Ethiopian Business Review

Survive, Thrive: Shoe Shine Boys Extend their Services

For generations, young Ethiopians have engaged in the shoe shining business to earn pocket money and support their family. However, recently more shoe shiners are selling consumer items such as tissues, biscuits and mobile cards parallel to their shoe shining operations in order to survive and earn enough to save and change business.

On a bright sunny morning, April 5, 2014, Teklu Kentu, a 22 year old shoeshine boy was busy serving his clients on Africa Avenue around the juncture by Tana Residential apartments. He was busy shining his clients’ shoes. He was also selling tissues, packed cream biscuits and more importantly mobile cards. It was captivating to witness that his mobile was also ringing repeatedly, adding to his busy situation. Later on, as clients left, he was approached by EBR. “On a busy day like weekends, I earn more than 100 birr,” he said. My daily revenue could be as little as 50 on some unfortunate days, he added.

This has enabled Teklu, the young shoe shine boy who left Wolaita Sodo, a district in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Regional state, five years before in search of better opportunities in Addis Ababa, to save 300 birr weekly. Saving money has helped him to construct a house roofed with 60 corrugated iron sheets back home for his father. He has also built one for himself. Although shining shoes and vending small items in parallel has helped him to earn enough for a living and to support his family, Teklu dreams big-owning a merchandise store in Addis. He has already started the entrepreneurial journey. “I send money to my father to fatten sheep and cattle for business,” he said. The only thing he is not sure is as to when he will realize his dream of owning a store. “It is only God who knows,” he affirmed.

Teklu’s story resembles the story of many aspiring shine boys in town. Inspired by the quest for a better life and the push to earn more for survival is inspiring the boys to expand their work beyond shining shoes. 

Shoe shining is a trend many boys from needy families  pass through during their child and boyhoods, mainly while they have a break from school and in the summer time. Back then their engagements were driven by the motive of earning pocket money and supporting their families’ incomes. But it also has been a major livelihood for many and a transition for changing lives and start up businesses. The American singer James Brown and the black rights activist Malcolm X earned their livelihoods by shoe shinning when they were children. The Ethiopian popular singer Mahmud Ahmed, dubbed the King of Tizita, had been a shoe shiner  in his boyhood.

Even though the startup capital to become a shoeshine boy is 200-300 birr, politeness and hard work are bigger assets. Even then, the income generated by polishing shoes is not enough to cover all the expenses and make savings for changing lives or supporting families. That is why many shoe shine boys these days work extra jobs simultaneously.  Many of them have mobile shops and sell different items on the streets such as tissues, chewing gum and cigarettes. 

Temesgen Tadios who came to Addis Ababa when his father died ten years ago in Wolaita, had to work as daily laborer in Merkato, Addis Ababa’s biggest open market, until he started shining shoes in 2007 around Amist kilo, where Addis Ababa  University’s several campuses are located. The presence of the National Museum and many service centers in the area adds to the business opportunity for shoe shine boys. That is why he has not changed his work station since 2007. He supports his mother and siblings from the meager earnings he makes. But these days, as the cost of life becomes increasingly expensive, shoe shine boys like him have to work extra jobs and extend their services to cope with life.  He sells accessories for shoes like shoe soles and laces, he sews and mends shoes, and mobile cards. Sometimes he washes cars. In addition to these he also works as a night guard for several of the shops found in the area. He earns 500 birr a month for night guarding the shops and 20-30 birr whenever he washes a car. 

Along both sides of the roads from Arat killo to Sidist killo there are many shoe shiners; sitting under a sponsored umbrella, on the stones or an old chair and waiting for the passersby to polish their shoes. Piazza, surrounding the construction site in front of the Addis Ababa city Municipality; Mexico and Megenagna in Addis Ababa, are some of the city centers where shoe shiners are present in large numbers. In small parishes too it is customary to notice shoe shiners especially at taxi stops. Lone shoeshine boys carrying the shoeshine box and wandering in search of a shoe to be polished are becoming one of the scenes of the city.

They all struggle to survive and some of them strive to change their lives. Shoe shiners alongside the road are also close to information and some mature ones use this as a means of earning extra money and act like a broker. They buy used phones and resell them at a profit. Some also changed their job into a broker to connect housemaids and employees, and others who rent houses. 

It is interesting to see that Temesgen with 24 other shoe shine boys around the place he works is mobilizing savings to establish a small microenterprise which can change their lives for good. They have been able to save 12,000 birr now. They are hoping to start a service business;   cafeteria and grocery and sell honey and butter transporting it from the country side where they came from.

Most of the time shoe shiners grow into the shoe mending business. Michaele Yilma, 26, around Kechene Medhanialem in Gulele district in Addis Ababa, previously shined shoes several years ago during school breaks  and in the summer  time. He used to work as a shoe shiner for pocket money; this gave him some insights when he decided to become a shoe mender after completing his high school. He now has rented a shop for 1,000 birr and has several customers Business is good for him now. |He spends the whole day very  busy. In his own terms, he earns more than 200 birr per day and supports his family. In fact he saves some of his income with the aspiration to furnish his shop and keep materials in mass for his work.

The effort of shoe shiners to venture into new businesses in order to survive the harsh realities of life and support their families as well as working to change their situation by saving, and their hope for the future are good examples for those who complain about their work and circumstances.

2nd Year . April 2014 . No.14

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