Delivering first aid for feet and a lift for orphans in another world
A man sitting in a small untidy office outside a modest-sized townhouse in central Somerset takes a deep breath and proceeds to tell me, in a few well-chosen sentences, about the evolution of the human foot, Ethiopian leather, the Aids epidemic and how shoe manufacture can help poverty-stricken Africa…
If most people were to attempt such an all-embracing statement you'd probably think they were losing sight of reality – but Lance Clark is arguably the one man on the planet who can do such a thing with real gravitas.
Most readers may already have linked the word shoe to the name Clark – and indeed Lance Clark represents the sixth generation of the well-known Somerset footwear family.
He used to be managing director of the famous brand – now he heads up a remarkable organisation that raises funds for Africa through the manufacture of shoes.
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Notice that I've avoided using the word charity here – Mr Clark is no fan of simple aid when it comes to doling out dosh to Africa. He believes it's a continent that has been more harmed by bucketfuls of aid than helped – and his organisation Soul of Africa has been designed to give the people there the dignity and pride of helping themselves.
It's obviously working. Since 2003, Soul of Africa has helped more than 10,000 orphans, the great majority of whom have been affected in some way by the remorseless Aids/HIV epidemic which has swept areas like Natal in South Africa.
The basics go something like this: shoe manufacture need not be the most technical industrial process in the world – in fact, if the shoes are designed in a certain way, much of the work (like stitching) can be done by people with a basic set of skills and limited amount of equipment in their own homes.
The sale of such shoes will give employment and also raise profits, which can be used to help people in dire need – like those orphans.
Now, a new type of "barefoot" shoe is about to be launched by Soul of Africa – and that gave me the excuse to visit Mr Clark at his home in Street so that I could learn more about the remarkable programme that he has helped develop.
This efficient businessman possesses a big heart alongside commercial realism – as can be witnessed by one of the first tales he tells when we sit down to speak.
"I was asked to go to Natal because it used to be a major employer in the shoe business – and shoes are a low capital intensive business and so should be a big employer in Africa. In Natal there's over 5 per cent unemployment so the government is keen to increase employment in the shoe industry.
"The wife of one manufacturer took me to an orphanage which was a terrible tumbledown shack – the sort of place where little kids come running out and cling to you. A little boy was crying and I picked him up and he laughed – and when I had to go I put him down and he cried. And I cried.
"I gave a bit of money for things like blankets, but then we had this idea to develop a shoe that they could make in Natal and it could be sold in America, the UK and elsewhere…
"It worked very well. And it has gone on expanding and has raised over £2 million in profits.
"There are two million of these orphans in South Africa and, for example, in one of the centres we built, 60 per cent of them are HIV positive. Grannies and aunties are trying to look after a lot of them – and they don't even have enough money to get them to the clinics to get the drugs to save their lives.
"First of all, we started building orphanages – but the policy now is to build centres near where these kids are actually living and the grannies and aunts can drop them in. Now we are training ladies from the centres in infant teaching – and the transformation of these centres is absolutely incredible.
"The kids are sitting down – like they would in an English nursery school – and are actually being taught. So a generation where lots of them would have been completely deprived are being given the chance to get educated."
I asked him if the idea for a basic shoe that could be manufactured by home-workers had come right out of the blue, or was it something he'd thought of before his trip to Africa?
"No – we developed a shoe when I was working at Clark's called the Wallabee, which I launched in Ireland. It was a hand-stitched moccasin – we were making 24,000 pairs a week. They were all hand-stitched in the crofts of Ireland, so I knew from experience how to do it.
"The original Soul of Africa idea was to have the shoes stitched out in the community," Mr Clark told me. "They still are, but we also have women working inside an industrial environment because you have to put the soles on and so on, and you can't do that by hand.
"We've learned that if you want anything to happen in Africa you need first-class local administration. So I have a colleague there who set up the organisation – buying leather, organising, shipping and invoicing… you have to have all that.
"It took about nine months after I first went to Africa before we got the shoe into the shops," recalls Mr Clark.
"I came back and put together the first hand-made moccasin – then they improved it out there. The first shoe was very successful, it sold very well. That was a start and we were raising about £200,000 a year."
