It was while working with artisans in Kutch during her NID (National Institute of Design) days that Neelam Chhiber, co-founder and Managing Trustee of the Industree Crafts Foundation realised the dire need for financial independence of the women in that region – not only in terms of employment but also in terms of ownership of enterprises.
Chibber saw how the market system was alienating artisans from their final consumers, leaving them at the mercy of middlemen who would take heavy bites on their profits, not even providing them the market rates.
In order to resolve this issue, Chhiber tried to connect the artisans directly to consumers by setting up a group of collectives called the Mutual Benefit Trusts (MBTs).
Her social enterprise, ‘Mother Earth’, which has stores all over the country enabled the artisans to put their work on display as well as connect them with large stores and value chains.
But after a while, she realised that even setting up collectives was not enough. What was needed was a very strong market to sell whatever was manufactured. In order to have a strong market, however, artisans had to be skilled enough to make products of good quality.
So, she started upskilling these women, at the same time not bringing about any drastic change as regards the larger ethos behind their traditional craft. That is basically how the Industree Foundation started.
Over the last 17-18 years, Neelam and her team has ensured that rural communities become part of mainstream value chains with global brands such as IKEA, H&M, Future Group and Indian brands like Fab India. They have also ensured that the artisans have greater control over their economic security and resources in order to significantly improve social gains such as social security, better health care, improved resilience to crisis and overall resilience.
The Industree Foundation works with banana bark from plantations in and around Madurai, Tamil Nadu, bamboo from North Karnataka and the Coorg area, and saal and siyaali from Odisha. They have also set up an apparel and textile value chain in Karnataka, as well as units and factories in rural Andhra Pradesh and Telengana.
They set up these units and handed them back to the producers, after having upskilled them and setting in systems and processes to match the global and international need for their products. They take care of the quality, deliveries, having a safe factory compliant to the law of the land etc. They are also trained on market connect and costing.
The Industree Foundation makes sure that these rural women can sustain their livelihoods for a long period of time and not just left unattended once they are trained. They place the women in a position where they are able to continue to earn, whilst taking ownership of their enterprises. The foundation engages them in sustainable livelihood options, so that their overall welfare also improves.
Murugeshwari (25), a mother of two children, is a basket weaver at the Tamil Nadu-based producer unit incubated by Industree Foundation, which teaches artisans to manufacture products using natural banana fibre. These women are taught how to convert the banana bark into ropes, strips and fibres to produce high-quality lifestyle products that are sold to global supply chains, including brands like IKEA. They are trained on both hard skills like banana bark product development, as well as soft skills development like leadership, and entrepreneurship.
Before Murugeswari joined Industree, her husband had been the sole breadwinner of the family, making it difficult for them to make ends meet, especially during the pandemic. The POWER project funded by USAID was a crucial resource for her and her family because it ensured continued employment throughout the pandemic and enabled Murugeshwari to support her husband and children financially.
The work-from-home model that she is engaged in allows her to take care of her children and also look after her kids and her household. The model suits her daily life so well that her overall productivity has increased over time. Murugeshwari used to make one basket a day, but, after having gradually mastered her weaving and time management skills, she can now make two baskets a day. She even wakes up earlier than usual on certain days and manages to weave three baskets a day. After having mastered the skill herself, she passed it on to her sisters, who have now joined as weavers under the POWER project.
Murugeshwari states, “Opportunities to learn something new come rarely. But when the opportunity knocks on your door, one should take it and work well, and always strive to go to the next level.”
Thilagavathy is a supervisor at the GreenKraft unit in Tamil Nadu. She joined the unit in December 2019 and is a mother of two children.
At the young age of 18, she was married into a farming family due to poverty and social compulsions, and her husband struggled to sustain the family with his earnings from cattle rearing. Through the POWER project funded by USAID, Thilagavathy is also supporting her husband to make ends meet and provide quality education for their children.
As a Tamil 10th grade graduate, Thilagavathy always aspired to study in an English medium school, which, unfortunately, her family couldn’t afford. She and her husband made sure that her children do not face the same fate and ended up procuring loans to send them to an English medium school. After joining GreenKraft, a 100% producer-owned company funded by the POWER project, she started earning enough money to help share her home’s economic burden, and now, they are living a debt-free life after paying off their loans with her income.
Since Thilagavathy has felt the change brought about by the POWER Project after she joined the GreenKraft unit in December 2019 as a weaver, she has strived to excel in her work, whilst bringing other women from her community into this program. Initially, the unit started with just seven producers, but with Thilagavathy’s will and determination to help the women in her community, she was promoted to the position of supervisor and was influential in bringing seventy new beneficiaries into the producer unit under her leadership.
Currently, Chibber is committed to training 40 more women producers to help them thrive in the workforce and be economically empowered.
Thilagavathy says, “Through this company, I have grown and progressed to this day. I want this company to become more successful in the future.” From a housewife to a confident producer and leader, Thilagavathy is an exemplar of the POWER Project’s pillars of being enabled in the economy, succeeding as an entrepreneur and prospering in the workforce. She knows that she has ownership in her company and wants to help her fellow producers to move towards self-achievement and financial liberation.
It is time that we create more such initiatives for people in impoverished areas of our country in order to ensure exposure to the wider market, as well as avenues for growth and skill development.
Check out Industree Foundation’s website here.
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