Life & Style

A social enterprise in Kerala combines sustainability and women’s empowerment

Does it come as a surprise that the six yard wonder, the sari (a version of cloth) is one of the largest polluters of Vembanad lake, along with plastic?

Social entrepreneur Sanju Soman, one of the people behind Bhava, a social enterprise that upcycles saris and cloth explains, “Cloth usually escapes attention as a pollutant due to the constant spotlight on plastic. It is as bad, and one of the largest pollutants taking years to disintegrate, ending up as landfill or in water bodies. A cotton bag is not very much better than a plastic bag, it also leaves a footprint in water, like here in the Vembanad lake. Plastic bags came as alternatives to paper bags, for which trees were cut. We started using more of it, less of paper bags and single use plastic became the problem it is today.”

In 2017, Sanju, a staffer at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) in Muhamma, learnt, from the panchayat president, that pollution of the Vembanad lake was affecting the livelihoods of local women.

These women depended on clam digging and fishing for sustenance, the dwindling population of which impacted their lives. Cloth and plastic pollution were the culprits. As he listened Sanju suggested upcycling of cloth as a possible solution. Stepping in, ATREE started a project and trained local women to make bags out of saris. The first set of bags were made for ATREE’s 20th anniversary in Bangalore, for which 50-odd local women made about 700 bags out of 250 plus saris in aspan of 15 days.

The bags were a hit. But the project went dormant as the orders reduced to a trickle before stopping.

A social enterprise in Kerala combines sustainability and women’s empowerment

After six months of no production, Sanju with friends Deepa Ananth, a Thiruvananthapuram-based teacher, and Dr. Vinayak Warrier, started Bhava, their social venture in which ATREE trains the women (it cannot sell or market) while Bhava markets the products. When ATREE set up the model wetland village project in Muhamma, near Cherthala, it started, in association with Bhava, a social innovation lab with the support of Antrix Corporation.

Sanju, a senior programme officer with ATREE, says reviving Bhava was the need of the hour which they realised during the course of another project — Sustera, which focusses on climate change awareness and action. It supports Bhava by collecting saris during its awareness sessions. That is how Bhava Social Ventures came to be in 2017.

A social enterprise in Kerala combines sustainability and women’s empowerment

Bags of saris line every inch of 36-year-old Ambili PA’s tailoring shop. She has been working with Bhava since inception and is now actively involved in product development besides tailoring the bags. She has, at her tailoring shop, seven women tailors. “I have wanted to split the Bhava work and my tailoring orders, but all of us end of doing Bhava bags so that we can meet the orders.” Sanju holds up a photograph of himself wearing a kurta fashioned out a sari — one of Ambili’s ideas.

Working with Bhava, the graduate says, has empowered her financially and made her confident.

The women have the flexibility of either working from home or at the lab, some of the machines have been provided by Bhava. The walls of the space are decorated with possible innovations — wedding invites printed on fabric, prototypes of cards, and many kinds of bags. The women are encouraged to innovate, Sanju points to strings for bags made using the process used to twist coir into ropes.

A social enterprise in Kerala combines sustainability and women’s empowerment

A cloth bag is also an extension of the life of the fabric, a solution without an environmental cost. It comes down to extending the life of fabric before it eventually ends up in a water body or is dumped somewhere. The sources for saris are schools, colleges and collection drives, “but nothing comes for free, there has to be an incentive. So we have come up with a multiple impact project — a seed pen for every sari a student donates,” Sanju says.

For now 95% of their raw materials are saris, but they intend to include denims and t-shirts as well.

Post the 2018 floods in Kerala, they re-christened the bags Milee, to up their ‘cool’ quotient among other things.

Today the range of products includes steel straws, neem wood combs, handmade paper, bamboo toothbrush — all sustainable alternatives to plastic, not manufactured at Bhava. Explaining why Sanju says, “We realised we had to scale up in order to sustain, we couldn’t do with just bags... In terms of impact, this is merely a drop but the project is important.”

Powered by women

Bhava works with 40 to 60 women (depending on demand). A new project that is underway is making paper out of water hyacinth, the first prototype is ready and they are fine-tuning the product and processes.

It has made 15,000 bags, replacing approximately 1,50,000 plastic bags.

Up-cycled 7000 kilos of used clothes.

On an average 60 women have generated an additional income of ₹3,000 to ₹5,000

Four months at last year’s Kochi Muziris Biennial (KMB) gave them exposure, participation in exhibitions is getting them traction. The biggest hit was the sari bag, 40 women worked to meet demand.

Their clientèle includes Kerala Literature Festival, ITC and the latest is Spice Coast Marathon for whom they are making 8,000 bags.

The Green Act Workshop

Green Act is a series of workshops in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, by Bhava, aimed at educating the urban crowd about the impact of emission, plastic consumption, what climate change means, up-cycling, recycling and an introduction to eco-friendly alternatives. Plastic consumption, Sanju says, is the highest in urban areas and the resultant pollutions.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 3:05:34 PM |

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