For generations, the rough wool of the sturdy Deccani sheep has been handcrafted by the Kuruma and Kuruba -- pastoral communities spread across the Deccan plateau -- into a tough, all-weather shawl called a gongadi in Telangana. Now, this resilient fabric has been repurposed into all-weather shoes for farmers by three alumni of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.
“The romantic notion of being barefoot is very dangerous. When we met farmers, cracked feet, fungal infections and snake bites were the norm for them. We wanted to do something about it and the result is this shoe,” says Santosh Kocherlakota, who started his career as a transportation designer aspiring to work for the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini before he turned to an exigent problem faced by farmers.
“For a short time, I worked to design an indigenous wheelchair. Then I and my friends realised that design thinking can be used to solve real-world problems and not just to design Ferraris and Lamborghinis. We spent 1.5 years in various places in rural Maharashtra to understand the problems faced by farmers. We shortlisted the problem of shoes and started working on it,” says Mr. Kocherlakota.
Nakul Lathkar, who worked on an electric car design for a European company, and Vidyadher Bhandare, who was designing seats for Indian Railways, also pooled their resources and enthusiasm to listen to farmers and understand their needs. “I learnt to crochet in nine hours and managed to stitch this shoe,” says Mr. Lathkar, showing off one of the prototypes. When they learnt about the gongadi and its waterproof qualities, Mr. Kocherlakota and Mr. Bhandare put the shawl over Mr. Lathkar’s head and poured water on him to prove it.
Their first batch of 30 shoes sold out in just five days in Mr. Bhandare’s Kolhapur village. But once they got ₹10 lakh as incubation funding from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, the team got to work in earnest and the result is footwear that would not be out of place in any shoe boutique in the world. The team tested 40 prototypes, including some made with jute, banana fibre, cotton, screwpine fibre and even water hyacinth fibre, before identifying the Deccani wool.
One of the problems the designers faced was in making the polyurethane sole stick to the woollen upper. “It is a rough fabric and we found it difficult to find an adhesive to make the two materials stick,” says Santosh. Their workaround solution was to mould the upper to the sole. The shoes are now being cross-subsidised, with a price tag of ₹2,500 for coloured models sold in urban areas, allowing farmers to buy the undyed black version for just ₹900.
While many designs stay on paper or reach the prototype stage with great difficulty, the trio is currently manufacturing a batch of 10,000 shoes in Agra, with 2,500 already in the market under their ‘yaar’ brand name.
ITC bought a large number of shoes from the initial batch for distribution among tobacco farmers in Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. “It was a moment of joy as we could see our designs helping people. The woollen fabric appears natural when worn. It doesn’t require socks and is waterproof,” says Mr. Kocherlakota.