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The factory boss with heart and sole (Source: Saturday Star Date: 30 March 2013)

March 30, 2013
Manufacturing at Etsang Dieta

Manufacturing at Etsang Dieta

Mary Nkopane doesn’t recall ever having a nice pair of shoes. Her parents couldn’t afford school shoes and they definitely couldn’t buy her shoes for work when she was 18.

For her first day at work Nkopane wore a flimsy pair of sandals as she walked to her job at the Curtole Shoes manufacturer in the dead of winter in 1987.

Now, 26 years later, Nkopane, 50, is chairman of Etsang Dieta, a shoe manufacturer that supplies thousands of school shoes to the government, which in turn gives them to disadvantaged pupils.

She’s left behind her impoverished background and being a school drop-out.

“I have tasted and know the pain of poverty. You can lack a school uniform. It’s okay to wear a different jersey, and all shirts are white. But no one can cover the shame of not having shoes. They are every human being’s right to a dignified life.”

Since 2010, the Department of Social Development has supported and tasked Nkopane to make school shoes.

This week, she showed us her Joburg factory, where 46 employees daily hand-craft, assisted by small machines, 400 to 500 pairs of school shoes.

Nkopane bought the factory after working with mentor Bruno Tarasconi, 69, for more than two decades. The two worked at Tarasconi’s shoe store and factory, where Nkopane was a saleswoman and Tarasconi made shoes.

But business went sour when Tarasconi had a fallout with his partners. He also realised he had reached retirement age. He was offered R2 million for his business, but he sold it to Nkopane instead.

“Bruno told me he wanted his legacy to continue. He said the money didn’t matter to him. He wanted to see me grow. This is why I consider him a father. He had faith in me when no one else did. For this I am grateful.”

Nkopane then approached the Department of Social Development and was given a tender to make 15 000 pairs of shoes. She needed employees, so she scouted the city’s dilapidated buildings. She figured she could give some desperate people a lifeline.

“They had no food, clothes, money or place to stay. But today some can afford to rent out rooms.”

With no capital, she worked at Tarasconi’s factory for two years, using his machinery, water and electricity. Last year, she paid him only for the building with the profit the company made from the orders.

The school shoes cost R130 a pair and are made out of genuine leather. The factory competes against established brand Buccaneers and stores like Edgars. But the factory now faces months of no work and no production.

“With no orders and no money, these people will have no income. They get a stipend and so does my team. We also pay Bruno wages. Soon we won’t have money to take home.”

Nkopane said she found her employees praying at the factory in December. When they told her they were praying for their jobs not to end, she sobbed.

Nkopane said she knew companies in the private sector were constantly involved in social responsibility initiatives.

“My plea is that instead of buying shoes from well-known stores, they come to us. I’m not asking for money. All I ask is that they save these people’s jobs.”

She said equipment and labour was readily available.

Last year on Mandela Day, Nkopane and her team delivered shoes for pupils at a school in Diepsloot. Their reaction still breaks her heart.

“As we handed out the shoes, the numbers of pupils without (shoes) kept growing. We sent another batch and it still wasn’t enough. I’m dismayed that many of our children in urban schools still walk to school without shoes.”

She said a fellow businesswoman once told her she’d never be rich because she shared too much. But Nkopane maintains its others’ sharing that got her to where she is today.

Her plans include expanding the factory and hiring 100 people.

She believes that with the right attitude and dedication any aspiring entrepreneur will win.

“I once had no shoes and no hope. But because of my attitude someone who saw my potential groomed me. No employer will shut the door on anyone who wants to learn and work hard.”

Nkopane plans to study project and business management through Unisa.

The co-operative will donate more shoes when local schools open for their second term.

*To make a contribution, contact Estang Dieta on 011 334 9759.

*To see a video on the shoe factory, use i-lincc code: sstarnews3

Story by Noni Mokati

Link to original story:

One Comment
  1. Tumelo mooki permalink

    Being one of the formers employees I can say that even though we did not get much income it indeed was a pleasure waking up in the morning,taking my train then arriving at work knowing that you are not only doing it for yourself but the thousands of children out there that are in need. God bless ms Nkopane and the team I worked with


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