Athani, in the State of Karnataka, India is the heart land of Kolhapuri sandals and home to over 400 such families of artisans with a rich legacy. Footwear craft is their only livelihood. Prior to year 2000 most worked as low wage-bonded labour in footwear ‘factories’ owned by dominant traders. Their life and craft were demeaned – they lived on the very edge.
Prior to 1998 skill training and technology upgradation intervention was targeted at men, apart from training some tools were provided which found their way to markets rather than application. It would not be wrong to state that the intervention was not gender inclusive , women were not reckoned as artisans even though it was an established practice that men fashion the hardy soles and women craft the intricate uppers with a role division.
ASCENT initiated Project EnterPrice (Jan 1999 – Dec 2002) sponsored by UNDP with technology support from CLRI (Central Leather Research Institute) and infrastructure by Government of Karnataka, the project objective was ensuring right price for the handcrafted footwear and transforming artisans to entrepreneurs, particularly women.
The core focus was economic development and the core principal was – build, operate and transfer. The business front end and social back end needed constant balancing using an equality, equity and inclusive approach.
The outcome of this intense joint effort is ToeHold Artisans Collaborative (TAC). From a business perspective TAC has been an overwhelming success. The operation has achieved robust revenue growth in recent years and is achieving healthy profits, which are redistributing amongst artisans and self help groups (SHGs) of women in Athani. TAC is now a prominent player in the international market for ethnic footwear supplying international clientele in UK, Italy, Japan and Australia.
The artisans formed their collaborative called the ToeHold Artisans’ Collaborative in October 2000 with their own brand ‘ToeHold’.
The brand is targeted at the niche segment or the class markets rather than mass markets for optimum profitability. The footwear is positioned as ‘fashion accessory’ and not just as craft. 150 women organized into eleven women Self Help Groups jointly exercise ownership of the collective. A Common Facility Center and Raw Material Bank with a Design Studio are set up at Athani (in two Vishwa sheds).