Just off NH 44 near Madurai is nondescript Thanakkankulam village, away from public glare. Here, a small scale enterprise buzzes with activity. The ‘Green Craft - Bengaluru’ board, under a canopy of bougainvillea trees is the first hint. Inside an old wedding hall, about 250 women from the neighbouring villages work with banana fibre, which was hitherto used only for making garlands, while bulk of it went waste. Today, these women, are the face of IKEA’s social and sustainable responsibility programme, weaving a connection with the world through their handmade storage baskets.
Now, working from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm, the women — from leading a life of uncertainty — have become an integral part of global retail entity IKEA’s business model. It all began in August 2018 when Bengaluru-based Industree Foundation — a non-profit organisation that is collaborating with IKEA on the execution of the project — approached the women living within five kilometres of the site.
The Industree designer Ekta Kataria has trained the Thanakkankulam women into creating the signature basket in different shapes and sizes. It is part of a new limited-edition collection for IKEA called HANTVERK (‘handicraft’ in Swedish) inspired by traditional Scandinavian birch bark baskets. The banana fibre baskets are shipped to over 400 IKEA stores in 50 countries.
While the Madurai hub is the youngest, with women so far having been trained to weave only storage baskets, Industree has been supplying over a 100 products made with banana fibre to IKEA and few other chains as well since 2012. It has two more training-cum-production units in Tharangambadi and Chinnagudi, where 800 women are engaged in creating a range of home furnishing products.
Earlier, the raw material was transported to Bengaluru and the finished products made mostly by migrant workers were shipped from Tuticorin Port, says Neelam Chibber, co-founder and managing trustee of Industree. “But when we scaled up with IKEA towards people and planet-positive work, we shifted to rural set up to support the local population and also for easy procurement of raw material, available in abundance in Tamil Nadu. We also save on transportation as 150 farmers in Tirunelveli are the suppliers of the banana clumps,” she adds.
“Initially, it was not easy to convince the women to come out and work,” says Ami Patel, with Industree since its inception in 2000. Many belonged to broken families, some were widowed or abandoned. Some worked as grossly underpaid farm workers or were school drop-outs. However, it only required a few to sign up to embolden the rest to sign up, even if it went against their family’s wishes. “And those who did soon found themselves in a journey towards financial independence,” adds Neelam.
Kavitha Nagaraj, 27-year-old mother of two boys, was one of these women. She picked up the art of basket weaving and turned into a master trainer. Her enthusiasm gradually inspired more women in Thanakkankulam village and the group of artisans engaged in ‘Made-by-Me’ project grew in strength as Kavitha moved on to become the quality control supervisor. “I manually and minutely check 50 to 75 products everyday and rarely is any rejected,” she says, and adds with pride, “My husband toiled the entire day on somebody else’s land and we found it difficult to make both ends meet. Now I am able to reduce the burden on him.” With a monthly earning of ₹7,500, Kavitha has been able to enrol her children in an English medium school this year and also afford the school van. She even purchased a 32 inches colour TV just a fortnight ago and invited her neighbours home to admire it.
Her neighbours, Jaya Prada, 25, and T Mariswari, 31, never dreamt of such an opportunity. They too have been coming to the centre for the last six months in a share auto with six more women from their village. “It took me a week to learn to make the basket as per the norms. Now I make minimum two baskets a day and earn ₹ 5,600 per month,” says Mariswari. “I found it a little difficult in the beginning, the basket took me all day. Today, the sense of achievement in supporting the family is big,” says Jaya.
Neelam says sustainable is premium and cannot be large-scale as it requires huge amount of time, assistance, subsidies and emotional investment.“When you find dedicated band of people with no experience whatsoever, making beautiful handmade sustainable products that have entered homes of purchasers in faraway countries such as the US and Europe, you sense the unsaid emotional connection,” she says, and adds, “hand-craftsmanship is indeed worthy of investment.”
“Every worker in the farm-to-fibre process holds a strong sense of responsibility and independence now,” says Ami. “The experience has been transformational.”
We achieved a broader social impact than we thought was possible. Each handmade item created tells the story of successful collaboration and raises impactful change makers.” -- Neelam Chibber, managing trustee, Industree.
The versatile fibre:
Discarded banana barks are bought from farmers at ₹60 a clump.
They are sliced into long pieces of eight cm width, washed, cleaned and dried.
The fibres are woven in a criss-cross pattern around moulds of different products of different sizes for the shape and stiffness. Then they are polish sprayed and sun-dried.
Product range : Laundry baskets, bins, lamp shades, bowls, bags, vases, hanging pots, trays, dining mats, cushions, door and floor mats.
Price range : ₹499 to ₹1499
The other social enterprise IKEA has collaborated with in India is Varanasi-based Rangsutra for textiles.
Their similar collaborative projects are on in Thailand and Jordan to build sustainable livelihoods.
Bamboo is the next big raw material that IKEA is looking at in India for creating sustainable furniture.
IKEA’s first physical store in India was launched in Hyderabad last year
The first online store was set up in Mumbai as the distribution centre is located in Pune.
The next store will be launched in Mumbai in 2020 followed by one each in each in Bengaluru, Delhi-NCR and Chennai.