Next in our #LocalisLekker series we have Tsonga, a footwear and accessories manufacturer based in KwaZulu-Natal that has grown into a global fashion brand. Do you have a favourite proudly South African success story? Let us know and you could win big.
This story was first published in the May 2010 issue of SA Country Life and was updated on 20 May 2019.
🕒 9-minute read
At Tsonga on the KZN Midlands Meander, local women are hand-stitching together leather products of international acclaim, says Andrea Abbott.
There is a farm in a corner of Africa that is like no other. The owners and their staff refer fondly to it as ‘the farm’, but apart from some free-ranging ducks and chickens, and a vegetable patch or two, not much agriculture goes on there.
It’s a humble-looking place with low, tin-roofed buildings that years ago comprised a village school. Once overgrown and crumbling, the classrooms have been given a facelift: new roof sheets have replaced rusted ones, inside walls have been whitewashed, outside ones painted a cheerful orange, and doors and window frames painted a glossy black. Artifacts from that other time remain: a now cold cast-iron wood-burning stove, and wooden benches that seated generations of children learning their ABC’s and 1, 2, 3’s.
The rustic charm of the place, the dirt track leading to it, the aroma of wood smoke, the calls of Hadedas and Piet-my-vrous, and the bleating of goats on a neighbouring property all add up to a quintessentially rural African feel.
And yet, out of that unassuming country setting come products so stylish and original they hold their own, not just at home, but in some of the most sophisticated countries in the world.
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Tsong of Hope
The products are artistically made leather footwear and hand-stitched handbags that speak of Africa in more than just design and colour. They tell too of an African farm where hope is born, children nourished, opportunities created, and dreams realised. That place is called the Thread of Hope Farm.
It began in the late 1990s when massive growth in cheap shoe imports forced most local footwear manufacturers to close. One, though, chose to swim against the tide. Peter Maree decided to develop a niche African brand for both the export and local markets. ‘Comfort shoes’ had long been considered sensible – and as dull as dishwater. Peter was determined to replace ‘staid’ with sophistication, colour and fashion – all within a distinctively African ethos. One other feature would set his footwear apart; hand-stitching, the key to comfort.
People with hand-lacing skills were thus needed, as well as suitable premises. Peter and his wife, Raine, found both in the village of Lidgetton in rural KwaZulu-Natal, where unemployment was rife. It was a win-win situation.
Lidgetton was adopted; Tsonga was born.
Here, I must pause to make a confession. I am a Tsonga addict. Either that, or there’s a powerful magnet attached to the farm which pulls me in whenever I drive past. For although you can buy the gorgeous footwear in retail outlets and Tsonga concept stores all over the country, it’s the farm shop that draws me every time. I’m like the proverbial kid in a candy store there. And here’s a further confession: at the time of writing, I own nine pairs of Tsonga shoes and sandals – all still in perfect walking order – plus a Tsonga hat and a handbag. By the time you read this, I will probably own more. Call me Imelda Marcos if you will.
It reached the point where I had to be honest with myself; I had to meet my addiction head on in order to understand it. I made an appointment with those who could help me.
Peter and Raine were waiting for me in the farm’s store. I recognised them instantly – they were wearing Tsongas, as was I. Both were beaming in the way of doting, proud parents. Tsonga, they said, is their adored laatlammetjie.
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A Global Hit
There is an older sister; grown up now, standing on her own two, er, feet. But Tsonga’s growing fast too, and travelling not just in South Africa, but to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England and Europe – where the first Tsonga concept store opened in fashion-conscious France. They’ve also had a USA store for about a decade now, and Peter told me the shoes I was wearing were one of the top sellers there the previous year. It seems, then, that Americans do have good taste.
They also know a good thing when they see it, as some importers in the United States have copied Tsonga. Now that’s a change. So often it’s we in backward Africa who try to emulate the mighty USA.
This success story has continued to grow within our borders with 23 stores across the country and in addition to the work done at the Thread of Hope Farm, a new production facility has been opened in Pietermaritzburg to meet the increasing demand for their products. In 2013, Tsonga welcomed Sebastiano Iaccarino on board as the handbag production manager. He’s a talented Italian who brings a wealth of experience and has helped to take Tsonga’s handbags to the next level. This new era for the business has also seen Raine taking a step back from the day-to-day running of Tsonga while Peter is more involved in a strategic and design capacity; this has made way for their son Adrian who now sits at the helm.
