Now is the time to build an ecosystem for India’s cultural economy

A conclave of crafts activists held recently in Bengaluru looked at many facets of the cultural economy, including its power and potential, the need for better supply chains and inclusive finance

July 17, 2023 05:00 am | Updated 09:21 am IST - Bengaluru

Kula Conclave, a networking event with a focus on bridging the inclusive finance gap for India’s cultural entrepreneurs.

Kula Conclave, a networking event with a focus on bridging the inclusive finance gap for India’s cultural entrepreneurs.

“The time is truly now to finance India’s creative and cultural economy and its many MSMEs,” says Priya Krishnamoorthy at the recently concluded Kula Conclave, a networking event with a focus on bridging the inclusive finance gap for India’s cultural entrepreneurs in the creative manufacturing and handmade sector.

Held at the Bangalore International Center, the one-day-long event, an initiative of 200 Million Artisans, in collaboration with Yunus Social Business Fund Bengaluru, Creative Dignity and NICEorg, focused on many facets of the cultural economy, including its power and potential, the need for better supply chains, inclusive finance in the craft sector and much more. The pièce de résistance of the event was the launch of the 2nd edition of Business of Handmade, a study that mapped the financing needs and challenges of craft-led MSMEs in the country.

Talking about the genesis of the study, Ms. Krishnamoorthy, the founder and CEO of 200 Million Artisans, an organization that seeks to empower craft-led enterprises, says “We started 200 Million Artisans as a covid response initiative. “A lot of the craft-led enterprises she had worked with started reaching out to her as many of them could not pay their artisans when covid hit as sales were down, adds Ms. Krishnamoorthy, an award-winning broadcast journalist, arts manager and creative impact strategist.

The event focused on many facets of the cultural economy, including its power and potential, the need for better supply chains, inclusive finance in the craft sector and much more.

The event focused on many facets of the cultural economy, including its power and potential, the need for better supply chains, inclusive finance in the craft sector and much more.

What initially started as a space to foreground fundraising evolved into something else. “We realised that every funder we spoke to asked about data,” says Ms. Krishnamoorthy, pointing out that this was in scarce supply in the craft industry. “That is when we got into research,” she says, referring to 200 Million Artisans, which won the SOCAP Social Entrepreneur Scholarship in 2021 and was the Nudge Institute (India) Incubator Awardee in September 2022 as a “research think tank for the sector.”

Instead of directly working with artisans, the organisation liaises with social enterprises that operate in the crafts sector. “We mapped the financing needs of these craft-led MSMEs,” says Ms. Krishnamoorthy, talking about the report, the culmination of a 12-month-long study, supported by Catalytic Capital Consortium (C3) and GAME. “India’s Creative Manufacturing and Handmade (CMH) sector has the potential to build a climate-smart future while also driving inclusion for India’s informal and differently skilled, first mile communities,” points out the report, something Ms. Krishnamoorthy echoes. “India is sitting on a gold mine to position themselves as the responsible hub of consumption and production,” she says, pointing out that, unfortunately, no one is building a portfolio around it yet. “We are trying to build an ecosystem for this sector.”

The Hindu spoke to some of the speakers at the Kula Conclave. Here are their stories

Sreejith Nedumpully, Co-founder and Director, ROPE International

Sreejith Nedumpully, Co-founder and Director, ROPE International.

Sreejith Nedumpully, Co-founder and Director, ROPE International.

Though India always has had a huge diversity of traditions and craft cultures, with artisans from “Kashmir to Kanyakumari,” as Mr. Nedumpully says, getting into the global market is challenging. “The products are often not contemporary enough,” he says, pointing out that though handmade products from Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Africa make their way into retail stores in Europe and North America, Indian products are largely absent.

It is this narrative that ROPE International seeks to alter, ensuring that its range of handmade natural fibre products, including handmade wicker baskets, hand-woven placemats, runners and straw bags, reaches an international audience. “Going global is the only solution to ensure the livelihood of the artisans,” believes Mr. Nedumpully, who co-founded ROPE — Responsibility of People and Environment — along with Patrick Fischer

Mr. Nedumpully, who holds a master’s degree in rural management from The TATA DHAN Academy in Madurai, worked in the microfinance sector for a few years, before becoming a project officer at IIT Madras’s incubation cell.  In 2008, he co-founded ROPE International, going on to establish a factory in Madurai, which operates in a hub-and-spoke model to ensure both compliance and flexibility. “We work with natural fibres such as banana bark, water hyacinth and various grasses,” says Nedumpully, adding that many of his artisans are unskilled workers who formerly worked in firecracker-manufacturing units at nearly Sivakasi.

