Hustlenomics: Will the art of shoe-shining ever end?

Shoe shining has defied time and seasons. In every town and hamlet, shoe shiners are busy making us look neat and presentable. In Nairobi, shoe shining has been elevated with elegantly-designed racks where you sit on a pedestal as your shoes are cleaned.

My most memorable encounter with shoe shining was as a National Youth Service pre-university recruit at Gilgil where your boots had to shine until you could see your face reflected on them. This is an art in itself that involves heating the boot’s surface before applying polish.

The art of shoe shining might be driven by the belief that your admirers start with the shoes. This may be contested.

The other parts of your attire might be harder to refresh and take longer. Imagine having your shirt, skirt or trouser ironed throughout the day. Carrying around a shoe brush and polish is not fun, unless you have a car.

The persistence of shoe shining is an indicator that our economy has not grown as fast as expected. With more affluence, more people would drive and more streets would be paved, reducing the amount of mud and dust, the two drivers of shoe shining, that we encounter. You’re unlikely to visit a shoe shiner if you drive or are chauffeured.

Those who have travelled abroad to developed countries quickly note that the demand for shoe polish is low. I used a medium-sized Kiwi shoe polish for six years while in the US –and came back with it half full.

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Official shoes

Shoe shining has persisted in Kenya for another reason: it’s hard to automate. But after car washing was automated, it might just be a matter of time before shoe shining follows suit.

What of footwear material that needs no polish? How long will the belief in ‘official shoes’ persist? Why can’t sports shoes be official?

Ever noted that shoe shining is a business dominated by male clients?

Rarely do you come across women shining their shoes by the roadside. Possibly because we shine their shoes for them!

If you get a ride from a woman or drive your wife’s car, you’ll quickly note it’s a mobile boutique with several pairs of shoes. One pair for driving, one for the office, another for emergencies and one for running errands.

Even women who don’t drive carry around an extra pair of shoes. I saw that when someone’s high-heeled shoe snapped on the street and she just got into her bag and pulled out another pair. I’d love to inspect the contents of ladies’ bags. 

Women are a shoe shiner’s number one enemy for another reason: most of their shoes are made of ‘air’. What is there is to shine?

The future of shoe shining is tied to the economic fortunes of a country.

The number of shoe shiners per square kilometre might be a good proxy measure of a country’s level of development. 

When did you last visit a shoe shiner? Why did you do so? Was the shoe shiner a man or a woman? How did you feel when your shoes started glowing?

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National Youth ServiceShoe shining