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A Business with a Conscience
Peter and Raine told me many other things too: how the business evolved from nothing to be where it is today, and is still growing; about expanding the product range to include belts; about the addition of the design studio and the elephant that is the Tsonga symbol – and which prompted their grandson, Benjamin, who lives in France, to tell his friends, “Granny has an elephant farm in Africa.”
Most inspiring though was the Thread of Hope concept which is at the heart of Tsonga and which stretches deep into the Lidgetton community. Because of this ever-lengthening thread, people are becoming truly empowered.
Henry Zuma (no relation to the former President) is one of these people. He joined Tsonga at the start – as the gardener. Before long he was appointed store manager. From gardener to manager is quite a step, one that Henry took in his stride. Based at the Pietermaritzburg branch, he is now computer literate and, aside from having managed the Lidgetton store, he has assisted with opening several stores in the country and training the staff.
There are more stories like Henry’s to be heard behind the scenes in those old school buildings turned into workshops. A happy buzz greets you as you walk around the place. On the verandas and in the renovated classrooms, groups of women gossip and laugh, their strong hands deftly lacing beautiful leather bags and accessories in the making. It reminds me of a knitting club that holds knit-ins at a cafe in my local shopping mall – except I doubt the completed knits will grace the shelves of fashionable stores around the world.
Bongi Mofokeng joined Tsonga straight out of school. Her abilities were soon recognised and she went on to supervise the hand-lacing section where 90 women worked, but has moved on from Tsonga since the writing of this story. Bongi tells me that if it weren’t for Tsonga, she would have been jobless and her children hungry.
It’s probably the same for most of the people employed there.
Tsonga’s Be Better campaign is about looking at ways in which the company can make conscious business decisions that’ll lead to community development and reduce their impact on the environment. One part of this is Tsonga’s feeding scheme at the nearby Lidgetton Community Crèche. I went for a visit with Bongi. A sea of serious little faces stared up at us as we went inside the neat red-brick building. “Sanibonani,” I said, exhausting my command of Zulu.
“Hello,” they chorused back, trumping me.
I readied my camera and gestured to them to smile.
“Say cheese,” said a teacher.
Cheesy smiles flashed as my camera flashed. With that, a very serious young man came in from another room. This was Samakele, Bongi’s three-year-old son, a well-fed fellow judging by his beefy physique. He’s not alone in that. All the toddlers look well nourished. And that’s in large part because of this feeding scheme.
Education, the feeding programme and skills training are core to the Tsonga dream, but it doesn’t stop there. The Thread of Hope Trust sees that royalties will be paid on every pair of soles produced at the farm. The funds raised will be used to train people from the Midlands, most especially Lidgetton, in all aspects of the footwear manufacturing trade.
Peter Maree stresses that projects which as the saying goes ‘teach people to fish’, must be done in a sustainable manner if they’re to work properly. The royalty system will ensure that. It’s a model scheme, Peter believes, for uplifting rural communities and truly empowering those who live there. To me, it also seems a very practical way of giving people shares in a company.
Tsonga is working towards becoming Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) compliant to ensure that its manufacturing processes aren’t damaging to a person’s health or the environment. Adrian and his team are assessing their suppliers to see how they can achieve this compliance with other like-minded businesses. A recycling programme has been established and the company is also looking to switch to water-based adhesives and eradicate plastic use in their factory. Tsonga are also encouraging their customers to reduce their waste with their resoling service. So if you have a tired pair of Tsonga shoes, don’t throw them away; take them into your nearest store to have the sole replaced instead.
Back at the store I can’t resist looking once more at the shoes on display. I’m just browsing, I fool myself, as I try on a pair of gladiator sandals.
But that’s just fine; I understand my addiction now. It’s to do with this wonderful country and the spirit of its people which, if you look carefully, you’ll find in that unique farm in that small corner of Africa.
[email protected]; +27 (0) 33 387 9200
You can read all about Tokara Olive Oil’s #LocalisLekker story here.
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Words Andrea Abbott
Photography Andrea Abbott and Supplied
A long teaching stint at University taught Andrea that she didn’t want to be an academic and so she rekindled her lifelong ambition to be a writer. Since then she has travelled to almost every part of her home province of KZN, discovering and writing about its unique wonders and remarkable people. In between those jaunts, she puts on her other hat – that of children’s book author.