Nana Au-Chua organises shoe donation drives for Soles4Souls, a micro-enterprise programme that creates business opportunities for those in underdeveloped nations

(Oct 28): Like any fashionista worth her Chanel, Nana Au-Chua has amassed her fair share of shoes over the years. The question was, what should she do with her worn-but-still-in-good-condition shoes? Fate stepped in to lend her a helping hand.

One evening, Au-Chua watched a CNN report about Soles4Souls, an organisation based in Nashville, Tennessee that collects shoes to supply its micro-enterprise, disaster relief and direct assistance programme. According to the non-profit social enterprise’s website, it has distributed more than 30 million pairs of new and gently worn shoes to 127 countries since 2006.

“I thought it was such a good idea. Normally, I would just throw my shoes away or give them to The Salvation Army or Red Cross. Some of them would even be brand new,” says Au-Chua. It was not long before she found herself emailing ­Soles4Souls’ CEO, Buddy Teaster, to find out how she could contribute to the non-profit. 

It was not that easy, Au-Chua found out. While she was ready to give away hundreds of pairs of her own shoes, she would have to gather at least 25,000 pairs before Soles4Souls was prepared to collect them for its cause.

Au-Chua, who is general manager and chief operating officer of her husband’s family enterprise, Million Lighting, did not give up. Instead, she told herself: “Even if it’s going to take me three or four years, I will do it.”

She started calling and texting her friends to donate shoes and ended up collecting about a thousand pairs from them. But that was still not enough. One of her staff created an e-flyer and that was the game changer. “I sent [the flyer] to my friend and suddenly, it went viral: to churches, schools, grassroots organisations… The next thing I knew, everybody was [coming to] our office to bring their used shoes. I was really taken aback by the response. We met our 25,000-pair target in less than two weeks. So many interested donors were calling my staff [whose contact details were listed on the brochure] with their enquiries that he had to change his mobile number,” she laughs.

That was her first drive in 2017 and she collected nearly 50,000 pairs. Last year, she gathered more than 450,000 pairs. We can’t wait to hear how many pairs she will amass this year. In fact, the collection drive is still ongoing and will end on Oct 31; so you still have time to help her reach her target of 500,000 pairs.

As a businesswoman, socialite and philanthropist, Au-Chua has been raising funds for the Kidz Horizon Appeal and the Monaco Foundation for 13 and six years respectively. She is not new to the charity game. She says Soles4Souls is different from other charitable organisations in that it adopts a micro-enterprise model and sells the used shoes it collects for a nominal fee to partner organisations, which in turn sell them to micro-entrepreneurs in developing nations to retail at their own prices.

Au-Chua tells Options in an email that because of her work over the past two years with Soles4Souls, the social enterprise has decided to open its first Asia office and headquarters in Singapore and that she will be on the board of directors for Soles4Souls Asia.

What happens to the shoes after they leave Singapore? Says Teaster: “After we receive the used shoes, we sort them according to their quality [gently worn or more worn]. It turns out that used shoes are a really good business for people. In many countries where we work, there is no shoe industry, so almost all the shoes are imported… The  preference is for less-worn shoes, but there is always a home for [shoes]. The better shape they are in, they more they are worth.”

Soles4Souls’ website presents a success story that has been shared many times over — that of Haitian shoe retailer Marie-Ange Espera, who has been purchasing her stock from the non-profit’s partner, the Haitian American Caucus (HAC), since 2013.

Teaster remembers Espera as one of the pioneer participants in the micro-enterprise programme, and in fact considers her one of its biggest success stories. It was only a few years ago that Espera was destitute — she had no income and worse, was facing eviction. HAC helped her finance her first loan to buy an allotment of shoes and the rest is history. Espera now has a proper home and is able to send her children to school while she continues to grow her shoe business.

For Au-Chua, Espera’s achievement brings to mind this quote: Give a person a fish and they eat for a day. Teach a person to fish and they eat for a lifetime. “I really do believe the micro-enterprise programme helps people to sustain themselves instead of just giving them things without their having to make an effort to make a difference to their lives.” 

Au-Chua clarifies that she does not spend or make a single cent in the process of organising each shoe collection drive for Soles4Souls. “When I collect my targeted number of shoes, Soles4Souls will send over a container [to transport them]. It costs them money to do so, and I don’t spend anything as a result. I just use my warehouse as a base to collect the shoes. That’s my part.”

For more information, visit www.millionlighting.com.sg/CSR.html and www.soles4souls.org


Shoe collection drive
Date: Now to Oct 31
Time: 7am to 7pm
Address: 203 Kallang Bahru, Million Building
Condition: New or gently worn footwear of all kinds