I have to start off by explaining why am I such a fan of Mamahuhu. As a metalhead, having a good pair of boots is a necessity. You don't want to go into a mosh pit, or even stand next to one, wearing flimsy footwear. You'll lose a toenail or slip because BEER. BEER EVERYWHERE. So when I discovered this brand, I just HAD to buy a pair. I don't think they will adopt this as their slogan, but if you want artisan-made boots for moshing...have a look at the pair I got!
One day, I received an e-mail from Mamahuhu's Chief Online Officer asking me (and thousands of subscribers) "What do you think we should do next?"
I replied, asking them about their products and if there was a chance I could visit their facilities. A week later, I was on Skype with Luis Moreno, the founder, talking about life in Colombia, starting a shoe brand, and planning my visit to Bogotá, where the shoes and bags are made.
The story of Mamahuhu began with a cellphone video recording. On a visit to Bogotá, Luis saw a shoemaker working on the side of the street, he took a video, and next thing you know he is collaborating with this shoemaker to design custom shoes for people in Spain. Today, it is a successful shoe company that has been able to sustain its growth without compromising their ethics.
The leather industry in Colombia is informal and 98% of it is comprised of micro and small enterprises. Most of these companies have limited capital and lack the knowledge and resources to innovate and export their products in the international markets.
When I met Luis and read more about Mamahuhu's story, I understood that their business model did more than empower artisans by giving them jobs and paying them fairly. One of the reasons I like them is that they give financing to the shoemakers so that they can open their own shops and hire their own people. This type of business model has a greater impact in communities than the "buy 1, donate 1" model, or being "the boss" who hires artisans to work at your facility. Since Mamahuhu does not own the workshops, the shoemakers are not bound to manufacture their products exclusively, and they are motivated to train more people and think long-term to remain as independent artisans.
As I mentioned earlier, the leather industry in Colombia is very informal. By that, I mean that most small businesses just go day to day, working on whatever they have in the pipeline and with no proper business management systems in place. I'm no stranger to the challenges of starting a business in a foreign country, and understanding these cultural nuances is what makes or breaks a company operating outside its cultural comfort zone. I think this is why Mamahuhu has been successful - they did not come in wanting to "fix" the work culture, they came in looking for partners. And in this partnership, they have given their artisans whatever was needed to become an established business. At some point, they were sharing their accountant with one of the shoemakers to help him run his business! Perhaps some will see this as a matter-of-fact thing to do, but I think this type of relationship is still a rare thing in business.
Finally, my trip to Bogotá is scheduled, and I meet Luis on a late Wednesday morning. Mamahuhu currently works with 12 workshops (not all of them are in Bogotá). The plan for the day was to visit one workshop where the Colorines and Nevaditas are made, and a second workshop where the Viajera bags are made.
The shoe workshop is a family-owned business. Their partnership with Mamahuhu has allowed them to grow, and it was nice to see that the entire bottom floor of the building was under construction! That day, a batch of red Nevaditas was underway.
Over a cup of tinto, I learned more about the shoe-making process. There is a great attention to detail that we might not be aware of as consumers. The leather is cut by hand, and the shoes are stitched and glued by people, not machines! On top of the handmade quality that characterizes Mamahuhu, the company also accommodates special requests. If your feet are too wide, if one foot is slightly longer than the other, if you have size 44 feet - talk to these guys because they will make it at the same cost as a regular shoe! Here's a picture of how they do it - they add an extra piece of thick leather to the shoe mold to make the shoe wider.
These are the molds that are used to cut the soles for the shoes:
There are different types of soles used in their designs, but the smooth sole that is quite popular in Europe has its special design:
In collaboration with Mamahuhu, the shoemakers have also started using a rubber sole that has rice hulls. I don't know much about the technical specifications, but I can at least say that it makes the shoe smell like oatmeal with cinnamon!
I was super excited to see this because I spent a good chunk of my life as a researcher, looking for ways to turn agricultural waste like rice hulls into chemicals and fuel...so the plant biologist in me is a total sucker for this kind of innovation! #plantsareawesome
One thing that I love about artisans is the pride that they take in their work. If you think about it, it is a work of art - to be able to take a thought and make it into a physical object...isn't that what art is all about? I have the worse spatial imagination possible, so it takes me a bit of time to imagine what a product looks like in its pre-assembly stage. If you were wondering, here's what your shoe looks like before it is attached to the sole:
I've always been the startup/small organization type of person. I enjoy moments like this, where you can make decisions in the middle of the office about the leather that you want to use for your next design - no complicated Powerpoints or 7 steps of approval involved :)
The Viajera Workshop
The story of how Efren's business came to be is quite touching. Efren and his colleagues were in a bad work environment, and they approached Luis to see if they could find a win-win solution for both parties...this resulted in the purchase of equipment and the space where Efren and his team work to manufacture the Viajera bags.
Now, if shoe-making is a time-consuming labor of love, I was even more impressed by what it takes to make a Viajera bag! Imagine your regular purse: it has the leather on the outside, cloth lining on the inside, and in between there is a layer that feels like foam. In order to make a bag, the pattern has to be cut three times (one for each layer). Next, the "foam" layer needs to be glued and hammered to the cloth lining, and after that, the leather must be sewn to the lining. Finally, all pieces are put together to create your Viajera! It takes a whole day and a team of 4-5 people to make one bag.
Cutting the cloth lining
Hammering it to one of the strap pieces (this one is particular is not for a Viajera, but for another design)
All of that painstaking labor of love that results in this beauty!
I had a fun afternoon and definitely got a better appreciation of the amount of work and effort that goes behind the making of my shoes and bags.
Again, thanks to the Mamahuhu team for the tour and the nice welcome!
You can see more footage here:
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