In the Right Disha!
Throwing light on a project aimed at providing women weavers with a better future
Disha–a partnership between the India Development Foundation (IDF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), supported by IKEA Foundation–has partnered with Creative Bee in Telangana to implement a one-year pilot project and work with 2,000 women weavers. Brinda Gill reports.
In India, a many-splendoured land, one comes across a wonderful variety of traditional textiles that are woven, embroidered, printed, tie-dyed and painted. These beautiful creations recall the fabulous Indian textiles that were traded from ancient times to regions across the world such as the Indonesian archipelago, Africa and Europe, particularly Rome.
The skills of the Indian textile artisans–most of whom have learnt textile techniques while watching and assisting elders in the family at work–never cease to amaze. With resurgence in appreciation, interest and demand for handcrafted textiles, there is also an increasing interest in boosting the handloom industry that–after agriculture–has long been the second largest employment provider for the rural population in India. At present, the industry has 4.3 million people working directly and indirectly in handloom production.
“However, due to foreign industrial influences and local industrialisation, this sector has fallen prey to low quality dyes in the last couple of decades. As a result, this sector has suffered from poor livelihoods caused by a decrease in demand,” says Mani Rao, second-generation business owner and Head of Marketing for Creative Bee, a Hyderabad-based, for-profit design and marketing firm and social enterprise.
An attempt at correcting this and promoting handcrafted textiles has seen the active engagement of different regional, national and international, governmental and nongovernmental organisations, as well as individuals, in different projects and initiatives. They are working to boost and restore the Indian handcrafts and handloom sector by improving its production quality and in turn, improving livelihoods by increasing demand.
DISHA FOR WOMEN WEAVERS
Disha is a partnership between the India Development Foundation (IDF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and is supported by IKEA Foundation. It aims to help one million underprivileged women in India learn marketable skills and connect with income opportunities. Disha enables women to become economically self-sufficient through training, employment and entrepreneurial skill development so that they, their families and future generations can have better opportunities in life.
In Telangana, Disha has partnered with Creative Bee in January 2018 to implement a one-year pilot project and works with 2,000 women who are involved in weaving-related activities to improve their production quality and increase their livelihood through direct market linkages. This project under Disha is aimed at empowering women artisans engaged in the handloom sector through training, forming their self-sufficient unified collective that produces high quality products, developing a cadre of women marketing managers housed in producer collectives with robust processes for sourcing, and establishing and managing market linkages directly to realise better value for their products through B2B and B2C channels. The project is being implemented in weaver villages in four districts of Telangana, i.e., Yadadri, Nalgonda, Warangal and Siddipet. These districts were selected based on the weaving techniques– especially single and double ikat–that are practised, attempting to keep the project as diverse as possible.
HURDLES FOR WEAVERS MAKE TRAINING COMPULSORY
“For over a century, weavers in Telangana have sold their woven textiles to middlemen. The middleman typically provides the weaver yarn and places orders with specifications regarding the textiles to be woven. When the weave is ready, the middleman pays the weaver straightaway. While this frees the weavers from marketing the weaves and the consequent commercial risks, it also leaves them and their families totally dependent on the middleman. In most cases, weavers are only employed in conversion, which basically means that they are given preprocessed, dyed yarn by the middleman and are only paid for its weaving into fabric,” says Mani.
He adds that weavers most often earn a meagre amount for their work, with the largest chunk of the profits going to the middlemen. “As all the family members are involved in ancillary activities related to weaving such as dyeing and arranging the yarn and setting up the loom, and the male head of the family works the loom, there is no scope for secondary income for a weaver family. Families earn as little as R8,000 a month.”
He elaborates that this system has been carried on to the present times as the middleman sources fabrics from artisans for designers and
DISHA ENABLES WOMEN TO BECOME ECONOMICALLY SELF-SUFFICIENT THROUGH TRAINING, EMPLOYMENT AND ENTREPRENEURIAL SKILL DEVELOPMENT.
THE WEAVERS ARE ALSO BEING TRAINED IN INTERPRETING DESIGN GRAPHS AND MARKET TRENDS SO THAT THEY ARE ABLE TO FORECAST AND MANAGE THEIR PRODUCTION BETTER.
boutiques in cities. “While it makes it easy for the designers and boutiques to get fabrics, the weavers are not compensated fairly for the work done. The difficulties of weavers in trying to sell woven textiles to the end-user and their hesitancy to step out of the system defined by the middleman keeps the scenario as is. Thus, given this context, the project aims to provide weavers with training to participate in exhibitions, interact with buyers, make bills, make travel arrangements and more so that they learn to step out of their comfort zone and reach out directly to the potential market.”
