RAPID urbanization has had an effect on the city of Okara too. Situated in south-west of Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore, it is famous for agriculture and its local craftsmanship of handmade leather chappals (sandals) . However, with increased literacy rate and urban-pull factor, the craft is slowly dying.
Waqas Ali, a college dropout and resident of a small village near Okara, decided to do something about this particular dying legacy. He chose ‘information technology’ as his primary tool for this mission. With his co-founder, Sidra Qasim, he founded Markhor in 2012, an e-commerce startup to connect local craftsmen with potential customers who would appreciate their time-honored craftsmanship. In a short span of three years, Markhor made a customer base spanning the globe including the USA, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Hong Kong and India, expanded its design range of shoes and accessories and above all, completed Pakistan’s first crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.
They reached 75 percent of the initial campaign target of $15,000 in 45 days. The startup received support locally as they won the P@SHA Social Innovation Fund with a seed-money of $10,000, got incubated at Plan9, Pakistan’s largest technology incubator and have been affiliated with Acumen. Their journey has not been as smooth as some other startups in more developed ecosystems at a similar stage; they have been through the grind but they are a quick study.
Waqas and Sidra learnt and adapted quickly and made a rapid success. Coming from humble, rural background the duo had immense social and economic barriers to fight against. However, each silent confrontation with the society brought them more clarity and a deeper motivation to do better. Sidra and Waqas, the very resilient co-founders of Markhor, present a brilliant mix of ‘focus’ and ‘passion’, two essential elements for a startup success. Markhor has been selected for Y Combinator’s 2015 class.
With an acceptance rate of less than 3 percent, which is even lower than IVY League Colleges, the program promises prestige, competition and experience. To add to the distinction, the startup is the first from Pakistan to be selected for the accelerator program.
As the ‘numbers’ grow for Markhor, its team has expanded as well. Each member brings a particular skill set to the table that has added value to its operations and streamlined the processes such as order management and shipping, formerly an area of concern. At the other end, back in Okara, the workshop facility has been expanded to accomodate more craftsmen and improved tools.
The centuries-old art, with the introduction of technology, now reflects a fine blend of modern design and traditional craftsmanship. Design graduates of the Markhor team translate global trends for the craftsmen who then use local methods to produce quality handmade shoes. Friends, as Sidra and Waqas refer to their customers, share testimonials with a particular attention to the comfort, reasonable price and the personalized service Markhor offers; a letter hand-written by Waqas is sent to each ‘Friend’ with the order shipment. The startup is making a mark at many levels.
With its friendly customer service and professional conduct, Markhor is promoting a softer image of Pakistan, a country fighting terrorism, stereotypes and unfavorable economic indicators. Technology, being an integral component of the startup, has opened a new, previously unexplored avenue for the local community back in Okara and adjacent villages. Their dying craftsmanship has found patronage and is now being appreciated globally.
The young ones are thrilled by the possibility and opportunity this ‘new’ world offers them. Furthermore, Markhor has been a source of validation for starups originating from Pakistan in the global market; the contribution has indirect economic contribution as the next milestone achieved will further strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Pakistan that awaits its first $100 million startup.
— NABEEL AKMAL