The footwear industry in Uganda has largely been dominated by a single foreign player that has had a monopoly on the market for years.
With stiff competition and an influx of cheap alternatives from countries like China, the sector has been largely shunned by most would-be local investors.
Bravo shoes, a local outfit that was started in 2006, has slowly but steadily made a name for itself as a trusted brand in the footwear business. We caught up with Brian Yesigye Bravo who founded the business and has built it from its bootstraps through sheer determination, assisted by strategic use of social media.
How it all started.
Coming from a humble background, Yesigye knew that his only way up in life would be through hard work. He went to Kyamugorani Primary school found in Mabara district. While at school he engaged in petty business such as selling eucalyptus seeds to raise some money.
He later headed to Western Uganda where he joined Nganwa high school for his secondary education, before joining Nakasero Secondary school and Lubaga for his ordinary levels. Finally, he joined Nakivubo blue on mature entry status for his advanced certificate.
Yesigye started out as a street vendor selling men’s clothing items along Luwum Street. With a loan of $100 (shs300,000 at the time) from his brother, he was ready to sail the business winds. After using part of this to pay rent, the money was almost finished. He then relied on a colleague who would give him garments on credit to sell. After making sales, Brian would pay the money back.
Soon his business grew meaning he was able to make trips to Dubai to purchase his stock. Despite the great strides his business was making, he was only able to afford to carry his stock in hand luggage. This was amounted to about 50 shirts.
Brian had plans to join university as he felt pressured by friends who told him it was not wise to abandon school for trade. After paying tuition for university, he planned to juggle school while still working as a men’s clothes trader.
“One time I left my shop with a friend attending to it as I went for lectures. When I was away, a client came to buy two shirts. When I told him that a friend would attend to him he told me that my shop was closed to my disbelief. I grabbed a boda boda to rush back to my shop and attend to the client. I was disappointed to find that the client had gone away and had bought the shirts from someone else. I then realized that if I was to pursue two things then I would lose out.”
This marked the turning point for Yesigye as he forgot all about the university and focused solely on his business.
He later started business expeditions to Turkey which is a center for trade in male clothing items. While in Turkey, he got into contact with a family that was manufacturing shoes. He started bringing in some of their shoes and considered using the name Bravo for the footwear.
This was a crucial step in the right direction. Bravo shoes has grown over time, and he now imports a 20ft-40ft container of shoes every three months.
Using social media to boost sales
Bravo shoes has capitalized on social media and has an online presence across various platforms. Yesigye explains that this is because advertising on traditional media like newspapers and television is prohibitively expensive.
“What forced me to go to social media is that it is cheaper. If you look at the exorbitant amounts the print media, TV stations and radios charge, I had no alternative.” He says.
He also believes that technology is changing behavior and people are moving more towards consuming media on their phones. This gives social media an added advantage over conventional media.
Discovering that it was easier to reach out to his social circle for businesses, as these were people he was already acquainted with, further cemented social media as his company’s go-to mode of advertising.
“I realized it was easier to reach out given that through your social networks, one can connect with their former schoolmates and community.” He adds.
Coupled with the high quality of their footwear, the company has seen tremendous growth due to the company’s aggressive online marketing.
“We didn’t know that social media could become the power of our business. It can become your shop and become your business driver at the end of the day.”
He adds that the company started marketing on Facebook when the platform was not yet popular locally and that it has taken about 10 years for the social media site to gain traction in Uganda.
Although he initially was not knowledgeable on how to use social media to benefit the business he put in the time and learnt how to properly leverage social media for success.
“So, I made sure that I trained myself and understood how to go about it. It’s not just about simply posting. I had to understand what Facebook is about. I use Facebook a lot because I prefer it to the other platforms.” He says.
He also believes the current Facebook ban in Uganda has not affected him because he has a presence across different platforms.
“I’m on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, so if one is blocked or compromised, I still have options.”
The businessman handles his company’s social media himself because he believes few people can carry the passion he has for online marketing. Citing the example of Facebook which he says changes often, therefore, requiring someone that constantly skills themselves to be able to cope with the technological advancements.
Additionally, he likes to engage in corporate social responsibility where he gives back to the community. This piques the interest of his followers and gets more attention from new users. He ties this down to love and passion for what he does and the desire to expand his online network.
Doing business in the midst of the Covid 19
Bravo shoes has been negatively impacted by the pandemic like any other business. Shopping has taken a hit because people are afraid of catching the disease. People are not moving as much. While the ideal situation would be more people buying online like in other countries, the concept of buying online is still very foreign to most Ugandans.
“To embrace online buying, somebody must trust the online systems. Somebody must be able to trust their credit card or their debit card on a certain website or platform.” Yesigye says.
Another issue he cites with online business in Uganda is that some of the products that are sold online are not of good quality. Most clients, therefore, insist on paying for goods on delivery which also can have its challenges. Since Bravo shoes has built a reputation for itself in terms of quality, they have been able to make sales online where the clients pay in advance.
“Since we are a trusted brand, some clients have no problem paying for our goods before they are dispatched.”
How is your business handling completion from big brands like Bata.
Yesigye says that the most successful businesses are those that have built a brand that can stand the test of time. From the start, he built Bravo shoes as brand that would be known for its quality.
“I started the business as a brand not as myself. My focus is that the brand stays alive. The name Bravo is derived from my third name (Yesigye Brian Bravo) which I gave the business because I am determined to do whatever it takes to make sure that my brand succeeds.”
He clarifies that Bravo shoes is not in completion with Bata because the business strives to give an alternative product that clients can consider.
“I didn’t come to compete with Bata but I want to give an option. Bata is 123 years so I will never be Bata. It is a brand on its own. I came in to provide an option so we can move at the same level.”
However, he says that while Bata has been in the business for long, Bravo shoes can rise up to Bata’s level if his business is allowed to go through the necessary gestation period and given Bravo’s impressive track record this seems likely.