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A British step to help Palestinian entrepreneurs defy the occupation

August 4, 2016 at 9:00 am

Manar Shab’an builds vertical gardens by growing taller vine vegetables above varieties that grow in the shade they provide. In her greenhouses she weaves together vertical and horizontal growing patterns into a grid and recycles water so that the excess from one plant can be used to feed others. It’s vital to maximise the amount of space and natural resources she has in her garden as the Israeli occupation regularly confiscate her land and it is gradually shrinking.

Jalameh, the small village in the north of the occupied West Bank close to the city of Jenin where Manar is from, offers little in the way of resources for new business enterprises. To develop her techniques for growing pumpkins, mint and parsley in this way, Manar looked to an unlikely source of funding – handcrafted, British-made shoes in the English city of Birmingham: Shoes by Shaherazad.

Shaherazad Umbreen’s 18-hour shoe is based on the flamingo – a poised, elegant bird that can stand on one leg for hours. “I just thought, if a flamingo can do it women should be able to do it,” Umbreen tells me, explaining how she used a combination of maths and body weight distribution to make the angle of the heel just right, so the shoes are comfortable to wear all day long.

“Most heels are designed by men which is why they hurt your feet,” she adds. “If you think about many designer brands they just kill your feet and it’s because the angle isn’t right which means your weight is distributed all wrong. So I applied this formula to the heels and it took me two years to figure it out and eventually I got there. I haven’t had a single complaint about the wearability of the heels.”

The shoes are plain by day and sparkle by night – customers can wear them to meetings then buy shoellery to attach, making them suitable for dressy occasions. It’s one shoe that fits all occassions. For photo shoots Umbreen uses “real people” – her sisters’ PA and secretary are currently featured on the site – rather than super skinny models. This is just the start of the ethical dimension to Umbreen’s business.

The 18-hour high heels came into being when Umbreen was 39, already head of customer and marketing at the Co-operative, but contemplating how she could use her skills to help disadvantaged women. “I was getting to that age where you think, what’s the meaning of life, and I just thought, I want to do more than just business, I want to think about how I can invest back into women and alleviate poverty.”

With the prototype in her head Umbreen spent her weekends studying at the London College of Fashion where she learnt to sketch, put her designs together and then developed the concept. She handmade a pair and found a factory which would work with her, all using her own savings. Shoes by Shaherazad has become one of just three ladies shoe companies that are based in the UK since women’s footwear manufacturing moved to Portugal, Italy and the Far East.

The initial idea was that disadvantaged women in Kenya, Pakistan, Palestine and Peru would handcraft the shoes and earn a living this way but it proved too difficult to get access to their workplace and guarantee they would be employed under fair conditions, so Umbreen decided to have the shoes made in the UK and then invest the profits into helping pay for these women’s education.

Each pair of shoes costs around £250. After a sale, what is not put back into the business is distributed between the four countries for women like Manar to benefit from. “I make sure that for each pair of shoes sold one girl can get the bus to school, get her uniform, get her porridge, and gets the things they need that will allow them to then go and get that education,” she says. “From every pair of shoes about three months’ worth of education is what we then give back depending on costs in the country we are giving to. Every pair of heels sold directly benefits a woman or girl in need.”

The money is handed out quarterly through the crowdfunding platform Global Giving. Umbreen initially funded equipment like sewing machines and soap making kits, but she says it’s time to move on and let the women be responsible for the money themselves and choose what they want to do with it. So far, Umbreen has helped 10 female entrepreneurs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza start new businesses and in the last fortnight donated the funds to help a further 15.

With the help of the NGO Tomorrow’s Youth Organisation these women attend seminars, funded by the profits made from Shoes by Shaherazad, on how to craft and design their products, run a business, use accounting software and sell their brand using social media. One of these entrepreneurs is Fathia from Nablus who opened one of the first embroidery shops in the city before it was closed down due to the economic decline in 2003 during the Second Intifada. The training workshops have enabled her to reopen her business and she now sells her products online and at local exhibitions.

Fida is from Ya’bad, a village in the north of the West Bank which has become increasingly isolated with the construction of the Separation Wall and nearby settlements. Fida opened up a nursery for children in the surrounding villages, which has now been formally recognised by the Ministry of Education in Jenin. Other women have set up successful businesses in plus-size clothing, embroidered baby clothing, flower delivery, handmade candles, soap and honey production.

Many of these women have had their schooling interrupted by conflict and the ongoing occupation. Several are refugees; some were orphaned at a young age whilst others are poor businesswomen. “All of them need the money and without the money wouldn’t be able to earn a living and start their own business. That’s the only condition – that you couldn’t have gone out and got the money yourself,” says Umbreen.

Shoes by Shaherazad launched in April this year and within the first week attracted 5,000 followers on Facebook. The business has already been shortlisted for five awards including Emerging SME at the National Women in Business Awards UK. With such success is Umbreen thinking of giving up her full-time position at the Co-operative and investing all her energy into her shoes? “The profits go to the charities in the main so I couldn’t really do it full-time because I wouldn’t be able to earn a living from it,” she says. “I want to keep the essence of it pure as opposed to then starting to take big profits.”

Not everybody is so enthused with the philanthropy side of the business. When Umbreen’s project in Kenya sent her a photo of a workshop built with the money she sends them and installed with six sewing machines which teenage mothers use to earn a living she posted the photo on Facebook and 16 people unliked the page instantly. “If I post a photo of poverty stricken black children I often get unlikes but I never get unlikes at any other time,” she says.

Whilst a small number of Umbreen’s fans drift away with some of the project photos that are posted online, the entrepreneurs themselves continue to develop profitable, sustainable, expanding businesses that are helping not only their immediate families but also the local community. As Manar sold more and more vegetables from her vertical garden she has bought more land, a larger house, and funded her children’s education. She began to share the equipment and the expertise she was accumulating with her neighbours and soon became a co-founder of Jalameh Women’s Society. She leads councils in Jenin and Jalameh and has been endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, who named her one of Jenin’s leading entrepreneurs.

It is women like Manar who are the motivation behind Umbreen’s 18-hour shoes, not the people who won’t buy them because of who they are helping. “I thought about it at the time and I thought, I’m losing fans, but that’s ok because my purpose is to help women that need it so I’m not prepared to compromise on that,” she tells me. “I thought if there are people who are put off by it then actually that’s fine, I don’t want them to buy the shoes.”