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Globe trotting Kolhapuri chappal

Globe trotting Kolhapuri chappal

Author: Amba B. Bakshi
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: January 28, 2007
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/21906.html

Introduction: Buyers send in their designs online and the artistes put up their products on their website. Toehold Artisans Collaborative has used technology to saunter into highend boutiques across the world

Hollywood actress Cameron Diaz has a pair and now, so does Prince Charles, after Mumbai dabbawallahs carried him a wedding present. The 170 families of Athani village in Belgaum district of Karnataka that make the chappals now have their own Toehold Artisans Collaborative (TAC), owned by 13 self-help groups. The cooperative was started by the Asian Centre for Entrepreneurial Initiatives (Ascent) on a build-operate-transfer basis in 2000.

Today, TAC has over 850 designs and it works only with buyers of high-end boutiques across the globe. A vital role in the making of this success story has been the use of information and communication technology (ICT). TAC was the first enterprise to use ICT in its business model for which it also won the Manthan award. And as the government today prepares to open one lakh rural kiosks, which would provide digital services and link up business to customers and government to citizens in over 600,000 villages, Toehold is an example to be followed.

''We are the first ones to use this business model where in the enterprise is owned by the artisans themselves. Today Ascent only acts as a facilitator but the groups are very able to take decisions on marketing and investments on their own,'' says Madhura M Chatrapathy, trustee director Ascent.

She adds, ''we did not want to highlight the poverty of these people who were from SC/ ST sections of society. We wanted to highlight the quality of their product and ensure they got the best price for it. It is here that we used information technology. We made a website which did not reflect the background of these people but one that was purely business.''

ICT also allowed their products to be placed online for the Indian buyer. In India it also retails in high-end boutiques. ICT more than a business tool also became a learning tool for the artisans. Once the buyer would send pictures of designs it was easier for them to understand than written orders. Also the artisans upload their new innovations and designs on the website. ''A Japanese buyer saw a new design and worked on it a bit and came up a style that became very popular. European buyers also challenged the artisans to make imitations of Gucci and Versace shoes which had a kohlapuri workmanship and they succeeded,'' says Hareesh S Belawadi, joint director Ascent.

Besides the Internet, what has driven their business is the participation in international trade fairs in the areas on footwear adds Belawadi.

Toehold works in a manner where every household is a micro-enterprise and the husband (who usually make the soles) and the wives (who do the surface work on the shoe) are co-enterpreneurs. The financial controls remain with the women. ''We had to this as most of the men were indebted. Today as a result of Toehold 35 per cent of them are free from debt traps.''

The initial funding for the project was given by the UNDP and technical support from Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) but today, 40 per cent of the profits are put back into TAC, 40 per cent to the families and 20 per cent to the SHG. While the production is de-centralised the marketing at Toehold is centralised. The enterprise has even hired its own marketing executive. What they sell to their international buyers for 16 euros, internationally fetches anywhere from 40-100 euros.

As for tips that rural kiosks could take, Chatrapathy says that though it will benefit a lot of people as information will be decentralised, she fears that the major investments will go into the infrastructure and little in the people manning the kiosks. ''These people have to be invested in and to be made aware of what a large role they play in the entire process.''


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