Feet first

 

While some of us struggle to manage our shoe collections, many children have no footwear at all. A young American entrepreneur hopes to rectify the situation, writes DEIRDRE MCQUILLAN

WAY UP in the mountains of northern KwaZulu-Natal, about a seven-hour drive from Durban, hundreds of children are waiting eagerly in their classrooms for a delivery of new shoes. Many students trek daily to Juba's school in their bare feet through dense forestry and across rivers - when it rains, conditions become even more arduous. It is not unusual in these remote rural places for them to face a walk of nearly two hours to and from school each day.

Today, however, three vanloads of Americans are coming to distribute 50,000 free canvas shoes called TOMS in all colours and sizes that are already cult items sported by a more privileged elite living in very different circumstances on the west coast of the US.

The story of TOMS began when Blake Mycoskie, a 30-year-old Texan and former philosophy student living in Los Angeles, went to Argentina for three weeks in January 2006 to learn how to play polo and discovered the alpargata, an inexpensive traditional rope-soled espadrille worn by the gauchos. Mycoskie, the son of an orthopaedic surgeon and a best-selling cookery writer, was also struck by the barefooted children living in poverty in the area, often scrabbling around rubbish dumps, their feet cut and bruised.

An entrepreneur who had masterminded a number of successful ventures, he got the idea of upgrading the alpargata for the US market and for every pair sold would donate another to a child without footwear on a one-for-one basis. So, with his polo teacher, Alejo Nitti, as partner, he set up TOMS, derived from "Shoes for Tomorrow", enlisting the help of a factory in Buenos Aires. The hip new alpargata, which costs $4 to make and sells in the US for $38, came with improvements such as a hard-wearing rubber sole, leather insole and zany, colourful canvas uppers. The initial run, an investment of $2,000, was 250 pairs, which Mycoskie brought back in duffel bags to sell in LA.

A year later, TOMS has become an astonishing success story with some 10,000 pairs sold in the space of eight months through its website, www.tomsshoes.com, and in shops such as American Rag, a famous fashion store in LA, and trendy Scoop in New York's meatpacking district. Celebrity endorsement from the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Keira Knightley and Cameron Diaz fanned the flames and the shoes won a Smithsonian design award last October. The lightning speed of the idea and enthusiasm for the product and its cause has taken all those involved by surprise, not least the company's founders, who were initially overwhelmed with orders following widespread publicity for their story.

In keeping with the pledge to give one away for every one sold, Mycoskie and a T-shirted, gum-chewing team of family and friends flew to Argentina last October to distribute 10,000 pairs from a double-decker bus. What that meant was going into the northern Argentine jungle and fitting each pair on every child, working tirelessly until no bare feet were left. For all concerned, it was an extraordinary and, at times, very emotional experience.

Now the focus has turned to South Africa, where in tandem with Food4Africa, an NGO feeding 16,000 malnourished children a day in the Eastern Cape, the TOMS shoe bandwagon rolls into action. They arrive armed with a consignment of 50,000 pairs of shoes from Argentina and face a back-breaking schedule of visiting at least four schools a day in widely scattered, disadvantaged areas. The groundwork was prepared and schools selected by three hard-working members of Food4Africa.

The group of 25 workers are mostly Americans and volunteers from the company and interested friends of TOMS. The team includes Mycoskie, his mother Pam, father Mike and brother Taylor, alongside Alejo Nitti, a distributor from Korea, and assorted Californians, cameramen and photographers. A key player in organising the event was Candice Wolfswinkel from Phoenix, Arizona, who has extensive experience in managing charitable foundations. Boxes and boxes of shoes, from tiny TOMS in red and white stripes to colourful tartans and corduroys, are loaded into vans.

The drill is to arrive at a school, set up in one of the classrooms, line up the children, then fit the shoes on their little feet. The delighted, if often bemused, smiles on their faces is reward enough, though there are occasional disappointments when the right size isn't available, pacified by promises to send on replacements. The sheer entertainment provided by the madcap Californians who came with skateboards and played football with the kids outweighs everything else.

"They'll talk about this for weeks afterwards," says Mr Myeni, the principal of Jubas school, after hundreds of children had received their shoes, sweets and colourful elastic bands handed out by Pam Mycoskie. "They have enjoyed this so much. It's been more than just shoes. By playing, running and laughing with them, your coming has been a blessing," he said.

The area around Juba is spectacularly beautiful, with lush green hills and panoramic views, but the reality on the ground paints a grimmer picture. In a country with some 2.2 million children orphaned under the age of 17 and 65 per cent living at home with teenage heads of households, so-called child parent families, this district is one of the most economically deprived in all of South Africa. There is 80 to 90 per cent unemployment and the generation of parents from 20-49 has been all but wiped out by HIV/Aids. Many of the children so eagerly trying on their new shoes had come to school on empty stomachs.

Sisizakele Special School for children with disabilities was set up five years ago, the first and the only one of its kind in a population of 108,000, and some of the problems are only too evident. Run by a dedicated principal, Lorato Jood, three teachers and voluntary house mothers, it caters for 40 children, most of whom have congenital disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Aperts syndrome and autism. There are more than 1,000 children needing special care, but there is only one therapist in the area. Sisizakele can only cope with 40 children.

Many of the children, ranging in age from two to 16, were in wheelchairs or leg irons. One little boy could only walk struggling on his knees. But they sat and sang, and those that could danced a traditional stamping Zulu dance. Their housemothers sing May You Stay Forever Youngfor the guests. In return, much to the amazement of the gathered throng, two of the Californians lunge into an impromptu Zulu dance that puts smiles on the faces of even the most severely disabled kids.

FOR THESE YOUNG US philanthropists, the experience validates a collective belief that there are new ways of doing business to which consumers will respond. Many refer to Invisible Children, a documentary about child soldiers in Uganda made by three film school graduates from Los Angeles that had an enormous effect in the US of raising awareness of the issues and prompted the setting up a charity called Invisible Children.

"Youth in the US are organising in a major way like never before using new media for discussions," says Mike Hammer, who runs TOMS intern programme in Los Angeles. "People are finding creative ways to raise awareness of issues. We should do all that we can to use our privileged position to make the life of those struggling in the world better - that is the whole idea of TOMS."

Such lofty ideals, also echoed by other TOMS crusaders, are all very well - the venture sometimes raises more questions than it answers. According to Summer Rayne Oakes, the so-called "eco-model" who is also part of the group, "fashion can raise awareness. A simple shoe has an amazing story behind it and students can be transported to an entirely different world and learn about different cultures and developing countries that was interesting for me, an inanimate object that kids get." A qualified scientist, Oakes is to present a series on sustainability for the Discovery channel this year and has spoken on the issue at the WTO.

On the five-hour road journey back to Durban, Candice Wolfswinkel argues that "consumers have so much power. The millennium generation are much more conscious consumers and this company is one of the few making a product that makes a difference. TOMS is just a beginning, but there is so much potential. People don't need TOMS, leather shoes can be better, but it is the principle behind it that's important. It is showing business owners that they can make a small change in the world if they are willing to give up some of their profits."

TOMS shoes are on sale in Brown Thomas for about €40