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These handmade-in-Zimbabwe shoes are attracting global demand

Prized by a small band of aficionados, Courteney boots have soles made from natural tree rubber

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Employees of the Courteney boot company work on the production line in Bulawayo - AFP

In a small factory producing handmade boots and shoes in southwestern Zimbabwe, leather cutter Misheck Sibanda is on another hectic shift as he tries to keep up with soaring global demand.

Orders are piling in and new workers are being recruited at the Courteney boot company — that seems to defy all the odds as Zimbabwe is battered by decades of economic misery.

Founded in 1993, the firm has recently ramped up production to just 30 pairs a day, all of them made meticulously by 14 employees in a one-room workshop in the second city Bulawayo.

The city — a former industrial hub — has suffered the brunt of the country’s collapse since 1980 that has left behind mass unemployment and a landscape of derelict warehouses and ghostly abandoned factories.

An employee of the Courteney boot company applies wax on shoes on the production line in Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo on January 25, 2019. (Photo by Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

But in one unmarked brick building, Sibanda uses his sturdy cutting machine to press shapes out of locally produced leather skins at the start of a process that turns out boots selling for between $140 and $500 a pair.

“We sell internationally — to the first world, even though we are a third-world country. That alone makes me smile,” Sibanda said, deftly handling the soft leather skins.

“People are tired of manmade materials, they want natural products like ours.”

Sibanda and his colleagues are behind an unlikely business story based on a skilled workforce, traditional methods and decades-old stitching machines to produce classic outdoor boots and shoes.

Prized by a small band of aficionados, Courteney boots have soles made from natural tree rubber — imported in blocks from Malaysia — and uppers made from the hides of Zimbabwe game such as buffalo, kudu, wildebeest and crocodile.

An employee of the Courteney boot company draws cut marks on leather at the shoe factory in Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo on January 25, 2019. (Photo by Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

Using only hides approved under the international CITES conservation regulations, it also makes boots from ostrich, impala and even hippopotamus.

“Wild, free-range leather does more to preserve the natural environment than cattle ranching,” the company says.

The same 15 basic designs have been unchanged for years, eschewing the fickle trends of fashion except for a few colourfully dyed women’s boots.

Exporting mostly to the United States, Europe, Britain and neighbouring South Africa, the boots are paid for in precious US dollars — the key to survival in Zimbabwe’s economy as it lurches downwards.

The country, hammered by hyperinflation 10 years ago, is again being roiled by a currency crisis, government mismanagement and fuel shortages.

Many businesses have folded and investors have fled over the last 20 years, but the Courteney Boot company is rushing to keep up with orders.

Each shoe can take up to two weeks to make, and three extra staff were employed last year to boost output.

“We asked our current long-serving staff to select the new ones,” said manager Helen Emerick in the factory amid smells of leather, hot rubber, glue and machine oil.

“They know exactly what skills are needed and how much hard work it takes. They want the company to grow and we want a happy team.”

Several employees come from local shoe-making families, including fathers, brothers and sons, with youngsters learning the trade at home using offcuts from the factory bins.

Edward, an employee of the Courteney boot company, works on a shoe sole on the production line in Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo on January 25, 2019. (Photo by Zinyange Auntony / AFP)

When violent protests against Zimbabwe’s economic woes erupted last month, almost all businesses closed down for a week.

But the Courteney factory stayed open, working shorter days so that staff could get home safely.

“We had a lot of orders to get done!” Emerick said.

“The biggest challenge now is regular power cuts. We have to use our generator and make sure we have enough fuel.

“We do it the old-fashioned way — there’s no laser cutting here.”

The company is named after Frederick Courteney Selous, the legendary explorer and hunter who died in 1917, and it is still owned by Gale Rice, widow of its founder John Rice.

In Bulawayo’s colonial-era city centre, Jay Giga, owner of a menswear store on Robert Mugabe Way, says he waits impatiently for each new batch of supplies.

“A guy from South Africa came in yesterday and bought nine pairs for him and his friends,” Giga said.

“I sell them as fast as I can get them in. We are always asking them to make more.”

Back on the production line, Sibanda says that he expects Zimbabwe’s renewed troubles to test the company to the limit in the years ahead.

“It is so difficult here,” he said. “But we are going to survive because we are unique”.

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Zimbabwe’s business community calls for economic reform

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had initiated a massive protest against worsening economic conditions

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Zimbabwe’s business community calls for economic reform
Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

The Zimbabwe business community has called on its government to urgently address ordinary people’s concerns in order to avoid continuous loss of production time through protest shutdowns.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had initiated a massive protest in central Harare to express growing impatience with the government’s failure to remedy a deepening economic crisis that has pushed many to the edge.

The government, however, insists that the pain caused by its tough policy measures was necessary for an economy which is reeling from decades of mismanagement under former President, Robert Mugabe.

Police moved on Thursday to impose an unpopular ban on the demonstration, setting the stage for ugly clashes with MDC followers.

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Nigeria’s state oil firm awards crude oil swap deals to 15 firms

The awarded oil firms include Vitol, Trafigura, oil major, BP and local downstream companies

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Nigeria's state oil firm awards crude oil swap deals to 15 firms
NNPC Towers, headquarters of Nigeria's state oil firm in Abuja, Nigeria. (File photo)

Nigerian state oil company, NNPC, has announced that 15 companies have won the right to swap the country’s crude oil for fuels, following a tender for the deals.

About 132 companies made a bid for the deals. The tender for the one-year contracts effective from the 1st of October and dubbed direct sale, direct-purchase (DSDP), was issued in March.

Nigeria is almost entirely reliant on imported fuel due to years of neglect at its own refineries.

It has leaned heavily on the swap arrangements to get fuel, particularly gasoline, as other would-be importers struggle to make money due to price caps.

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation says the companies that won the bids are made up of a consortium of 15 companies including Vitol, Trafigura, oil major, BP and local downstream companies.

Since the scheme’s inception in 2016, replacing a program that paid subsidies to importers, the NNPC has said it had saved the country $2.2 billion and supplied some 90 per cent of its import requirements.

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Zambia rejects donor aid amid its worst drought

The government says it has enough corn, the country’s staple food, to last until the next season and won’t need to import

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Zambia declines donor aid amid its worst drought
(File photo)

Zambia is experiencing its worst drought since 1981, but its government insists that a state of national emergency will not be declared.

Neither will donor assistance be accepted. A Southern Africa Development Community report last month, forecast 2.3 million Zambians will be food-insecure by March after large parts of the southern and western areas of the country received the lowest rainfall since 1981.

Over the same period, the report forecast Zambia will experience an 888,000-ton cereal deficit.

The Zambian government says it has enough corn, the country’s staple food, to last until the next season and won’t need to import.

Retail prices for the cornflour that Zambians consume mostly are already the highest since at least, 2003, according to data from the national statistics agency.

In July, prices were 41 per cent higher than the same time last year, helping to push inflation to 8.8 per cent, the highest since November 2016.

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