Nearly 95% of what is manufactured here is exported with ROPE supplying to Ikea, H and M and TJX Companies. “We have seen that globally there are a lot more opportunities emerging for India,” believes Mr. Nedumpully.

Nitin Pamnani, Co-founder, iTokri

Nitin Pamnani, Co-founder, iTokri

Nitin Pamnani, Co-founder, iTokri

“No one else does craft 360 degrees,” says Nitin Pamnani, the Co-Founder of iTokri, the country’s first e-commerce craft site. From jewellery and textiles to home décor, ready-to-wear garments, footwear, notebooks, toys and personal care products, the offerings on the website are unbelievably diverse and beautifully curated, a source of immense pride for Mr. Pamnani.

iTokri was founded by Nitin Pamnani, and his wife, Jia, back in 2012, out of a single room in Gwalior. “I wanted to move back to be with my family,” recalls Mr. Pamnani, who holds a degree in Hindi literature from Delhi University and worked as a documentary filmmaker in the capital for seven-eight years, before moving back home.

The couple had always been in love with handmade stuff and so decided to foray into it, taking a couple of years to build the technology and network needed to sustain an e-commerce marketplace. “We started with 5 or 10 people,” recalls Mr. Pamnani, adding that the focus was on textiles back then. Today, iTokri has countless craft products, operates out of a 15,000 sq ft warehouse and has 200 people, mostly women, working for the brand.

“We have grown organically,” he says, adding that while they have been bootstrapped so far, they are now open to funding to accelerate their growth, provided it is the right partner. “There is no dearth of products in the crafts sector,” he says. ‘And there are a hundred thousand things we want to do.”

Lakshya Arora, Co-founder, Desi Hangover

  Lakshya Arora, Co-founder, Desi Hangover.

Lakshya Arora, Co-founder, Desi Hangover.

Lakshya Arora, the Co-Founder of Desi Hangover, which produces handcrafted shoes made of ethically sourced, upcycled leather using the Khavani craft technique, says that the enterprise began as a “passion project,” ten years ago.

“My co-founder and I met on an internship in Egypt in 2013,” says Mr. Arora, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English Honors from Punjab University. They were living with interns from 25 different countries, who liked the Kolhapuri chappals that they both wore. “We had brought it off the street, but they were so appreciative of it. There was something we were missing here,” he says, adding that the two decided, at that point, to go to India and find out where these shoes were made.

So, they did exactly that, first visiting Kolhapur, which they soon realised was only a trading town, and later the villages around the city, where shoes were actually made. For the next year and a half, they kept visiting and revisiting these places, documenting and sorrows and joys of the people who lived and worked there.  While on one hand, they discovered that the tradition of shoemaking in these regions stretched back centuries, there was also the real threat of it dying out. “The kids of these craftspeople were working as labourers,” he says, pointing out that while the skill and expertise were there, innovation, design and opportunity were lacking.

The co-founders began working with artisans in Belgaum, introducing design intervention and focusing on brand building to create a beautifully-crafted, comfortable range of footwear, that is today both exported and sold in Fabindia and Metro outlets. “Also, our B2C sales have grown by 15-20%,” says Mr Arora, who hopes to integrate even more artisans of this cluster into their business over the next few years.

Nivedita Rai, Co-founder, Karghewale

Nivedita Rai Karghewale Co-founder, Karghewale.

Nivedita Rai Karghewale Co-founder, Karghewale.

Nivedita Rai is clear about one thing: the best way to sustain the handicraft industry is to create more artisan entrepreneurs. That is what Karghewale is all about. “We are an incubator for artisan enterprises,” she says.

Ms. Rai, a rural management graduate by education, has been deeply embedded in the crafts landscape for a while now. She served as the executive director of the Gudi Mudi Khadi project, which came under the WomenWeave Charitable Trust, founded by Sally Holkar. “The genesis of Karghewale happened there,” says Ms. Rai, who co-founded the enterprise in 2020, along with Sourodip Ghosh.

According to her, simply providing enough work will not sustain the handloom sector since it simply does not generate a high-enough income. “A lot of young artisans are leaving the profession because there is simply not enough money to sustain them,” she points out, adding that the average wage for a weaver was around ₹5000/month. “We strongly believe that what will sustain the craft is not the wage worker approach,” she says. “It is important that artisans own the design and gain creative and market agency to take the vocation seriously.”

Karghewale, which has received investments from StartUp India Seed Fund Scheme, CIIE.Co, and most recently, R.I.S.E. Artisan Fund, helps young artisans, who are graduates of WomenWeave’s The Handloom School establish themselves as entrepreneurs by ensuring that they go through an incubation framework.  So far, they have incubated 25 artisan entrepreneurs, a number that continues to grow. “The plan is to incubate at least 1000,” says Ms. Rai.

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