While many shoe brands across the globe are using high-end machines to produce thousands of shoes every hour, a company based in the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo is still turning out only a few handmade pairs each day. And it is thriving.
Gale Rice took over the running of The Courteney Boot Company after the death of her husband, John, in 2012. “We thrive on exclusivity and it takes more than two weeks to make a single pair. In a world of largely mechanised, high-speed mass production, we are part of the slow movement. With decades of experience, our artisans create a product that we fully intend will last for 20 years; with lots of polish and a bit of tender love and care, they frequently do.”
The boots sell for between $140 to $500 and are made from the skins of animals such as buffalo, kudu, impala and hippopotamus. Game skin leathers are more comfortable to wear than bovine leather.
“Our main raw material, obviously, is leather which we source mostly within Zimbabwe, but we import our ostrich skin from South Africa. All our leather is registered with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management and our finished products are CITES certified,” she explains.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a multilateral treaty meant to protect endangered plants and animals.
Gale adds that Courteney’s shoes help in animal conservation and anti-poaching activities. “We set out to make 30 pairs a day specifically for the African wildlife and safari industry – including anti-poaching, game wardens, wildlife breeders, game conservationists, hunters, trackers – anyone involved with wildlife in Africa. Initially, we identified well-known people in these industries and gave them a pair for free,” she says.
The company has a large market in Europe and the United States with exports accounting for more than 75% of earnings. Some of the shoes are sold on the internet; however, Gale reveals online trade has its challenges. “Online footwear is not an easy game, especially if it’s expensive and has to travel a long way to the customer. Shipping charges are substantial. So, if we ship a pair of size 9s to Canada and the customer decides he wants a size 10, it’s not viable to swap.
“Getting the size right in the first place is the goal and we communicate extensively with the client to make that happen. After 30 years, there are plenty of repeat customers who know their size and buy other styles from us, so we tick over nicely and it is growing.”
Gale says the company is constantly on the lookout for stockists across Europe and America.
“We attracted the attention of one of the world’s leading gun makers and our relationship continues to this day. We never stop improving. Every single day, we consider some aspect of the factory: our operations, product, working conditions, equipment, waste and raw materials. No individual, no machine, no component escapes attention.”
The company is currently in the process of adding other leather accessories to its range including bags and belts. “We are expanding into leather bags but these things take time, hard work and preparation. We add a new design only if there is a significant demand for it.”
According to Gale, keeping her business afloat during Zimbabwe’s decades of economic meltdown was no easy task but she learnt invaluable lessons that she continues to use today. Zimbabwe underwent a severe economic crisis with inflation rising to over a million per cent per annum. The government was eventually forced to discard its currency in favour of the US dollar in 2009.
“Everyone who runs a business knows that any given day is unpredictable and full of challenges; it’s a balance of highs and lows, joys and frustrations, failures and triumphs. Zimbabwe’s economic collapse stands out; the losses incurred by individuals and organisations, the sheer hardship. The Courteney Boot Company relied on an incredibly nimble and dedicated team, huge amounts of understanding, empathy, loyalty, trust and faith to pull through that period.
“We had to overcome almost unconquerable anger that our kleptocratic government had so nonchalantly stolen our futures and brought the entire country to a standstill, without food on the table,” she says.
The new government which toppled the late Robert Mugabe after a coup in 2017 has not done enough to create a conducive environment for business. “Today, the supermarkets can provide but generally our collective and individual situations are worse now than those days of collapse. Theft is a bit more insidious, state control has increased exponentially, and fear has become a feature,” she shares.
Despite these difficulties, Gale says her vision is to continue producing high-quality safari boots. “We will always find ways to stay afloat and provide a living for all our team in this challenging environment.”