Papertrail, founded four years ago, is a model business enterprise that empowers women, writes PRIYADERSHINI S.

In a sequestered café in Panampilly Nagar, over coffee and quiche, Diwia Thomas finishes narrating the story of her business initiative that is empowering women. Strangely, a young man from an adjacent table walks up to her and says, “Excuse me, I was not eavesdropping but could not help listening to your story. I am impressed but missed out on the name of your organisation. What is it?”

“Papertrail,” she says.

Papertrail began four years ago after Diwia found herself at thecross roads in her life, facing personal challenges. “It was then that the need for financial independence for a woman dawned on me. I realised its importance and wondered how women in trying situations were coping.”

Business model

A feisty young woman herself with a never-say-die spirit, Diwia assessed her strengths. “As a skill, I only knew how to make a good paper bag. But I knew how to develop a business. I knew the modalities of supply-chain, quality control, organisation, production…”she rattles off.

It was at the same time that recession was taking a toll on livelihoods and even some of Diwia’s “lipstick wearing, high heeled” friends were coping with retrenchment and business downturns. “Their lives too were affected. I thought I could begin by making paper bags and involve them all.”

Diwia began by collecting old newspapers from door- to-door, earning the nickname, raddi wali of Thevara and Bagvathi. Her friends pitched in and she amassed huge amounts of paper and began teaching women to make paper bags. Her network of friends introduced her to disadvantaged women—single, widows, divorcees, abused, teenage mothers, rape victims, women in rehabilitation centres—who were keen to make a living and get back into the mainstream of life. Soon these women became a part of Papertrail.

“Initially one bag would fetch a maker Rs. 2. If she made 60 in a day, she could take home Rs. 120. It was something, but not enough. I don’t want bag-making to be the end of their lives,” says Diwia, who began thinking of ways to increase their income.

She realised the best way to forge ahead was by widening the product range. Diwia moved into the segment of gift bags, gift-wrapping and customised packaging. A friend introduced her to the largest handmade paper factory in Jaipur; another put her on to a good source for bag accessories—ropes, clips and handles. As she began diversifying, she found the numbers of women in Papertrail grow. A unit in Edakochi had at one point 35 women. The Edappally unit too found women bringing along others who needed financial help, guidance and a conduit to revert to mainstream life. Though small, the units in Mattancherry and Fort Kochi were hugely productive. The Thevara group comprises physically challenged women. “At any given point of time there are 50 women in Papertrail. Each unit has its own model of working. Women either meet at a collection centre or make bags individually at their homes,” says Diwia.

While Diwia teaches the art of making paper bags to women she also talks to them about the need for literacy, to eat healthy, to save and to splurge a little on themselves. “She is a motivator with a smile,” say the women in chorus.

Success stories

Priya K.K. from Padivattom is one of Papertrail’s success stories, flaunts Diwia. Priya works as a freelance environmentalist with colleges in the mornings and makes bags in the afternoons. A single woman who lives in a hostel, she recently bought medical insurance after streamlining her finances. Gita, Elsy and Asha work together at the Fort Kochi unit and look forward to making bags and earning the extra buck. Two women from Mattancherry, who prefer to be behind the purdah, ensure that their bags are delivered to the collection centre on time. “We have many such cases. The Janamaithri police station has put us on to women who need help,” says Diwia whose motivational talks empowering women had her as a speaker at TEDx that hosts speakers with inspirational stories.

A friend and colleague of Diwia, Bobby Antony, runs a spice business. She pitches in whenever Papertrail needs to meet deadlines. “Diwia comes up with innovative ideas. She custom-designs for every client and gets business. Our hands are full especially during the October- December season.”

On the business front, Papertrail has a turnover of 15,000 bags a month and works from five locations across Kerala.

Being handmade they take very small orders too, “even two bags”, which brings many people to them.

Diwia handles orders, deliveries and is stringent about quality control, deadlines, finishes and such.

Her clients include corporate houses, local stores and her network of friends who place orders even from abroad.

With more expansion plans in the packaging segment, Diwia looks back with satisfaction.

“Life has been kind and full of surprises. I have always found help and direction whenever required. I tell the women that till you have breath in your body and two hands you can go far.” And in her moment of quiet she goes back to her original work—at the desk, as a web strategist, once again planning and executing.

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