What started out as Nana Au-Chua’s personal initiative has led her to spearhead Singapore’s largest used-shoe collection drive on behalf of US non-profit organisation Soles4Souls. Au-Chua and Soles4Souls CEO Buddy Teaster tell us more about the organisation and the micro-enterprise programme

SINGAPORE (Mar 11): Being one of the most prominent faces in Singapore’s social scene, it comes as no surprise that a woman such as Nana Au-Chua would have amassed an enviable wardrobe over the years — and a shoe collection to match. As such, her interest was instantly piqued when she first learnt that US non-profit organisation Soles4Souls was collecting new and gently used shoes to fund its organisation’s micro-enterprise programme, which provides a constant supply of donated footwear to small retail business owners in developing nations.

“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,” Au-Chua tells Options. It was not long before she found herself emailing Soles4Souls’ CEO, Buddy Teaster, to find out how she could personally contribute.

An accidental success

Au-Chua, who fronts her husband’s family enterprise Million Lighting as general manager and chief operating officer (COO), was disappointed with the response. While she was ready to give away hundreds of her own, she learnt it would take at least 25,000 pairs of shoes for Soles4Souls to collect the donations for its cause.

“To make economic sense for Soles4Souls to come and collect the donations from Singapore, the shoes should ideally fill a 40ft ­container. This amounts to about 25,000 pairs. I wasn’t ready to collect that many pairs of shoes, but since I am a positive person I said, ‘Never mind. Even if it’s going to take me three or four years, I will do it.’ So I started calling and texting my friends to ask them to donate their used shoes and ended up collecting about 1,000 pairs from them. But even then, we still had a long way to go,” she recalls.

It was only after a digital flyer was made by one of the staff members at Million Lighting that things started really picking up.

“I sent [the flyer] to my friend and suddenly it went viral; to churches, schools, grassroots organisations… The next thing we knew, everybody was flooding through the doors of our office to bring in their used shoes. I was really taken aback by the response. We met our 25,000 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 eventually change his mobile number,” she laughs.

Au-Chua’s first used shoe collection effort in 2017 was so successful that she exceeded her target with nearly 50,000 pairs — twice the amount she was originally gunning for. Not long after adopting Soles4Souls as Million Lighting’s official corporate social responsibility programme, the COO went on to hold the second shoe collection drive in the very same year and, in 2018, hit a record-high of 100,000 pairs at the third installation of the event.

As a businesswoman, socialite and philanthropist, Au-Chua has been raising funds for the Kidz Horizon Appeal as well as the Monaco Foundation for 13 and six years respectively. Ahead of Million Lighting’s fifth shoe collection drive taking place from April 4 to 15 this year, she is also preparing to stage a free shoe distribution event for over 500 low-income residents on March 30 in partnership with Singapore’s North West Community Development Council.

Teaster says Au-Chua’s efforts for Soles4Souls over the past two years have met with such overwhelming public response that the non-governmental organisation is even considering opening its first Southeast Asia headquarters here. Although most of Soles4Soul’s operations are mainly focused in Central America and Africa, one of his near-term goals includes broadening the organisation’s regional impact here.

“Most of the shoes collected from Singapore will wind up in Africa, where extreme poverty is still rife, [and] getting the micro-enterprise model there is becoming more and more important. Haiti will always be a focus, as will Honduras. In Asia, we’ve done some work in the Philippines, so we would like to see whether we can use the [used shoe] collections there,” he shares.

“To be fair, when Nana first wrote in to me I was pretty sceptical,” admits Teaster, who visited Singapore in late February to discuss the possibility of the expansion venture.

“A lot of people think collecting 1,000 pairs of shoes is already a big deal. So, when they find out they have to collect 25,000, they’ll usually say, ‘I’m out.’ Nana is a gem of a person who didn’t do that… The very fact that she put her reputation on the line and involved so many members of her team to do this means a lot to me.”