The project commenced in January 2018 and the selected artisans’ weavers were trained in various aspects related to their craft. This training focused on using high quality, globally approved vat, reactive and acid dyes for cotton and silk that are skin-safe and colour-fast; understanding design requirements for bulk orders, changing market trends and design development; and participating in exhibitions in different cities.
The importance of training artisans in using vat, reactive and acid dyes stemmed from the prevailing practice of using naphthol and sulphur dyes that are banned in most of the western world as they are of carcinogenic nature. “These dyes are hazardous for artisans and affect the health of wearers of the fabrics. Further, they are not colour-fast due to which their colours run while washing and by the sweat of the wearer. Due to this, the sector has suffered greatly from the loss of an export market. Thus, if the artisans start using permissible dyes, it would improve their health and make the product consumerfriendly and conducive for export,” explains Mani.
The training also included teaching the artisans tie-dyeing techniques such as Shibori to increase their product range and to help those who do not have looms earn a living by producing Shibori products that can be readily marketed. The weavers are also being trained in interpreting design graphs and market trends so that they are able to forecast and manage their production better.
GOVERNMENT SCHEMES COME TO AID
In order to manage any foreseeable working capital constraints, Disha is also trying to assist in linking the artisans to subsidised Central government loan schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY) and State government yarn and dye subsidy schemes like the Government of Telangana’s Chenetha Mithra Scheme.
WORK IN PROGRESS
Over time, the Disha project through Creative Bee has been connecting the women’s weaving collective to leading fashion and lifestyle retail brands, e-commerce companies and export houses, and holding exhibitions through which the weavers can directly receive and fulfil bulk orders and sell their products. A group of 40 women were selected to form a Manager Cadre and to receive training in matters related to sourcing, production planning, inventory management, marketing, computer skills and e-commerce such as administrating communications with the buyers; accepting
and processing orders; inventory, supply chain and accounts management; costing; computer operation and other tasks related to managing their operations.
Perhaps the greatest learning came when the artisans travelled to cities and met and interacted with buyers and designers. They observed the engagement of the end-users of their products with the woven fabrics and thus understood how their work is viewed by buyers/designers and how their weaves (saris) are worn and yardage stitched into garments. They got an insight into the patterns and colours typically preferred by urban buyers, and into different preferences across age groups as well as different cities, as the exhibitions were held in Hyderabad, Surat, Pune and Kolkata, and will also be held in Ahmedabad and Cochin later this year.
LEARNINGS FROM THE PROJECT
Learnings from the last few months of project implementation indicate several observations. Firstly, direct market linkages especially by participating in exhibitions and direct buyerseller meets enable weavers not only to have good sales and income but also to build their confidence, leading to a better understanding of consumers and market requirements.
Secondly, the master weavers who have hitherto been playing a key role in the handloom sector and in the weavers’ livelihoods cannot be ignored or excluded. For any project intervention like this to succeed, it is critical to make it inclusive by creating roles for different stakeholders, including the master weavers.
Thirdly, once introduced to the concept, the buyers would like to have immediate results, for example, having business directly with the producers’ collective. However, the formation of the producers’ collective is an organic process requiring gestation time. Therefore, the need for an interim facilitating organisation becomes imperative.
Further, in the process of collectivisation, creating a cadre of managers from within the weavers’ groups helps in increasing their buy-in and long-term sustainability. Given the time constraints, in the interim, having a professional layer of managers expedites the strengthening of the producers’ collective and the increase in business orders.
There has been enthusiasm to develop designs and encourage their children to continue the tradition. The partners of the project hope that the weaving collective will gradually become more confident and self-sufficient and forge direct market linkages by keeping up-to-date with changing fashion and market trends, and constantly producing high quality, competitively priced products.
Mani also added that the male weavers were exceedingly supportive of their wives and daughters taking part in this project. “Though patriarchy is largely prevalent in these rural regions, the male members of these communities seem to understand the significance of this initiative and have been encouraging the women to take part in it and learn what is on offer, for the betterment of the family as a whole.” The project hopes that this is a turning point within the situation and that by helping this community earn better through direct market linkages, more second and third generation weavers will opt for the family trade rather than look for menial jobs in the cities.”