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‘Our pandemic response strategy has three main pillars: lives, livelihoods and life after COVID’

Neelam Chhiber, Co-Founder and Managing Trustee, Industree Foundation, about their ‘POWER’ project that focuses on decentralised ownership for artisans and preparing them to market their handmade products on global platforms

Written by Shiny Varghese | New Delhi | Updated: November 27, 2020 10:50:19 am
Neelam Chhiber, Neelam Chhiber Industree Foundation, Industree Foundation, Industree Foundation power project, handmade products, rural artisans, indian express lifestyleNeelam Chhiber, Co-Founder and Managing Trustee, Industree Foundation. (Photo: Industree Foundation)

Neelam Chhiber, Co-Founder and Managing Trustee, Industree Foundation, about their ‘POWER’ project that focuses on decentralised ownership for artisans and preparing them to market their handmade products on global platforms.

How did POWER emerge as a project?

Industree has been working with rural women producers in Tamil Nadu, the Kui tribe in Odisha, and the Medhar artisan community in Karnataka to design and produce Natural Fibre and Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) since 2017. In 2019, we entered into a partnership with the US Agency for International Development (USAID). With this funding, we have built an ecosystem that works with communities in India to equip them with the necessary skills and tools to set up self-owned enterprises close to their homes. Currently, we have 28 women-owned enterprises in the creative manufacturing sector that will strengthen the resources of 6,800 women producers. Indirectly, nearly 54,560 members of the community will benefit from this.

Tell us about the bamboo incubation centre and what kind of research is currently happening there?

Industree has been working closely with rural underserved women producers and indigenous tribes for the last 24 years. We are currently focusing on four major areas in India, which have a notable rural population. For instance, the Medhars of Karnataka have been an integral part of the bamboo value chain since 1200 AD. However, they lacked the skill and techniques to market their work. Hence, we opened the Bamboo Resource Centre in Channapatna in Karnataka in August 2020. It will house a “Livelihoods and Business Incubator” which will help artisans, including Medhars, develop new products well-suited for global and Indian buyers and will showcase their rich and diverse products.

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What is your mentoring process like?

We use the 6C model, which is an enabling ecosystem builder. Let me explain. We first find the right place and land to undertake Construction. This includes setting up of a physical production unit, because setting up of a banana basktery unit will need different specification than a bamboo or an NTFP production unit.

Then, we make sure that this location is accessible to our Channel partners, thus allowing us market access. Our designers then Create simple yet classy designs for the Indian and international markets. In order to put our created designs into reality we look for Capital investors. We then train the women to have the Capacity to deliver the finished product through various skill building and training sessions. Finally, we Connect with the larger audience through various digital platforms. In fact, one of our artisans, Ashwini, from the Medhar community had this to say: ‘People think Medhar work is not respectable. But I want to come here, learn, earn for myself and family and see this company grow and gain respect.’

Neelam Chhiber, Neelam Chhiber Industree Foundation, Industree Foundation, Industree Foundation power project, handmade products, rural artisans, indian express lifestyle Industree has been working closely with rural underserved women producers and indigenous tribes for the last 24 years. (Photo: Industree Foundation)

What according to you are India’s challenges, especially in the handmade sector?

The last decade has been a tumultuous one and has presented a range of uncertainties. The cracks in the economic system have become wider than ever before and calamities from climate change, including pandemics such as COVID-19 have intensified.

At Industree Foundation, we have expanded our pandemic response strategy, which consists three main pillars: lives, livelihoods, and life after COVID.

COVID-19 has driven home the point Industree has been making since the very start. Distributed manufacturing with decentralised ownership will not only raise incomes to support individuals move out of poverty, but will also provide the necessary resilience in a crisis. That our teams were able to seize the opportunity to make handmade baskets and home products in a new work-from-home methodology and that the producers were able to adapt to the changing requirements while sitting within the safety of their homes, and continue to get an income, has been reassuring.

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You are also involved with Creative Dignity. What are the challenges there?

Creative Dignity (CD) is a movement that has brought together diverse creative producers, practitioners and professionals to energise the ecosystem for Indian artisans in this time of COVID-19. Our focus is to provide relief, and subsequently work on rehabilitation and rejuvenation of the artisans.

In the first three months, we tried to provide immediate assistance – cash, food and comfort to artisans in distress reaching the most vulnerable artisans to provide ration kits and support in liquidating inventory/ selling stocks. A donation of as little as INR 1,000 could augment nutrition and health for a family of four for an entire month. We ensured 100 per cent relief funds and sales proceeds reached the producer. We were able to raise more than Rs 50 lakh through donors and partners and reached out to approximately 3,500 families in distress across India.

We will now equip and prepare the handicrafts ecosystem for scale and sustainability so that artisans can go back to regular levels of earning. We have partnered with a large ecosystem of e-commerce and B2B players along with student volunteers to prepare artisans for online marketing. We have undertaken sales campaigns to liquidate stocks with these partners. The first round sold approximately Rs 30 lakh in 15 days.

The need now is to make working capital aligned to artisanal ways of production and create livelihoods for marginal women’s groups that depend on others for raw materials and marketing. The Karuna initiative is an outcome of CD’s networks, which reached out to various women’s groups to create the Karuna doll from waste material. The doll has become a symbol of hope, creativity, resilience and regional diversity through the local stories woven around them.

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