Leather craftsman learning his trade
JOHANNESBURG - Learning from those who know more, is the life lesson that Jephtah Onwuama works and lives by.
“The whole thing about being an entrepreneur and working for yourself is that you are prepared to listen and learn from others” he says.
“If you knew it all you would probably be doing something else. I certainly don’t have all the skills I need yet, but that’s why it’s exciting. You are taking on board different things every day.”
It’s this solid homespun message that underpins the leather accessory business that he has built up since 2004, starting off with a small stall at the old Shongweni Market in Assegay Road. Today his leather range has become a popular feature at markets, trade fairs in KZN and cultural events like the Hilton Arts’ Festival.
The Amanzimtoti family man says his interest in leather goods began in Nigeria, where he spent many of his younger years.
“For some time I worked in Imo State in the clothing business and realised that leather accessories were an essential part of the clothing industry. At the weekends I used to travel to the local markets in and around Owerri and watch how the leather craftsmen did their leatherwork. Of course I used to ask a lot of questions. The funny thing is if you show an interest in what people are doing, they are more than willing to teach you. And that is how it was for me. I learnt about the tools you need and the right sort of leather to use. These craftsmen have been doing the same thing for centuries.”
Relocating to South Africa, and more specifically to the KZN South Coast, Onwuama’s entrepreneurship talents were put to the test.
“I had to build up my own business and I decided that leather goods were my best bet as I knew a lot about the quality of leather and how to cure it and treat it correctly. I also had to show my wife and her family and my children in Amanzimtoti that I was able to make a living from my leather work. These sort of challenges make you work very hard.”
There is stiff competition, he agrees, pointing out that the only way to gain the upper ground – “and I think that goes for most things” – is to be better at it and recognize the need to keep on improving, widening your skills base and being receptive to what the demands are.
One of the first enquiries that he had was to advise on the sort of leather strips required to repair old-fashioned riempie chairs.
“I had never been asked that before so it was new to me. Anyway I asked a craftsman in Durban if he could help me. He explained that riempie leather for chairs was a specialized product that needed to be carefully treated, too hard it would snap, too soft it would sag. I experimented until I got it right. I don’t like to share those secrets because every craftsman has a different way of doing things. Riempie cords are one of my best sellers because, even if I say it myself, they work very well. I have even had queries from museums who want to repair chairs!”
Belts and brightly coloured leather studded bangles are among his popular sellers and judging from the collection of tools that sits in the back corner of his packed market stall at the new Shongweni Market, there is a fair amount of personalized work that he is able to do during the morning.
“With this sort of craft, people have very strong ideas of what they want. Maybe they like the belt and not the buckle, perhaps the bracelet is too long or too short, or they want a slightly different design. I must be able to do that while they are having their morning coffee and looking around the market. It makes the experience so much more individual and I think that is a good marketing strategy.”
Judging by the popularity of his range, you would think that Onwuama has proved his point about becoming successful, but he says there is still a lot more learning to do.
“I can do the simply engraving on belts with names and initials but I can’t do anything that is more complicated. There is a lot of artistry in engraving into leather. You need very steady hands for a start and a good eye for design. But that’s my next learning journey. I have found the right teachers, but it’s up to me now to get to that next stage. If I could do engraved leather work for top shops and designers that would be my goal.”
Onwuama says his eight-year-old twin boys are his biggest supporters and have designed their own leather belts. They are both quite academic so they won’t follow me, but at least they will appreciate my craft.
He says that part of the appreciation of leather is knowing that there is no such thing as a throw-away piece of leather.
“Every tiny scrap has its own place and its own use!”