Whenever Toyi Swuro — a cobbler from Phek Town in Nagaland, is quizzed as to why he never chose a government job despite completing his graduation, he has his response at the ready.
“I wanted to be independent, self-reliant and contribute to my community.”
The 29-year-old’s journey has been nothing short of unique, and the shoe gallery that he has curated and perfected over the years is a testament to this. Going by the name of ‘Craft Gallery’, the collection houses leather products, such as shoes, purses, belts, upholstery and more, and even produces customised designs based on the customers’ demand.
In addition to this, Craft Gallery is a stop for anyone who is looking to have their shoes repaired, and most of these are done for free by Toyi.
As he goes on to explain how his life took this unusual turn, he says, “It all started with a dream to be different.”
‘I decided to be a full-time leather craftsman.’
Hailing from Phuhgi village and belonging to the Chakhesang Naga tribe, Toyi was an ambitious student and graduated from the Phek Government College with a bachelor’s in arts, following which he worked as a waiter for six months.
It was during this time that the Nagaland resident came to the conclusion that he did not want to be someone’s employee, but instead, be self-reliant and contribute to society.
Why was being a cobbler his first choice?
“In the Northeast, people look down upon menial labour. Professions like cobblers and barbers are frowned upon, and there is no dignity of labour when it comes to these jobs. This is why I chose to take up work as a cobbler to set an example of sorts,” he says.
In addition to this, it was Toyi’s personal experiences as a child that shaped his will to do something for the less fortunate.
“Growing up, I was the eldest in my family, and my father was a local policeman. Having grown up in a humble background, life wasn’t always easy. And so when I had the chance, I wanted to do something that would employ the local youth and do my part to reach out to society,” he recounts.
In the months following this decision, Toyi started small — repairing torn shoes in his bedroom, and soon word spread. People began flocking to his place, and such were the numbers that he decided it was time to start a shop.
Craft Gallery, which started in 2018, was the culmination of a dream that Toyi had — to show people that no work was too menial, while also employing local youth looking for jobs.
Having started the venture with an investment of Rs 3,000 and an awl adhesive and thread, Toyi says his willpower and interest grew it to what it is today.
“As time passed by, I slowly began to learn new things and upgrade my skills through sources on the internet. Soon, I began to attract customers who liked to browse through my finished leather goods such as purses, wallets, bags, shoes, sandals, belts and leather accessories. I never gave up; I kept learning,” he adds.
In 2019, Toyi won the first Northeast Unsung Heroes Red Carpet Social Award under the category of entrepreneurship and was honoured by Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari.
A journey of learning
While he prides himself on his work, Toyi notes that it hasn’t been a smooth ride.
In 2021, as Toyi was just starting to see the fruits of his labour, an unfortunate event occurred.
“In February that year, my unit was burnt down, and all my belongings were charred due to a fire caused by some miscreants. All my machinery and hard labour work was burned down to ashes, but that did not deter me,” he says.
Help arrived in the form of NGOs who lent a hand, and the local people started donating funds to Toyi. His friends also supported him in getting the venture up and running once again. After a period of three months, Craft Gallery was back on its feet.
To date, however, Toyi says the struggles continue.
“Although I chose to be a leather craftsman in order to be self-reliant, there are times when I don’t earn a single penny during the day; times when I’m not even able to buy a cup of tea,” he says. To add to this, he is often at the receiving end of taunts by his friends and relatives who remind him how he could be doing a government job instead.
“But everyone is looking for white-collar jobs,” he interjects. “In my state itself, there are so many educated youth who are unemployed. Whenever any poor kids or elderly citizens turn up at my working unit, I extend my fullest capacities to serve them and only charge them a minimal amount, or sometimes nothing at all,” he says.
Toyi adds that he looks forward to opening up his own company in the next 10 years and employing hundreds of youth, thus empowering the younger generation in self-reliant fields.
He shares that he repairs close to 30 shoe pairs a day, and this alone earns him “Rs 2 lakh a year”. In addition to this, Toyi says they get orders of around 10 leather products in a day.
“These are either customised products that we make for people or ready-made products that people purchase,” he says.
(Edited by Pranita Bhat)