Seven years ago, Neila Major watched in helpless horror as hungry flames devoured her house in Borolong.
A vendor who used to order clothes from Zambia, the 59-year-old lost her entire stock to the devastating fire and was instantly turned into a pauper.
“I had nothing. The house burnt down to ashes and turned me into a charity case. For three months I depended on government handouts and donations from well-wishers,” recalls Major.
However, like the mythical phoenix, she rose from the ashes.
Rather than dwell on her misfortune, the strong-willed Major took advantage of government’s poverty eradication programme and enrolled for a Leather Works course at Sese.
“I learnt how to make handbags, sandals, belts and later shoes,” she says.
It is the last item that Major has excelled at.
Under her company, Nelia Leatherworks, she has emerged as a shoemaker of note.
The entrepreneur, who is also a Sub-Bishop at St Marks Church, started her business in 2014 with no machinery.
“I had no sewing machine but that did not stop me from making leather products. I managed to raise enough money from the sales and bought a secondhand Kingster Sewing Machine,” she reveals, chuckling wryly at the memory of the beat-up machine.
“It was old, I had to fix it first. That machine boosted my production and helped me to buy a second machine.”
With a new machine and the demand for her products in Borolong and surrounding villages increasing, Major hired two passionate young men to help speed-up production.
It wasn’t long before the company acquired its second Kingster Sewing Machine, another secondhand that Major immediately brought back to life.
The enterprise flourished in the coming years, doing so well that Major was able to save enough money to buy herself a car, a white Opel Sedan.
Her charity case days were well behind her.
“We were no longer just making belts. We were producing footwear, ordering our raw material from Zimbabwe and South Africa. We also quickly became a renowned shoe repair company. We can turn an old shoe into a fine looking piece of footwear,” she states proudly.
Nelia’s Footwear is a big brand in Borolong. Families with school-going kids have turned to her to supply their kids with some of the most durable school shoes imaginable.
“I’ve being designing school shoes for some time and the support I’ve received from parents and schools has been overwhelming,” she tells Voice Money.
The devoted Christian says she has also received encouragement from the village’s political leadership and has set her eyes on supplying schools shoes to students in the Francistown area.
“My shoes are as good as any other brand. We dream of one day seeing the Nelia Footwear in some of the biggest chain stores in the country. It’s a dream that I believe in!” states Major, her eyes alight with passion beneath her thick spectacles.
“Before this Covid-19 hit us hard, we were actually in the process of moving some of our stock to Tlokweng and Gaborone. The deal had to be put on ice as moving around was restricted.”
Her facial expression changes at the mention of Covid-19.
It is obvious her business, like many others in the country, has been hard hit by the pandemic. Unfortunately for Major, it happened when she was in the process of normalising her registration with Botswana Unified Revenues Services (BURS).
“I feel sorry for my employees. I’m lucky they’re as passionate as I am, and that is the only reason they still come to work even though I haven’t paid them!”
The resilient shoemaker and her three full-time employees have, however, found a new way of ensuring cash flow.
They are now designing facemasks, which are proving extremely popular with locals.
“At P20 a mask or more for personalised masks, we have been able to put food on the table,” she adds, a smile evident behind her colourful red mask.
It is this resilience, as well as her passionate workforce and obvious skill that Major hopes will help her attain her dream of supplying mega chain stores with her unique footwear from the Kingsmaster Sewing Machine.