The thol sanchi or the good-old cloth sling bag has been Zafer Ameer’s constant companion from childhood. Even while pursuing his engineering, he used to carry it occasionally to his college. But he never expected to make a living out of it. That too after quitting his job in Technopark. A few days away from opening the first retail store of his brand, Sanchi, in partnership with long-time friend, Gokul Ratnakar, on October 2, Zafer looks back at his journey with pride.
At the tastefully-done space with textured, plastered walls decorated with Warli paintings, bamboo wall cladding, panels and curtains, he says that the decision to start a retail store wasn’t an impetuous one. “Eco-friendly products are often considered costly and unimpressive. So our strategy was to enter the market with trendy, colourful and reasonably-priced bags that also make a style statement. When we opened a wholesale showroom in Kowdiar, we had a lot of retail clients. That’s when I decided to shift to retail business and Gokul came forward to invest in the venture,” he says.
Sanchi, which has been around since 2014, caught on when the City Corporation banned plastic carry bags in 2017. “An earlier ban did not have the desired results because there weren’t many convenient alternatives for the plastic carry bags. But, in 2017 eco-friendly, reusable cloth bags were promoted in a big way to replace the non-degradable plastic ones that posed the biggest challenge in solid waste management. We were there at the right place at the right time. In fact, our success inspired many to follow suit,” he says. At present, the Corporation alone runs three cloth bag-making units.
From the simple carry bags, Sanchi soon moved on to trendy, colourful, multi-purpose jute and cloth bags, which are available at the new outlet. “New products include laundry bags, yoga mats in cloth and jute, fruit baskets and covers for water cans. With the green protocol gaining acceptance in hotels and resorts, we are getting a lot of orders for eco-friendly products. That’s how we came up with laundry bags and utility pouches,” adds the 30-year-old.
Zafer recalls that the first step towards making cloth bags was taken soon after he finished his engineering in computer science. “I was active in a political party and for one of its conferences I had to arrange for low-cost cloth bags. We bought cloth from Madurai and got the bags stitched by a tailor in Venjaramoodu. Although they looked like the bags devotees carry on pilgrimages to Sabarimala, we experimented with colours,” he says.
Then came the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) that made Sanchi what it is today. “Having attended several editions of the festival, I noticed that the thol sanchi is usually associated with so-called intellectuals who turn up for the festival! I thought the bags might catch the eye of such customers and so at IFFK 2013, we put up a stall at the festival venue. The entire stock got sold out! The clientèle I got then has been my asset till now. By the next edition of the IFFK, we had a brand name, Sanchi,” he remembers.
- Sanchi stocks different kinds of shopping bags, eco-friendly cutlery and so on. The products often make it to conferences and corporate events. A breakthrough for the brand was the Indian History Congress held in 2018, where they supplied jute ID cards and 3,000 jute bags. It also provided 10,000 jute bags at the India-West Indies cricket match held at The Sports Hub at last year. “Last month we supplied laptop bags worth ₹14 lakh at the farmers’ meet of Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) in Hyderabad. Besides our regular units, several households pitched in to finish the work before the deadline,” Zafer says. Sanchi supplies to companies in Technopark and also exports its products.
The brand was registered in 2015 and in 2016, the first manufacturing unit, Samanwaya, was opened at Venjaramoodu, with women in the locality coming forward to be a part of it. “Women empowerment has been a motto of Sanchi and instead of investing in one unit, I divide the job among different clusters, thus allowing small-scale units to flourish. Although Sanchi has less than five staff members on its rolls, nearly 40 women are involved in stitching the bags and other products at Kudumbasree units in Alathur and Kozhinjampara in Palakkad district and Chelakkara and Wadakkanchery in Thrissur, besides those at Venjaramoodu (Zafer’s native place), and near Pollachi in Tamil Nadu,” he says.
Meanwhile, in 2017, he put in his papers. “I had been juggling my job and business until then. But when the Corporation announced a total ban on plastics, I didn’t want to let go of the chance to make the most of the opportunity. So I decided to quit my job,” he explains. However, instead of accepting his resignation, his employer advised him to go in for a sabbatical. “The management had always encouraged my initiative and, often, Sanchi bags were given away as gifts to international clients. They knew I was taking a big risk and gave me an option to fall back on in case I failed. But I didn’t have to return!” he says.
- “I had met Zafer through common friends. I was impressed by what he was doing and I thought I should be part of the venture,” says Gokul Ratnakar, a law graduate, who also runs Can Walk, a foundation for the rehabilitation of the disabled. The 35-year-old, injured after an accident 13 years ago, plans to open a rehab centre for people using wheelchairs like him
Looking ahead, Sanchi hopes to step into “green” event management. “For example, we have jute-based wedding cards stitched with left-over pieces of jute bags. It can be used as table mats as well,” he adds. The brand plans to target school students in the next academic year. “School bags, steel water bottles, notepads with recycled paper, cloth pouches, paper pens and more will be available then,” Zafer says.
Having taken a leap of faith by starting Sanchi, how does he look back at his avatar as an entrepreneur? “Exciting! When I left the job there were many in the family who made fun of me saying, avan sanchi vilkkunnu (he is selling cloth bag). But I knew I would succeed and I had to since that was the only way to mute the critics. Now my parents and wife are fully involved in my enterprise and the naysayers have gone silent,” he says.
Sanchi is located near Panavila Junction. Contact: 6282967372