Au-Chua revelling in the fruits of her team’s labour following Million Lighting’s third shoe drive, which saw more than 100,000 pairs of shoes collected over two weeks in April 2018

Enabling self-sustenance

The micro-enterprise programme is but only one of several aspects of the not-for-profit social enterprise’s initiatives to achieve its goal of “wearing out poverty”. Founded in 2006 in Nashville, Tennessee as a disaster relief organisation, ­Soles4Souls now works with over 100 footwear brands, including sportswear giants Adidas and New Balance, to distribute brand-new, unworn shoes to disaster victims, developing nations and the underprivileged.

While Soles4Souls and its brand partners bear the costs entirely in these cases, its micro-­enterprise programme sells the used shoes it collects for a nominal fee to partner organisations, who in turn sell the shoes to micro-entrepreneurs in developing nations to retail at their own prices.

“After we receive the used shoes, we sort them according to their quality [that is, 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 anyway… The real preference is for less-worn shoes, but there is always a home for everything. The better shape they are, they more they are worth,” says Teaster.

“Often, new shoes are beyond the price range for the entrepreneurs we are selling to, so used shoes are the only way they can access any kind of footwear [to sell]. These shoes aren’t going to a thrift store where they [go through various selection processes before being sold]. They go right from Nana’s closet to somebody in Zambia, for instance.”

Most of the used shoes collected in Singapore will be sent to Africa, where Soles4Souls recently established its microenterprise programme in the rural communities of Sierra Leone, says Teaster

An example of a retailer who has benefited from this programme is Haitian shoe retailer Marie-Ange Espera, who has been purchasing her stocks from Soles4Souls’ 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 the programme’s biggest success stories today.

“The prices differ by country. As an example, in Haiti, we sell a pair of shoes to HAC for about US$1 ($1.35), who in turn sells it to someone like Marie-Ange for US$4. Aside from using it to cover its transportation and customs costs, HAC takes the US$2 it made in profit to fund its school and other non-profit programmes. Meanwhile, Marie-Ange might decide to sell that pair of shoes for US$10 so that she makes US$6. Before she got involved in the programme, she was buying really poor-quality shoes at US$8 a pair, and still selling them to others for US$10,” illustrates the CEO.

“When we first met Marie-Ange, she was ­really on the edge and about to lose her home. In less than two years [after joining the programme], she went on to buy her own land. Today, all eight of them [she and her seven family members] including her kids and grandkids live under a roof on that land, and it’s all from the shoe business and her hard work.”

Yet, Soles4Souls’ micro-enterprise business model — which was established with the aim of creating and sustaining business opportunities for those struggling to find jobs in underdeveloped nations — is often misunderstood, especially because the used shoes exchange hands at a cost instead of being given away for free.

“[Soles4Souls] earns about 70% of our revenue from selling shoes. We also have a travel programme where we organise 25 to 30 trips [for individual volunteers and private groups to developing nations] a year, so we also earn some revenue from that. The income from both the micro-enterprise and travel programmes are used to help fund disaster relief and the free distribution of new shoes [from our brand partners] for short-term relief,” explains Teaster.

“As soon as we say, ‘We sell shoes to poor people’ for the programme, the response we usually get is, ‘You’re terrible!’ But nobody has ever been made self-sustainable by receiving free things, right? There will always be used shoes. Tens of millions of them will wind up in the trash. What we do is turn this into an opportunity for others… The outcome has allowed entrepreneurs like Marie-Ange to buy a house, to send their kids to university.”

Au-Chua chimes in: “I’ve always liked this quote: Give the 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.”

Million Lighting also partners schools in Singapore that host their own events to collect used shoes for the lighting company’s Soles4Souls initiative

To be clear, the Million Lighting COO maintains she does not spend, nor make, a single cent in the process of organising each shoe collection drive for Soles4Souls: “Whenever 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.”

Million Lighting’s fifth shoe drive and the first for 2019 is set to take place from April 4 to 15. Those who wish to donate new or used shoes may do so at the loading bay of the company’s office building at Million Building, 203 Kallang Bahru, from 7am to 7pm daily.

For more information, visit www.millionlighting.com.sg/csr.html or www.soles4souls.org

This article appeared in Issue 872 (Mar 11) of The Edge Singapore.

Subscribe to The Edge now