The huge potential of the steadily growing footwear cluster at Mirpur in Dhaka remains unexplored for lack of government support and necessary training of workers.
The handmade footwear cluster, flourishing in the Pallabi area in Mirpur in the capital during the last three decades, is meeting the local demand only, but shoes produced here can also be exported if only the factory owners are provided with the necessary government support, said industry insiders.
If long-term loans at low interest are provided to the factories along with the incorporation of modern technology and training of workers, it will pave the way to further growth of the cluster, they said.
Industry insiders said about 200 handmade shoe factories have sprung up now in the Pallabi area in Mirpur, from a couple of factories in the late 1980s.
With a Tk100 crore annual turnover at present, the footwear cluster has created employment for more than 5,000 technicians and workers, according to factory owners and traders.
Mohammad Akash Ahmed joined a shoe factory at Pallabi as a labourer in 1998. After five years, he was promoted to a technician. He set up his shoe factory at Pallabi in 2004 with a Tk1 lakh capital and three workers. At present, 25 technicians and labourers work in his factory which has an annual turnover of Tk2-3 crore.
Akash Ahmed told The Business Standard, "When I joined as a labourer there were 10-12 factories at Pallabi, but within a decade, by 2010, the number of factories increased to 120-150. Before the beginning of the Covid pandemic, there were around 300 factories in the whole area. During the last two years of the pandemic, one-third of the factories were forced to shut down. At present, there are at least 200 factories in this footwear hub."
"Now I produce about 2.5 lakh pieces of shoes a year, selling to traders from Dhaka and other districts. With the income from this factory, I bought a piece of land at my ancestral village in Kishoreganj and built a house there. I hope to build a house in Dhaka one day with the income from this factory," he added.
Like Akash, another factory owner Nurul Haque has also set up his factory after joining the industry as a worker. "I set up the factory in 2002 with only Tk50,000 capital and two workers. At present, my factory employs 20 people while it had 30 workers before the pandemic. I sell shoes worth Tk10-15 lakh per month."
He also bought land at his ancestral home in Kishoreganj.
Around 80-90% of the factory owners earlier were workers or technicians at the footwear cluster. They set up their self-owned factories after working 5-10 years as labourers and technicians. Besides, around 95% of the owners and workers of these shoe factories hail from the Kishoreganj district.
These small handmade shoe factories have sprung up in Section-11, Lalmatia and Palashnagar areas under the Pallabi Police Station in Mirpur.
Abdul Quddus, 50, started working as a low paid worker at a factory in 2008. At present, his monthly income is over Tk30,000. "I have become a skilled shoemaker in the last 14 years. I do not have any financial crisis now. I brought my wife and children from the village to Dhaka. I hope, in the next 6-7 years, my monthly salary will be Tk45,000-50,000," he added.
The Pallabi shoe factories, however, do not have any owners' association; a major reason for which they are lagging in getting technical training and various financial facilities provided by the government for small-scale industries. They were even deprived of the incentives the government provided for small and medium entrepreneurs affected by the Covid pandemic. The owners and workers do not know anything about the pandemic incentives.
According to sources, the factories in Pallabi produce all kinds of shoes and sandals for men, women and children. The raw materials used for making shoes are leather, rexine, rubber, yarn, solution, foam and dyes, bought from Bangshal, Siddique Bazar or Hazaribagh areas of Old Dhaka.
In the factories of Pallabi, shoes are made with domestic machinery without using any high-quality technology, after getting work orders from traders from remote areas of the country. Many factories have showrooms where shoes are sold both at wholesale and retail rates.
Effect of pandemic
This footwear cluster of Mirpur has suffered huge losses during the pandemic.
According to traders, the factories altogether counted losses worth Tk30-40cr due to the pandemic and around 100 factories have been forced to shut down for good.
Aminur Rahman, the owner of a factory in the Palashnagar area in Pallabi, said, "All the factories were closed during the pandemic. Due to repeated lockdowns, many owners were forced to go back to their villages, shutting down their factories as they could not bear the maintenance expenses including salary of workers and rents."
Despite the flourishing of the footwear cluster, the traders have not received any cooperation, public or private, till now, he added.
At present, no footwear produced in this cluster is directly exported abroad. However, the factory owners are confident that they have achieved the capability to produce quality shoes of different designs. They believe that they will be able to produce high-quality products and export them abroad in future if they get the necessary information, support and training.
Tareq Rahman, 45, has been buying shoes at wholesale prices from various factories of Pallabi and selling those in different showrooms in the capital for the past 20 years. "All the shoes are mainly produced manually. However, the quality of the products is quite good and there is a huge demand for it."
"If modern technology can be incorporated in this industry and shoes can be produced by trained workers following modern design as per the demand of the buyers, the quality of the products will increase more. It will be possible to earn money. The factory owners can be provided with long term loans at low interest for this purpose. This will ultimately pave the way to earning foreign currency by exporting shoes produced in the factories of Pallabi," he suggested.
In this regard, SME Foundation Managing Director Md Mufizur Rahman said, "We conducted an assessment study of the cluster in 2016. But we could not continue maintaining contact with them as there is no owners' or traders' association."
"However, to support the growth of the cluster, we have plans to provide financial assistance and various training to the technicians and workers of Pallabi shoe factories in the coming days," he assured.