For nearly 2,000 years, craftsmen in what is now Pakistan have perfected the art of making shoes, handing skills down in each generation. In the last half century, due to globalization, that industry has collapsed–but now a startup wants to use the global market to bring it back.
“These craftsmen were making shoes for local markets, and then suddenly mass production came, and factories were selling really cheap quality shoes,” explains Waqas Ali, the 26-year-old founder of Markhor, a new shoe company now crowdfunding on Kickstarter. “Because of the economic situation in Pakistan, people wanted to buy cheaper and cheaper. The craftsmen are not business-minded, and they started to lose business.”
In Lahore, where Ali says there may have been 20 or 25 workshops making handmade shoes in 2005, there are now less than five. Artisans who might have spent days stitching shoes by hand are now forced to buy cheap shoe parts from China and assemble them in factories next to unskilled labor.
Ali used to be a physics student with no background in making shoes. But after learning about the craftsmen while visiting his own village on a break from school–and recognizing that people in places like the U.S. might appreciate the quality of the product–he decided to drop out and help bring back the tradition of Pakistani shoes. For the last four years, he and co-founder Sidra Qasim have been working to bring that vision to life, focusing first on men’s shoes because the styles are less changeable than women’s.
This is one social enterprise that isn’t looking to make pity sales: The shoes are beautiful, and look more well crafted than nearly anything else available in their price range (on Kickstarter, an early bird special offered a pair of shoes for $169). The company is working to source locally-made fine leather that’s usually shipped off to Italy. And all of the parts are carefully made by hand.
The startup beat its goal on Kickstarter in the first day, and plans to use the money to set up a workshop to employ local craftsmen full-time, rather than by the job. They will also offer help with education for families and healthcare. But Ali makes it clear that it’s not a charity.
“Companies like Toms and Warby Parker are trying to solve problems in a different way,” he says. “What we believe is that if you just empower the craftsmen to help them provide for their families and their future, they will do amazing things . . . My co-founder and I are from the communities we want to change, and we understand the problems these craftsmen face. It’s not just about the salaries–it’s also about respecting their work.”
As the company grows, the founders hope to start working with some of the other millions of craftsmen across Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. They also hope to help a younger generation regain an interest in the ancient craft.
“Young people don’t want to make shoes,” Ali says. “They would rather become a waiter at McDonald’s, but they don’t want to make shoes. The craftsmen have no respect in Pakistan and India, they’re low rank–we even have a bad word for them, ‘mochi.’ We’re trying to change that.”
The startup also wants to build personal relationships between the craftsmen and customers. “Eventually we will have this small community of craftsmen and consumers connecting and sharing stories–living kind of life we should be living, the kind of life your great grandfather lived–he knew his shoemaker,” Ali says. “You don’t know who made your shoes. You don’t know if your shoe is made by a child in China or a pregnant woman somewhere in Bangladesh. Buying from Markhor, you will know who these craftsmen are.”