Tanning hide into leather involves a process to permanently alter the protein structure of skin, making it more durable and less susceptible to decomposition.
The 36 year-old, Thobekile Mkhize, is the founder and CEO of Mabotho Designs. Hailing from Amanzimtoti in Durban, Thobekile produces designer luxury leather goods with material sourced from local tanneries. A tannery is the place where the skins of animals are processed.
Tanning hide into leather involves a process which permanently alters the protein structure of skin, making it more durable and less susceptible to decomposition, and coloring.
After leaving the corporate world behind, Thobekile was attending a traditional ceremony honouring her late grandfather and saw an opportunity for a business venture following the discarding of animal skin after traditional slaughtering.
“Ordinarily, the skin is usually just left there to decompose but it brings with it a lot of flies and insects as well as of course a smell. I thought it would be great to turn this into something tangible and fashionable and by taking the skin away, it’s also less cumbersome to the community” says Thobekile.
“We source our material from local tanneries, and our biggest target market is women but our anchor product is the ladies handbags – inspired by the cow which comes from my isiZulu heritage and the patterns for the handbags come from and are inspired by the Nguni cow” adds Thobekile as she emphasises that keeping traditions alive does not need to come at the expense of the environment.
A self-made and skilled entrepreneur, she has taken her fashions and designs across the globe and exhibited at various trade shows. Asked about the impact of the covid pandemic, Thobekile says that “online business has been going well” as her customers are diverse with many located abroad.
Thobekile admits that even though she registered the business in 2013, she only began operating in 2017 due to financial constraints. Through a friend, she learned about the Essence Festival which was hosted in Durban for the first time. She took the limited stock that she had, not realizing that the Festival was an international event. "A lot of my visitors at my stand, were tourists from New Orleans.
At the time I didn't know that the Essence Festival was an international event, as it was organised by the eThekwini municipality. My visitors, who were interested in the unique look of my product, were saying it made them feel connected with the continent."
Suffice to say, this was the affirmation that she needed as her stock sold out and following great networking she was more convinced than ever that there was a need to not only preserve her cultural heritage, and sustain the environment but also persevere with her passion and turn into a profitable business.