Lifestyle

Keeping a Pakistani Artisan Culture from Going Extinct

by Sarah Stankorb

October 24, 2014

Often, the formula for a certain type of social enterprise is this: American/European travels abroad, meets native artisans in a developing country, and creates a way to sustainably bring their goods to market. Markhor is different. It’s a venture founded by a pair of Pakistani natives, supporting their neighbors’ work, using the internet to take local products global, and—along the way—modeling what may be the future for a rising tide of homegrown social entrepreneurs.

Sidra Qasim, 27, was born in Okara, Pakistan. As a girl, her family presented her limited professional options, specifically one—become a teacher. “I want to be a businesswoman or an entrepreneur,” she told her parents. When she got a Google grant to create an impactful, tech-based business venture, her parents were dismayed. Who would give their daughter $10,000? There must be strings attached she didn’t understand—high interest rates, something nefarious. When she left for Lahore to pursue business, her parents told her she would have to support herself.

At the same time, Waqas Ali, now 26, was also coming of age. He grew up in a small town in Punjab and worked his way into a university physics program in Lahore. While in the big city, he also learned about the internet and social media. This made him an ambassador of sorts when he returned to his hometown on break. He visited the panchayat (local meeting) and stumbled upon three men in their fifties doing what older guys everywhere do, blame social ills on new technology. None of them had ever used the internet but were blaming Facebook (then banned in Pakistan) for blasphemy. Ali argued that it was just a social platform, that he used the internet and knew what he was talking about. He asked one of the men what he did for a living.

“I make shoes, handmade shoes,” he replied.

The shoe business wasn’t good. Resources were limited, there was a decline in local demand. The trade was dying. To survive, craftsmen often end up working in factories under unsafe conditions, not making enough to support the education and health of their families. Commonly, they get trapped in cycles of debt.

But Ali—who’d been nourished on a diet of online TED talks and anything Google could bring him, including Zappos—got fixated on a simple idea: Sell the shoes online. He recounts, “I’m still in college, but I believe this internet is going to be a big thing.” It was 2009. To make it work, he needed a business partner. A family friend connected him to Qasim, whom Ali considered one of the most hardworking in his social network.

There were a litany of obstacles for the business they initially called “Hometown.” They each lived in hostels. A local KFC was their office. Their website launched without a payment gateway or online shopping cart. Initially, even when Qasim asked a direct question to one of the mostly male artisans, they would only respond to Ali. And almost none of the artisans thought this online shoe business could work.

“They never trusted anyone would buy a pair of shoes online,” says Ali. The artisans insisted that to buy shoes, customers would have to touch them, feel them, show them to their friends. One artisan though, Muhammad Hussain, was swayed.

“He was the very first person who believed in our idea,” says Qasim. Hussain was a big man, also in his fifties, but he loved to learn. Chatting at the market, he took to talking about Zappos and Amazon. “He was so passionate,” remembers Qasim, “…telling these craftsmen—people who couldn’t get the idea of the internet—that this is a very powerful concept.”

Five days after launch, they sold their first pair of chappals, men’s summer sandals crafted out of leather, to a customer in France. They handwrote a thank you note, a tradition they’ve continued as their business has grown. That first customer talked about his chappals so much that France is still one of the company’s top markets for that shoe.

It got to the point where the company was selling 20 or 30 shoes per month, but as Ali recalls, “we knew that we need to get beyond this. We needed to get a few hundred founding customers.” They wanted to hire more artisans in-house, instead of coming to contractors with orders in hand—“that’s not right… but with the size of our small startup, that is how we kept going.”

Enter Kickstarter. They rebranded the company as Markhor, naming it after a wild mountain goat. Ali describes the markhor as one of the most iconic, rare, powerful, and endangered species on earth, adding, “We believe the craftsmen of Pakistan, of the subcontinent, are as unique and iconic and as rare as the markhor—and they are also an endangered species, so we need to save them.”

Thus far on Kickstarter, the team has raised over $70,000, well surpassing its initial $15,000 goal. They’ve adjusted their sights, now hoping to top $100,000 before the campaign ends, which would allow them to ensure permanent hiring for 20 artisans, and enough to support the health-care and educational needs of their families, especially the education of their daughters.

Markhor has become like family. When Hussain was diagnosed with bone cancer, Ali and Qasim tried to help fund his treatment. Qasim’s voice is still filled with grief when she talks about Hussain’s passing last spring. Hussain’s son has since taken charge of the shoemaking workshop in Okara.

After some effort, Qasim became the primary supervisor of the artisans. She started small, asking them about their dreams, the kind of change they wanted to see in their lives. The craftsmen gradually accepted the concept of a businesswoman, one with a vested interest in their success. Markhor includes women artisans in its Lahore workshop, as well as a female designer.

Markhor is benefitting from a crowd of well-wishers, including dedicated customers from major corporations like Google. Markhor participated in Pakistan’s first startup accelerator, Plan9, and Ali, an Acumen Pakistan Fellow, made his first trip abroad to speak at the Downtown Project (started by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh). Qasim’s father relented and visited her, after two and a half years, at her office.

These small cultural shifts matters as much as financial success to these two entrepreneurs. As Ali puts it, “we are from the same communities we want to help.”

Photos courtesy of Markhor

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Keeping a Pakistani Artisan Culture from Going Extinct