

This is a huge step up from Dlamini’s beginnings, working from home in Meadowlands, Soweto, using a bed as a work surface.

Dlamini’s passion for sneakers ignited while he was at school.

In his spare time he would sketch sneaker designs, and he’d save his lunch money to buy different pairs of sneakers, mainly Adidas, his favourite brand growing up.

By the age of 12, he had 12 pairs.

“My mother is a dressmaker and had a sewing machine at home, so I learnt how to sew. I decided one day to disassemble an old shoe and put it together again, to see how it was made,” he says.

In 2008, after he’d finished school and was running a spaza and games shop from home, Dlamini made his first rough sneaker sample.

“I showed it to my family and friends and they really liked it,” he recalls.

Determined to turn his hobby into a business, he approached The Business Place, which assists start-ups. They referred him to Sasol ChemCity, the business incubation arm of Sasol, where his potential was immediately recognised.

Dlamini was sent on a shoe manufacturing training course at African Action Academy in Roodepoort.

“I learnt a lot, especially about getting the shape right. The toe shape is the most difficult part of making a shoe,” says Dlamini.

He came out with a more refined version of his original half-boot sneaker and people loved it. He launched his company, Eish Hade, in 2009, bringing on board two of his school friends, Nkululeko Ndlovu and Prince Nkonyane, both of whom have contributed creatively to the designs and colours of the range of beautiful handcrafted sneakers that Eish Hade has since produced.

Dlamini has followed a non-traditional marketing approach, spreading his brand through big hip hop events – where he and his team showcases their wares – and social networks like Facebook. His first order was for about 20 pairs of sneakers, and it was only then that his team felt the hard work that comes with burgeoning success. “We sweated, I can tell you – I only have two sewing machines,” he says.

A much-needed break came when he went to the Back to The City hip hop event in Newtown in February and happened to meet Kyle Verbeek, account executive at Zinto Activation Group, who introduced him to the owner of the group, Michelle Combrink.

“Michelle loved our work and gave me R10 000 to grow the business. She also offered us this work space for free, and is mentoring us in how to grow a sustainable business,” says Dlamini.

Orders for his sneakers trickle in via Facebook, but the biggest bulk order to date has been for 50 pairs, from Mzantsi sportswear chain, where his sneakers have proved a popular choice even among much bigger African brands.

“Shoppers come in and although they might not know my brand, they like the look of the shoes and buy them,” he says.

Also, Dlamini’s shoes are getting excellent exposure during other brand activations, such as one for BIC pens, that Zinto Activation Group is engaged in.

But his shoes aren’t just a hit locally. Orders are streaming in from around the world – Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia and even the US. “I got an order from the US for 10 pairs after an American journalist wrote about me for her publication,” says Dlamini.

This has presented him with a new business challenge – shipping stock. He hasn’t yet got the knack of it, he admits, and is fretting about the order destined for the US.

“Up to now I’ve used the postal system to send orders, but we’re struggling with delivery time. I’m still working out how to do the shipping thing, but I’ll get there,” he smiles shyly.

More pressing is the need for three more machines. “If I can get those, I can produce 100 pairs of sneakers a month,” he says.

It’s an exciting roller-coaster ride for a young man who as a kid imagined he’d be an accountant.

His day starts at 5am in his flat in the Joburg CBD, where he writes in his journal before catching a taxi to work by 9am.

He has a goal, and it’s a big one. “I want to get into the mainstream, into the big stores,” he says.

That’ll mean much higher production levels, I tell him. He’s unfazed. “My goal is to expand, and to push our production up to maybe 2 000 a month,” he says.

Something tells me that in the months to come, Adidas and Nike might have a bit of home-grown competition on their hands – with all that enviable label consciousness that comes with it. - The Star

l Eish Hade sneakers are handcrafted and prices range from R280 to R500 (or higher depending on customisation).Visit www.eishhade.co.za

l Watch Sifiso Dlamini’s story on Play your Part, airing on SABC1 at 7pm on Monday, September 3.

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