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Words: Lisa Witepski Images: Supplied

As a dedicated sneakerhead, Theo Baloyi was inspired to create a brand of shoes that Africans would feel proud of. Enter Bathu, sneakers designed and manufactured entirely locally.

It doesn’t matter which South African language you speak, “bathu” – township slang for shoes – is a word that’s instantly recognisable. That’s why Theo chose it as the name for his sneaker brand. “It’s a word that unites us,” he says. And unity, along with national identity and pride, is important to him.

That point struck him when, while stuck in Dubai International Airport during an eight-hour layover, he got chatting with the owner of a store. “The retailer was French, but there he was, selling his brand on the other side of the world. That got me thinking – why couldn’t an African brand enjoy the same sort of success?”

At the time, Theo was working as an accountant, so he knew little about shoe design. But, as a sneaker devotee, he knew what he liked, and what he didn’t. He also knew that a shoe that revealed the happy socks that are so much in vogue would be an instant winner.

It was difficult to find a local manufacturer that shared his confidence in this design, however. “I was turned down by 13 different factories,” he recalls, “because the mesh we used for the body of our shoes is usually just one component of a sneaker.” Finally, he found a Durban factory owner who agreed to make 100 pairs of shoes, which was all Theo could afford at the time. That number climbed to 400 – until, today, hundreds of pairs of Bathu shoes are sold every month.

Theo attributes his shoes’ popularity to the fact that his story resonates with South Africans – plus, they’re proud to wear a shoe that is entirely South African, yet compares with international brands on every level, from quality to CSI activity.

This is what has helped drive Bathu to become a national brand, so that Theo’s initial Newtown Junction pop-up shop now has a presence in Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Venda, Kimberley and Polokwane, with seven more stores set to open this year.

From next year, Bathu goes international, with its first SADC store opening in Botswana – although Theo has plans to take his brand into East Africa, too.

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