African shoes with soul

The beautiful design of the Tsonga
shoes have captured the
world.

The hand-stitching on every shoe
is meticulous.

Both men and women can
enjoy the comfort of the shoes.
(all images courtesy of
Tsonga.com)

Khanyi Magubane

The Tsonga shoe brand, launched in South Africa in 1999 by the father-and-son team of Peter and Adrian Maree, represents a niche, quality product that’s not only making waves in foot fashion around the world, but boosting livelihoods in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, from as far back as ancient Egyptian times footwear has been designed to meet humankind’s real and perceived needs: protection, support, comfort, sturdiness, and stylishness. It was this driving principle that led the Marees to start the Tsonga brand.

The Tsonga story

Anticipating an influx of mass-produced shoes on the South African market from China and India, the duo decided it was time to take an African shoe to the world, a shoe that would be comfortable and unique in its origin.

Capitalising on their long-established company, Corrida Shoes, the Marees and their work team began researching the export market and identifying their clientele.

After much trial and error, they came up with a comfortable, fashionable African shoe, giving rise to the Tsonga shoe range.

“We realised that we were very capable of developing shoes that were different and that we could create our own lines. This is important because when you’re competing against the likes of India and China, you can’t copy designs,” Adrian says.

“So many brands coming out of those countries have no soul and that’s something Tsonga does have: it’s a brand with soul.”

What makes the brand unique, he adds, is that it’s not just a mass-produced commodity, it also has proud links to its development programme, A Thread of Hope, situated in the poverty-stricken village of Lidgetton just outside Pietermartizburg. The Tsonga factory is also based in Lidgetton.

After the shoe patterns are cut with machinery at the factory, Corrida employs local Zulu women from the village to hand-stitch the shoes’ soles to the leather uppers.

Riddled with unemployment, Lidgetton was chosen by many farmworkers as a place to settle following the mechanisation of large-scale farming operations in the area. Without permanent work, these labourers have been left with two options: move to the cities or accept being employed only on a seasonal basis.

In a bid to uplift the women of the community, Corrida has also opened its hand-lacing plant within walking distance of the village. This enables women to collect work at the plant and stitch at home, freeing them up to care for their children and earn an income at the same time.

The hand shoe-stitching operation started off with a group of 20 women working from a renovated old farm school building – now, 170 women work at the centre.

The women are also learning how to run their own businesses and other local projects such the feeding scheme, which includes a vegetable garden. This benefits the local school creche as children have access to healthy meals.

Worldwide success

The Tsonga shoe range has thrived on the overseas market. Part of the success, says Adrian, can be attributed to his dad and him aiming to produce a shoe that was comfortable, but unique in design. “We’ve combined the skills of the local women with modern technology, making it totally design-based. Every shoe is unique.”

Selling the “Tsonga story” has been key to the marketing strategy. It was important to the Marees to show that the shoes had faces and people behind them, who had personally hand-stitched each shoe.

Many of their distributors have visited South Africa before and “have a soft spot for it”, Adrian says. The Thread of Hope project has also made it easier to tap into the market, as distributors know that a portion of the money they spend on the shoes will benefit local communities in South Africa.

The brand continues to grow worldwide and, as Adrian Maree explains, they have clinched some major overseas deals. “We have been fortunate to have our shoes stocked in Nordstrom, one of the biggest shoe retailers in America. Our shoes are also sold on Zappos.com, which markets the brands of all the top shoe designers.”

In July 2008 Tsonga shoes will be launched across Europe through a new distributor Group Royer, which currently sells over 28-million pairs of shoes in Europe every year. They also own a significant number of brands, including Converse and Von Dutch.

In the US, Tsonga shoes has managed to bring on board some of that country’s top shoe marketers to sell the brand. Currently, Tsonga shoes can be found in Europe, Canada, America, New Zealand and Australia.

Selling Tsonga in SA

Although the brand is well established overseas, Tsonga has only recently ventured out into the South African market. The price factor makes it primarily an overseas-driven product. The Marees say South Africans are price-sensitive, making the average pair of Tsongas (between R400 and R800 [$52 to $103]), “very expensive” by South African standards.

The company does, however, remain committed to bringing South Africans the Tsonga brand, and it continues to grow. So far the group has established five concept stores around the country. Tsonga has now also launched an accessories line of designer bags which are also sold at the five stores.

As an assertion of his commitment to the brand, Maree says, “We live in a world where everything is mass-produced and cost-reduced. We [Tsonga shoes] are going against that tide and swimming upstream, creating something that is of quality and hand-made.”

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