After her secondary education in 2014, Blessing Okonkwo could not immediately proceed to university due to her low-income family background. Then she began to think about how to make a living.
“I first learnt how to make cakes and decorations. After that, I started working for somebody as a sales girl, and I also worked in a hotel,” she said.
Okonkwo is from Ifite-Ogwari, a community in Ayamelum Local Government Area of Anambra State. In 2018, she decided to try her hands at shoemaking.
“I learned it whenever I was not on duty in the hotel,” Okonkwo told Prime Progress. But she kept her decision secret.
“Initially, I wanted to learn creative arts, but my elder brother discouraged me, saying that it is not meant for women. So, I did not tell my family about my decision for shoemaking because they would discourage me,” she said.
“Besides, they will not assist me in any way. So, there was no need to share that dream with them.”
But months into training, she became discouraged because her friends laughed at her.
“‘Why are you learning men’s job?’ they asked me. At one point, I got discouraged and changed my mind [from getting shoemaking] shop, and [I] started selling frozen foods. Unfortunately, I did not have enough money [to continue],” she said.
By 2019, she had mastered how to make shoes but didn’t put the skill to use until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. At the peak of it, she was among those laid off at the hotel where she worked as a receptionist.
“I bought a fridge to start a frozen foods business. Then, I decided to add shoemaking to the business. But, at that time, there was no light [electricity]. So, some of the frozen foods spoiled. However, people liked my shoemaking work and started patronizing me,” she said with a smile.
“I love doing something that women naturally would not do,” she added.
Two years later, Okonkwo has no regrets about her shoemaking decision.
“I have gained a lot. It helped me to start school. I am in 200 level [studying] guidance and counselling at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka, Anambra State. I pay my house rent, buy foodstuff, and send some money to my parents,” she said.
The 31-year-old now trains four other persons in shoemaking.
“Three of them are still in school, while the fourth person is a civil servant,” she said.
But “Finance is my greatest challenge. I really need money to buy some things. I need industrial machines. The machine I have cannot do all the jobs, so I take some of my work to another guy who has a shop up there,” she said.
With better tools, she can make cover shoes. “As of now, I only make sandals and palm slippers. But, I am planning to learn how to make rounded shoes,” Okonkwo told Prime Progress.