Billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates once said: “If you’re born poor that’s not your mistake, but if you die poor it’s your mistake“. For many in Africa – like Lekau Sehoana – these words drive their lives and ambition.
Thirty-two-year-old South African Lekau Sehoana, the founder and CEO of Drip Footwear, is one for whom Gates homily could have been written. His entrepreneurial journey is inspirational and illustrates the struggle against dying poor. His determination and acumen. as a township entrepreneur, is steadily hauling him out of poverty.
The township market in Africa is no joke. Discerning customers are very reluctant to put down their scarce, hard-earned, cash. Capital and infrastructure are equally scarce. When Sehoana set out to make money from making sneakers, he didn’t even own a pair of shoes. He grew up in a hungry home with four siblings, in Ivory Park township, near Johannesburg.
It got worse. Sehoana’s parents divorced, in 1990, when he was two-years-old, forcing his mother to find a job as a domestic worker and a shack for her family. Money was tight and the family mended their own clothes and shoes; skills passed down the years that would become useful in the life of an entrepreneur.
“Being poor forced me to be creative and independent from an early age. It helped that I had a flair for fashion,” he says.
Sehoana says patience, faith, resilience, never giving up and showing up always kept him going through tough times.
In 2003, he was in his first year of high school. It was ‘Civvies’ day at school – a day common in South Africa where schoolchildren are allowed to wear casual clothes instead of uniform. This was a moment for Sehoana to make a fashion statement with his feet.
“Our brand is a reminder to dream big and never give up, and we also instill hope to the hopeless. Between that Civvies sneaker and the first Drip sneaker, there is a16- year gap. I had failed projects and these were preparation for my business. Being poor forced me to be creative and independent from an early age. It helped that I had a flair for fashion,” he says.
“I decided to make a unique sneaker that would grab attention in the same way wearing an expensive brand would.”
His older brother had given him a pair of sneakers, which had worn until they were torn, yet, the rubber sole was still solid. Sehoana cut off the old torn parts and using old pieces of denim jeans sewn together, he fashioned his own style of sneaker. He found good pieces of denim to also sew a pair of pants and a shirt. What’s more, this was recycling that didn’t need money for materials.
He says the sneakers were a hit. From that moment he was making sneakers for the others at school and learning how to design.
“I was 15 then and oblivious to the now legendary moment. I wasn’t thinking of going commercial – feeding my family was top priority.”
In 2007, he stopped making sneakers to focus on his studies. He failed and had to rewrite exams in 2008. There was no money to go back to school; he was unemployed for four years and started a cleaning business that failed.
In 2013, he studied Civil Engineering, graduating in 2015. He found employment and quit in 2018. Then came the dream of Drip Footwear. Sehoana had been working on the business idea since 2017 and sold his first pair of sneakers on 26 July 2019.
“Between that Civvies sneaker and the first Drip sneaker, there is a 16-year gap. I had failed projects and these were preparation for my business.”
Sehoana is a self-taught entrepreneur and doesn’t have a mentor; he trusts his intuition and research. He draws marketing lessons from brand guru, Thebe Ikalafeng; and inspiration from South African media personality, Sizwe Dhlomo and American rapper Jay-Z.
“Drip sneakers are inspired by South Africans in the townships that walk a lot. In all our designs, we use knit mesh as our primary material because its lighter.”
The name Drip is township slang for cool, fashionable or swag. It hopes to proposer from an increasing desire by South Africans to home grown brands.
“Our brand is a reminder to dream big and never give up, and we also instill hope to the hopeless.”
Drip is self-funded. Production began in a small one-bedroom apartment. When Sehoana started out, he insisted on pre-orders to raise capital, enough to make 600 sneakers, to get the business established.
Cashflow versus growth has been the biggest issue in growing the business. Luckily, demand soon exceeded supply.
“Instead of looking for investors, we made a deal with the factory to produce more sneakers enabling us to pay later, and this has worked very well.”
It means a factory in Durban, KwaZulu Natal, churns out 30,000 of his sneakers every month. The Johannesburg warehouse houses the business, head office and distribution centre. Drip employs 50 people with more jobs on the way.
Sehoana says they started with the online store, which worked well during lockdown, to propel growth into bricks-and-mortar stores. He tested the idea with a pop-up shop in Newton Junction in Johannesburg, and demand saw them open the first physical store on 27 June 2020, in Pretoria, in the eye of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Four stores were opened in 2020 in Gauteng and Limpopo: Newtown Junction; Masingita Mall in Giyani; Mall of Tembisa, east of Johannesburg, and the Mall of the North in Polokwane, Limpopo.
Sehoana says they expect to open more stores with the sixth scheduled for opening on 13 February 2021 in Thavhani Mall in Venda.
“Growth is inevitable, and one needs to be a visionary to grow. We could have stayed in the apartment, but I chose to grow, create employment and build a brand.”
Sehoana is always looking for ways to diversify his business interests. To this end, he has bought a Legends Barber franchise opening at the Mall of Tembisa earlier this month.
“Legends Barber fits well into our township dream, brand values, and our business diversification strategy.”
The next step in a business, born in Africa, that appears to be bucking the gloomy COVID-19 trend dragging down retail across the continent.