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A shoe brand with style



MASERU – FALL down seven times, rise up eight. This Japanese adage sums up Masibo Mohlakola’s journey in the treacherous world of business.

Growing up in the rural, mountainous area of Semonkong, about 80 kilometres south-east of Maseru, Mohlakola experienced poverty that nearly robbed him of an opportunity to pursue education.

The 30-year-old wriggled out of poverty and is now leading a business, the first of its kind in Lesotho, which is rapidly making an impact in the market.

His innovation, honed through the many falls he experienced, led him to think of how the Basotho traditional attire and the country’s geographic features could be turned into a viable business venture.

Mohlakola and his partner, Pusetso Solane, have come up with a shoe brand that they have blended with Lesotho’s mokorotlo hat, which itself is a depiction of the Qiloane Mountain.

Both the hat and the mountain are national symbols that also feature on Lesotho’s banknotes.

So much has been taken for granted about the evolution of the dress over time and the symbolic meanings that have been attached to different dress practices.

“We felt a need to bring one of our Basotho clothing symbols into our modern lifestyle so that it can be forever remembered,” said Mohlakola.

He calls his brand “Be Nice Authentically” or BNA, which has now become the talk of the town. It is also making waves on social media.

He said the BNA is the first trainer-shoe brand in Lesotho to join the Basotho culture and a modern lifestyle.

The trainers have the Mokorotlo symbol all over them. The uniquely styled trainers come in different colours and a unique style.

According to an article by Andrew Knapp on The Design Train for Clarens Butterfly Beds, Mokorotlo is said to depict the mountaintop of Mount Qiloane that sits beside the Thaba-Bosiu plateau.

Mokorotlo is the object which was used to cast rulings in customary courts, similar to the symbolism of a gavel which is seen in western societies.

Mohlakola said after trying several businesses which ended up failing, they thought of coming up with their own shoe brand.

The hardships of his growing up, however, are the ones that have molded Mohlakola into the man he is today.

Mohlakola grew up in a family of four siblings and he is the youngest.

“I was forced to enter into business at an early stage when I was still in high school.

“My father was unemployed and as a result there were times when payment for my school fees was delayed,” he said.

He recalls how he used to joke about his frequent expulsion from school due to failure to pay school fees as a means to cover up his embarrassment.

This affected him academically and emotionally.

“I had to repeat Form C,” he said.

His financial problems took a huge toll on him.

“It reached a point where it was a struggle to get proper uniform. This was affecting my confidence, hence my poor class performance,” recalled Mohlakola, who had to forego playing with friends after school and during weekends to take part-time jobs.

He said he was introduced to carpentry which gave him some income to buy school uniforms and help pay household bills.

“As much as I had to grow up at an early age, this instilled in me an entrepreneurial mindset,’’ he said.

He said the wage of M60 each week for part-time jobs made a difference.

“A pair of school trousers was around M70 then.”

However, he had to learn the hard way how to balance school and work.

“I did not have time to read so I had to vigorously participate in class so that I could grasp the concepts,” he said.

Mohlakola said after completing Cambridge Overseas School Certificate (COSC) “with poor results I was now expected to work full time as an adult.”

While he was still working, Mohlakola says he engaged in so many advocacy community programmes. However, he said he got “too much pressure” from his friends who were pursuing tertiary education and this forced him to rewrite exams in 2012.

“I did not have time to study and I failed again. I wanted so badly to have at least a qualification,” he said.

Due to his interaction with various people, Mohlakola got the chance to work in South Africa as a horse caretaker for three months. He returned home with about M7 000, which he had planned to use to supplement his COSC.

However, he says he found his family in deep financial distress and he used the money to ease the situation. Mohlakola had to swallow his pride and ask for help.

He opened up about his problems and plans to some ladies who were working in the area as Peace Corps while he was participating in one of Semonkong tourism projects.

Peace Corps is an independent agency and programme of the United States government that trains and deploys volunteers to provide international development assistance.

The two women contributed to pay the fees that he owed, providing him with a chance to return to school.

“However, the challenge was on how I would finance my daily school needs.”

He talked to one woman who was working remotely from Semonkong to give him a job as a house helper. After passing his COSC examinations, he enrolled with the National University of Lesotho under the Social Work programme in 2019.

He said since the passion of entrepreneurship “was flowing in my blood”, he thought of what he could do to increase his income streams.

“With my first Manpower (the government’s scholarship agency) lump sum, I bought carpentry equipment. I would make student tables on weekends and in my spare time,” he recalls.

That was where he met Solane, who was also studying social work and doing photography in his spare time.

“We started a clothing brand called Dynamites. However, the business failed.”

Nonetheless, he said they felt a business idea around what they had been trying could be viable.

“We could not let it go just like that.”

The duo spent some nights discussing business ideas.

“We then thought that the Basotho culture was on the wane. We thought about what we could do about it. We were seeking to merge culture with entrepreneurship,” he said.

That is how the idea of the BNA brand was born. Mohlakola said they approached one of South Africa’s shoe manufacturing companies, presented their style and the quality they wanted.

He said after the design was complete, they had to go through testing. He said they then scored a durability test result of over 75 percent from China.

He said since all the processes were financed through their pockets, there was a bit of delay. But the feedback has been “amazing” since the product was introduced into the market, said Mohlakola.

“Many people are proud to see our cultural symbol on a modern sneaker.”

“Last month we received about 15 orders for cash. We have received more orders of around 50,” he said.

Despite the positive response, Mohlakola says some people associate them with scams since the business is still new in the market.

“This makes it hard for interested people to place orders and process payment online.

“We also have faced challenges related to financial constraints which limit us from producing more shoes of various sizes and colours on the go. We still produce on orders placed,” he said.

Looking ahead, Mohlakola says they want to open up a big manufacturing firm in Lesotho which would create more jobs for Basotho.

He says they also want their brand to reach international markets where the brand will become a representation of the Basotho culture.

“We want our culture to be known globally while accommodating everyone. This is not only our brand, but it’s the country’s brand,” he says.

Refiloe Mpobole


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