Lethabo Mokoena started his shoe-cleaning business at the age of 23.
He was at his friend’s house in Daveyton, a township in the Ekurhuleni Municipality in Gauteng, when the idea came to him.
Mokoena says he watched Thabang wash his mother’s sneakers while the two of them sat on the porch.
“Are you getting paid for that,” he asked his friend.
“Paid? Paid my friend… nxa, who would pay for this,” said Thabang.
It was from this seemingly mundane activity that the idea to establish Walk Fresh, a sneaker-cleaning and shoe-care company that polishes, repairs and refurbishes all types of shoes, took root.
This was back in 2015 and Mokoena had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in corporate and strategic communication from the University of Johannesburg. At the time, he was employed as a brand activator for Sony Mobile.
Mokoena tells Inside Education he saw a gap in the market. However, what drove him to establish his company was the “hopelessness” and “nothingness” he saw in the faces of his friends and extended family members in the township.
“I left my township six years prior to go to university. I left these guys sitting at street corners with nothing to do. When I got back, they were still sitting at the same street corners, doing nothing. I wanted to do my part,” he said.
The Labour Force Survey (2018) produced by Statistics South Africa show the country’s unemployment rate at 26,7 %. However, it is worth noting that the expanded unemployment rate, which includes people who have given up on finding employment and are no longer looking for jobs, is higher at 33.7 %.
The unemployment rate sits much higher for youth aged between 15 – 24.
The Labour Force Survey shows the unemployment rate for this group is at a staggering 63,9%.
Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Cape Town Derek Yu says this should be of great concern because the high levels of youth unemployment may lead to social upheaval. He says a deeper analysis of the numbers reveals an even scarier picture of large sections of the population suffering from chronic joblessness and worrying details about the country’s youth unemployment statistics that haven’t been sufficiently highlighted.
Yu adds that the very high unemployment rate also highlights that many young people struggle to find their first job.
“The youth struggle to find their first job despite actively searching through and answering job advertisement. Most have matric, that is they have completed 12 years of schooling,” said Yu.
This is why Mokoena started his business.
He had R700 in the bank. This money was supposed to pay for his work petrol for the week, but instead, he used it to buy his cleaning supplies. He used the train to go to work. For months he would use his little salary to buy cleaning material.
At first, Walk Fresh was an informal business which ran in Thabang’s backyard. The shoes would arrive, and the two men would place them, “Ko stoepung, ko fatshe.” [On the porch, on the floor].
Mokoena and Thabang would clean about 60 shoes a month. They soon realised they would need a full-time person responsible for Walk Fresh.
“Thabang still had a full-time job at Pick n Pay. We had a conversation and decided he should work full time at the company while I used my salary to pay him what he earned at his job. He was the business’ first employee,” says Mokoena.
There were struggles.
The Gordon Institute of Business Science and FNB’s Entrepreneurial Dialogues State of Entrepreneurship in South Africa report found that Start-ups fail at a rate of about 9 in 10 in the first two years of operation. This is troubling because starting a small business in South Africa is often presented as the big hope for millions of unemployed South Africans, and SMMEs have been regarded as being crucial for the country’s economic growth.
The National Treasury regards small to medium enterprises essential for both urban and rural areas, and as useful for alleviating poverty. In his PhD study titled, Retrospective analysis of failure causes in South African small businesses, Dr.Peter Pandelani Nemaenzhe finds that the reason why small businesses fail is because of deficiencies in management and leadership. His findings also indicate the importance of education and training to ensure that more enterprises succeed, and less small businesses fail.
The importance of teaching entrepreneurship in schools is also emphasised by educationist and community developer Matthew Botsime. In an interview with Inside Education, Botsime said schools have failed in preparing us for the future.
“The main focus of education is finding employment. At no point were we encouraged to think beyond our qualifications. We were not taught to create our own jobs or opportunities, nor were we encouraged to establish our own companies. Why else do we find graduates standing at street corners with placards begging for jobs? The education system has produced graduates for graduates. It only gives us information but not the dexterity we need to invent our own things,” said Botsime.
Mokoena knows this too well.
He says he never imagined himself start a business. He says he was taught to go to school, pass and then go to university where he was still encouraged to study, pass and find a job.
“But while at school I had to work to pay for my fees. I had to pay for my accommodation and so I thought, if I was able to do this for two years, why do I need to get a job,” says Mokoena.
He says one of the big challenges they faced earlier on in their business was access to markets. Because they were based in Daveyton, they could not reach people outside of the area. The challenge, as he puts it, was understanding that although people around him wanted his service, they did not necessarily have funds to use the service in a way that the business would be self-reliant in future.
“This is how drop-off points came about,” he says.
“We approached laundromats across Gauteng. People drop off their shoes at locations closest to them and we bring them back once clean. Currently, we have eight drop off points in and around Joburg and we will be opening another store in Durban this coming July,” he says.
Walk Fresh has since created seven full-time jobs, including a driver, an administrative person and sneaker cleaning technicians. The company currently handles an average of 450 pairs of footwear a month. They offer services that include leather shoe care and polishing, as well as cleaning nubuck and suede shoes. Walk Fresh also sells inner soles, shoe laces and “anything to do with shoes”.
This great, yet simple idea won Mokoena the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) South African Youth Award for the Entrepreneurship category in 2017. He has also received sponsorship from J&B Hive, a community of entrepreneurs and creatives in Johannesburg bringing revolutionary pieces of work into the world, to build new flagship store in Johannesburg.
But it is not all rosy.
On 15 March, Mokoena posted the following on his private Facebook page: “Damn! Today is a sore day man 😟, I took an L [ leap] & I have chest pains. I was invited by the GEP [ to a pitching competition with a R40k cash price. The boy didn’t even make it to the top 30. The attitude hasn’t changed though! We’re still coming for everything, we’re still rewriting the township narrative.”
Another set-back happened earlier in his business. Mokoena applied for a grant with NYDA. He was told the agency’s resources were exhausted. He then applied for a voucher but was told the vouchers had been discontinued.
“That’s why I was surprised when the same agency awarded me Entrepreneur of the Year for 2017. I found that very awkward,” he says.
Mokoena says he sees Walk Fresh as “an escape” from the monotony of township unemployed and “not-in-school” life that leads many young people to drug and alcohol abuse. He says he wants to change the thinking of township youths and instil in them the confidence to have faith in their own abilities.
“I clean shoes for a living. Someone would not think to start a business from cleaning shoes, but we have done it. And we have done it in a creative and low-cost manner. We use free marketing in the form of websites and social media to give us access to a highly targeted market. We have a digital marketing strategy which is well managed, and our customer engagement through these channels is consistent and ongoing,” he says.
“We are self-taught.”
He adds: “Mo kasi [In townships] alcohol is all we know. But if we, as Walk Fresh, can come through and say, ‘guys we’re going to employ you and pay you this salary but out of the salary we’ll take certain percentage and put it away for you until you come with a business idea’ that gives us hope,” he says.
Facebook: Lethabo Mpho Mokoena
Walk Fresh: www.walkfresh.co.za