The stark palm trees that ring the shore town of Pulicat (Pazhaverkadu) have witnessed the ebb and tide of history. The Portuguese came first, followed by the Dutch who made Pulicat the capital of the Dutch Coromandel until it passed into British hands in 1825. Over three centuries, the town, 60 kilometres North of Chennai — located on the fringe of a lagoon —has been peopled by fisherfolk and thousands of migratory birds.
Another inalienable feature of Pulicat is the sight of many women weaving colourful baskets from locally-sourced palm fronds. A generation ago, basket weaving was popular, but with youth leaving their homes on the islands in the lagoon for more mainstream jobs, and political fallout between local communities, basket weaving was relegated to the bottom of the craft heap.
Many NGOs have stepped in to help this beleaguered craft reclaim its popularity — Chenni-based Nonurban is the latest.
“In 1959, the Palaverkadu women’s cooperative employed over 2,000 women and was instrumental in spreading the skill of palm-leaf weaving. But an earning of just ₹4,000 a month resulted in only 300 pursuing the craft. These women weave at home alongside other women in the family, to sell to buyers across the country. We work to bring them together and establish effective source and supply chains,” says Thein Manimekalai Sowrirajan, 29, founder-CEO of The Nonurban Foundation.
Thein, a planner-architect who schooled at Anna University and was involved in projects across Italy, the UK and Russia, is presently a research associate at MSSRF, Chennai. She says, “The COVID-19 pandemic saw a lot of market preferences towards healthier products, culture-driven narratives for sale, focus on sustainable production and a wide support for women-centric businesses. Rural areas have all the right ingredients; they just need a boost for their stories, skills and strengths.”
Nonurban was launched in June 2020 by Thein. Nethra Ganesan, who heads its advocacy, joined a little later. In October the duo organised an international competition for university students, inviting them to devise entrepreneurship models for farming, weaving, and indigenous art and craft sectors.
“We initiated conversations and suggested a few non-urban contexts to be worked upon. They were asked to pitch ideas and identify stakeholders. We put in our own money to market it and broke-even,” says Thein, adding that within months “we became 33 members-strong — from multi-disciplinary backgrounds with an average age of 24”.
Pivoting around the pandemic
Initially, the foundation was an online forum that supported grassroots organisations by suggesting creative names for home-grown brands, logos, and defining selling points... With students returning home due to COVID-19, the focus shifted to projects in their hometowns.
“Right now, we are working with 100 women from Anakaputhur who make saris from banana fabric, 300 palm weavers from Pulicat and 1,000 women from Mannargudi in the coir mat business. Women empowerment is inextricably linked to our efforts towards rural entrepreneurship,” says Thein.
The challenges in each of these places are different. Thein says that while the coir business had everything in place and Nonurban’s intervention was only in terms of design, non-rubberised base to increase the sustenance factor and adding gloves to the assembly line, progress in Pulicat has been slow as the foundation has had to rope in activists to get the women weavers on track again. The weavers reached out to Nonurban to help them find an international market for their products such as sari boxes, bottle holders and coasters.
“The core team of seven people in Chennai meets every day and some of us work other jobs. We take the help of anyone who can help push our agenda to fortify the rural,” says Thein, adding “In Tamil Nadu we travel as a team and the biggest advantage is the common language.”
“People in the rural areas know what they want. We help them with the next step. We only want to make the skill sector become lucrative so that any youngster from anywhere is propelled to take it up.”