Explaining that the main market is the UK and America, Mr Clark told me: "The original shoe was different from any other shoe on the market – it was hand-sewn and it was comfortable and a little bit different. You could wear it shopping or indoors…
"It happened to be a great shoe. We are working all the time to find shoes that are distinctive and a little bit different from the run of the mill. It's a constant balance."
So much for successful retailing – but Mr Clark does feel the weight of responsibility: "We've looked after 10,000 orphans.
"That's a lot. Initially the money went to building centres, now it goes to maintaining and upgrading what we do in the centres – so we are very dependent on the income. It's a constant effort to find original shoes which are different and at the same time we also need to make basic commercial shoes."
Which brought us on to the new "barefoot" shoe being launched by Soul of Africa this week…
"The new shoe we're launching will be made in Ethiopia, which is one of the poorest places in Africa. It will be very important in giving unemployed people jobs there – and the problem with orphans there is as bad as anywhere.
"I visited Ethiopia recently and saw orphans living in a little shack in the most appalling conditions. I asked one girl what she wanted to do and she told me she wants to be a doctor. So, as soon as we are making funds, we are going to finance people like this girl to be a doctor.
"The human foot developed when the rainforests in Africa started to dry up and the monkeys started coming down from the trees," mused Mr Clark as he showed me photographs he'd taken in an Ethiopian museum of the bones of one of the earliest hominids ever found.
"They went around on their back legs, which is a disadvantage because you are much slower, but it meant two things: you could see much further but also you freed up your front legs and they started to develop into hands.
"There's a lot of evidence which shows that people who go barefoot avoid most of the problems – certainly, 30 per cent of women over 40 start to develop bunions, whereas women who go barefoot suffer hardly any of the traditional foot problems.
"When you are walking long distance or running and wear padded trainers you land on your heel, which is not the way the good Lord designed us. If you go barefoot you 'forefoot-land' which cushions the impact. Heel-landing jolts your knees and hips."
Mr Clark had been working on the concept of a "barefoot shoe" for several years – but more recently came into contact with an Ethiopian who had also been developing the idea.
"I went to Ethiopia and met the guy – he had the idea, but no way of making it. I was able to show him. We'd got the product ready and I spent time looking around for the right leather and so on, so it could be made there.
"My son and I had already developed the 'barefoot' business – it's growing fast. "
On a more serious note, the 76-year-old has some profound ideas when it comes to helping people in less-fortunate countries…
"Soul of Africa is about giving people in Africa the means to do something to help themselves," he told me. "There is a book, Dead Aid, that argues that the £3 trillion in aid which has gone into Africa over the past 20 years has done more harm than good. A lot of it ends up in Swiss bank accounts – it also enables the rulers to balance payments without setting up a proper infrastructure. A lot of aid creates massive unemployment. There is this powerful argument that aid is like giving your children too much money – it just puts them off earning it.
"Soul of Africa is giving women the skills and ability, firstly to earn a decent wage – we pay nearly double the normal wage there, so it completely transforms their lives. It's also about the pride of doing something yourself – that is the key. These people need employment, skills and jobs – not aid.
"We have about 130 women working for us in the Durban area, but there are lots of others. The leather has to be cut and so on, so there are other people earning indirectly.
"We have about a dozen centres that we are funding and we have rebuilt a number of schools and started training programmes. We were also funding a hospital. When I was there some babies were brought in – they get a lot of abandoned babies. These two were in plastic bags.
"Now we are caring more for the second-stage orphans. We have a drop-in centre at one place where they can go and do computing. They are growing up and the key is to find them jobs and the give them skills.
"I visit twice a year nowadays," says Mr Clark as we end our chat. "Yes, I often wonder why, at my age, I go through all the hassle rather than sitting in the library and drinking coffee – but when you see what we've been able to do... The last time I was there I was taken to a hospital outside Durban where there's a ward full of kids who are TB drug-resistant – 70 per cent of them are HIV positive.
"These kids are going to be in a hospital for a long time because the drugs don't work, so we built them a school and gave them teachers so at least they are getting something.
"I cried when I saw those kids. But at least we have given them something – and then you know it's worth the effort. There's a sign on the wall there that says 'It's only when you start to help others that you become human'."