INTERVIEW: ‘YAAR’ for barefoot farmers: EarthernTunes rooted to ground in shoemaking

Hyderabad-based startup EarthernTunes Design, founded by three enthusiastic alumni of NID, Ahmedabad, came to the rescue of farmers who always walked barefoot


HYDERABAD: Hyderabad-based startup EarthernTunes Design, founded by three enthusiastic alumni of National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, came to the rescue of farmers who always walked barefoot. Their feet are always laden with mud and pesticide residues. They are prone to snake bites and other health hazards.

After thoroughly observing the plight of the farmers in the agricultural fields, EarthernTunes Design has identified a gap – the tillers’ feet need to be covered. Thus, they ideated ‘YAAR’ shoes specifically designed for Indian conditions. In a first-of-its-kind initiative, these shoes are crafted using ethically sourced indigenous wool (handwoven Ghongadi blankets) directly obtained from artisans of Narayankhed and Jogipet in Telangana.

The woolen shoes are water-resistant, as natural indigenous wool possesses this property on the upper side and a PU-molded sole. The indigenous wool helps in quick drying, is odor-resistant and can be worn sock-free. Currently, these stylish shoes are impressing the city dwellers and caught the attention of Telangana IT and Industries KT Rama Rao (KTR), who lauded EarthenTunes Designs for their stylish and lightweight ‘YAAR’ shoes.

In an exclusive interview with NewsTAP, EarthenTunes Design co-founder and CEO Santosh Kocherlakota explains how the company’s products would be one of the best shoes from Dakini wool, providing a permanent solution for footwear for farmers that’s left unaddressed for several years. Here are a few excerpts from the interview.

How was EarthenTunes ideated? What is the story behind the name? How did it grow to what it is today?

The idea of EarthenTunes began in 2018, after completion of my post graduation, along with Vidhyadhar Bhandare and Nakul Lathkar, from NID, Ahemadabad. We initially worked with various start-ups. I worked to design an indigenous wheelchair. Nakul worked on an electric car design for a European company, and Vidhyadhar Bhandare worked on designing seats for Indian Railways. However, all three of us quit our jobs within less than one year as we didn’t want to confine ourselves to office space.

Then we started thinking about addressing a problem for farmers which was unaddressed and began working on a solution for the first one — footwear for farmers. Rather than ideating the startup name in English, we explored several names in Telugu and Marathi. The idea when discussed with my mother who was a PhD in Telugu suggested a name of the startup initiative relating to Earth. So we named it EarthenTunes (Bhoomi Raagaalu).

In 2019, the company was registered upon its incubation at IIT Madras. Currently, the growth has been steady and consistent. We exceeded what we thought and credit should be given to IIT Madras and Telangana Government for their support in the growth. So far, 1,500 pairs of shoes were manufactured and we are aiming to touch 10,000 pairs of shoes by this year-end. In five years, we want to impact the lives of one million farmers.

How did you step into T-Hub?

T-Hub has been mainly mentoring the company and they were impressed with the idea of manufacturing shoes for the farming community from Dakini wool, when we approached them almost two and half months ago. After going through our product, Principal Secretary (ITE&C) Jayesh Ranjan gave a private audience. We always dreamt of meeting KTR and showing our ‘YAAR’ shoes to him because we know Gogandi is a craft in Telangana. Moreover, Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao and KTR were vocal about their support for weavers. We also felt and shared the sentiment.

Our shoes would benefit the farmers and the other goal is to revive the craft of Gogandi. Currently, T-Hub is trying to connect us with organizations actively working with farmers such as agri-hub and other NGOs to market our shoes. At present, our main focus is on sourcing Gogandi from farmers. We have sought the support of Telangana Government and T-Hub in this effort.

We are also exploring all possibilities to relocate our manufacturing unit, currently in Agra, to Telangana which would benefit economically and provide livelihood for the local artisans. Jayesh Ranjan asked us to establish our manufacturing unit in Telangana and assured us of providing all support from the Government and his intention is to promote our ‘YAAR’ shoe brand as a ‘Make in Telangana’ product.

How did the idea of manufacturing 'YAAR' shoes come about? What's the reason for using Dakini wool for it? Can it be used as a formal shoe also?

In 2018, we realized that the footwear in the market was inappropriate for farmers. We spent almost two years interacting with farmers of Maharashtra and Telangana. We noticed several problems being faced by them. Everybody thinks about providing pesticides and remunerative prices for the crops cultivated by the farmers. One common problem that went unnoticed was that none of them had appropriate footwear. While working under the hot sun, or in a sloshy field, all the farmers walked barefoot. This caused deep cracks in their feet and made them prone to fungal infections and snake bites.

