Ruth Walker: Shoe giants going back to basics to help out in Africa

HIS name is synonymous with sensible shoes – the kind your mum made you wear to school when all you really wanted were the stack heels all your friends were wearing.

And while his brother Galahad for a time eschewed shoes altogether – singing the praises of going barefoot – Lancelot Clark, heir to the Clarks shoes empire, has gone back to his Quaker roots by committing to a community project very close to his heart.

The septuagenarian has spoken out against aid to Africa from the West, which he maintains has “done more harm than good” – fostering dependency, encouraging corruption and perpetuating a cycle of poverty and bad governance. “What the poor of Africa need are sustainable jobs so they can help themselves, rather than sit around waiting for foreign aid to arrive,” he says,

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With Clarks shoes now in the hands of independent management, he visited South Africa and an orphanage that is home to some of the nearly two million children in the country whose parents have died of HIV and Aids. “I have to admit that I cried.”

The experience has led him to put his money where his mouth is, while focusing one what he knows best. The result is Soul of Africa, shoes made by women in South Africa and sold in Clarks, Next and online.

“The women who are now hand-stitching these shoes in KwaZulu-Natal earn up to three times South Africa’s minimum wage,” says Clark. “With the work, they can support and provide for their families, and are passing on their skills.”

Profits are ploughed back into a charity that supports Aids orphanages and other projects for vulnerable children.

There is a similar message at the heart of Toms shoes. Established in 2006 after a traveller named Blake Mycoskie was shocked to see children in Argentina wandering around barefoot, the firm set out to match every pair purchased with a brand new pair for a child in need.

It may seem simple for most of us in the West, but a lack of shoes doesn’t just mean stubbed toes and the risk of standing in some dog poo. Soil-transmitted diseases, which can penetrate the skin through bare feet, are rife in developing countries. Also, there is the risk of cuts and sores, which then become infected. And, finally but no less importantly, if a child has no shoes, they can’t go to school as in some places they are considered an essential part of the uniform. Therefore, the simple fact of having nothing to wear on their feet means they have no chance to improve their lot in life.

Spurred into action, Mycoskie returned to Argentina with 10,000 pairs of shoes in his first year of business. As of September 2012, the latest figures available, a million shoes have gone to help children around the world.

Toms has since moved into the realm of eyewear, providing eyesight-saving operations for every pair of sunglasses bought and proving, if nothing else, that it’s a brand with real vision.