To identify a permanent solution and provide footwear for farmers, we traveled to many states in the nation, including Kerala and Karnataka. Initially, we experimented with 20 different varieties of natural fibers, including banana pulp and water hyacinth. Nevertheless, those were failures for various reasons. By the end of 2018, while looking for desi fibers in a village near Hyderabad, we came across Dakini wool.

This is used for making thick blankets or Ghongadi. Apart from being a versatile material, it is also suitable for varying climates because the wool becomes thicker or thinner according to its surroundings. So we decided to manufacture shoes from Dakini wool as it is a rough fabric with long durability and water-resistant, apart from being affordable for the farming community.

The ‘YAAR’ shoe can also be used for formal wear in urban areas as the name ‘YAAR’ itself means friend and our shoes are farmer-friendly. Shoes were priced at Rs 900. The high quality shoes are cross-subsidized for our hard working farmers, making them affordable and accessible. It’s our way of supporting those who feed the nation.

How much funding did you raise and what is the revenue model? Who are your investors and what is the exit route for them?

Most of our investors are family and friends, apart from IIT Madras incubation cell. We have raised our funding up to around Rs 1 crore now and Rs 10 lakh was invested by our family and friends. The IIT Madras has provided grants and soft loans encouraging our product, besides providing access to capital investment. We are very hopeful of getting necessary support from the Telangana Government for our future endeavors. As of now, it is too early to reveal the exit route to our investors.

What is the current presence of Earthen Tunes in India and what are the future plans?

So far, we have sold around 1,500 pairs of shoes and our presence is in 16 States across the country. Predominantly, Telangana and Maharashtra are major markets where we did our research and development in addition to sourcing Gogandi.

Our urban shoes were sold in good numbers in Northern States and to a lot of customers in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The shoes have received a positive feedback and are highly favored by farmers of all age groups. Workers, especially in coffee and tea plantations of Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu and Araku in Andhra Pradesh, are preferring the shoes for their daily use. We are currently manufacturing a batch of 10,000 pairs of shoes in Agra, with 2,500 pairs already in the market under brand name, ‘YAAR’.

Where will you see Earthen Tunes in the next three years?

Our main focus is to reach out to one million farmers in the coming five years and be on the forefront in footwear innovation in India. No one around the world is talking about the footwear required for Indians. We are wearing only the Western models like Nike and Skechers and there should be a scope of encouraging the shoes made out of the materials that are suitable for Indian conditions.

What do the co-founders individually bring to table?

Our co-founder Vidhyadhar heads the quality and material sourcing, and is also the chief technical officer. Nakul is the chief design officer, who also handles all the branding activities and most of the shoes were designed by him. Two more new employees were hired for designing, research and development, sales and marketing.

How are the orders placed directly by the customers apart from the website?

Apart from ordering from websites, we follow a direct to customer model. ITC, Guntur in Andhra Pradesh procured a bulk order for distribution among tobacco farmers. Now, we are scaling up to deliver the orders for the customers through CSR programmes. Once it materialises, we can approach more customers.

Do you have plans to tie up with retail shoe stores like Centro? If yes, have you tied up with any one?

As of now, farming and its allied sectors are our primary focus. To reach out to them, we are arranging stalls near agricultural exhibitions and seed melas. We don't follow the conventional marketing methods for our products. If we tie up with retail stores like Centro and others, we have to add margins. As you keep on adding margins, the final price of the shoes goes up. We adopt a direct-to-customer model as we are not interested in providing margins for retail stores to make shoes affordable for all.

Second model we are actively pursuing is CSR as the prices of shoes can be subsidised further and make sure that it reaches farmers through our network. We are receiving multiple orders from farmers of Maharashtra. Plans are under way to carry out the publicity of the product in an extensive manner through short videos and social media platforms.

Are you conducting any more research and development? Do you have plans to diversify into other products? If yes, with what material?

Currently, our team is working on increasing the shoe size for farmers to 13 from 11 as the farmers’ feet are typically wide and large. We are also planning to manufacture customised shoes for the urban segment, not for the farming community and its allied sectors.

When do you expect to achieve breakeven?

We are expecting to achieve breakeven in a year and half. Our shoe business with respect to the farming community is very less on margins and more on volumes. On the other hand, we are getting decent margins in urban areas and hope to focus more on benefitting the farmers rather than gaining profits.

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