Cooperative helps take tribal crafts to Amazon’s global marketplace

TRIFED’s turnaround: moving from tribal craftsmen and gatherers to entrepreneurs

Updated - June 30, 2019 09:58 pm IST

Published - June 30, 2019 09:49 pm IST - NEW DELHI

File photo of artwork from an exhibition by the Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India Ltd (TRIFED) at Lalit Kala Akademi in Chennai in 2016.

File photo of artwork from an exhibition by the Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India Ltd (TRIFED) at Lalit Kala Akademi in Chennai in 2016.

From stunning bomkai, kantha and ikat saris to the geometric shapes of an embroidered Toda shawl, from intricately beaded Bhil jewellery to painstaking Dokra metalwork, the artistic riches of India’s Adivasi communities will soon be showcased on the platform of Amazon’s global marketplace. The Centre’s Tribal Cooperative Marketing Federation (TRIFED) signed an agreement on Friday to partner with the e-commerce giant’s Global Selling Programme.

“The online market has no geographic borders,” Renuka Singh Saruta, Minister of State for Tribal Affairs, said at an event to mark the accord, even as elegant models showcased the latest designs of Tribes India’s saris and shawls. “We want to promote India’s tribal communities beyond our own borders and expand their opportunities for a sustainable livelihood,” she added.

These traditional textiles are at the heart of TRIFED’s turnaround over the last two years. “Earlier, the focus was on gift items and assorted handicrafts,” said TRIFED managing director Pravir Krishna. “But with urban Indian fashions increasingly embracing our traditional heritage, the market is much bigger for textiles. There has been a 360 degree change, with textiles making up 80% of our products now,” he said, adding that tribal jewellery was also popular.

The cooperative federation was started in 1987, but for the first two decades of its existence, it bought tribal products in bulk from the market and sold them in its retail outlets. “That was a loss-making proposition. Now we empanel tribal artisans and source directly from them. We pay them a 30% profit, and then sell at an additional mark-up of 10-15% to account for administrative costs,” Mr. Krishna explained.

The strategy is paying off, with sales rising sevenfold over the last two years. In 2016-17, TRIFED procured and sold almost ₹6 crore worth of tribal products. In 2018-19, procurement shot up to more than ₹41 crore, while sales was ₹35 crore. More satisfying than the sales figures, however, was the generation of income and livelihood for tribal communities, increasing from less than 2 lakh mandays in 2016-17 to more than 13 lakh last year. The number of empanelled artisans has risen to more than three lakh, from 75,000.

“At the end of the day, our objective is not to grow turnover, but livelihoods for as many tribal people as possible,” said Mr. Krishna. “We hope to double our figures: of sales, procurements and empanelled artisans, every year.”

Getting on is a small part of that strategy, which would also allow pay-per-use access to the e-commerce firm’s U.S. warehouses. Already, TRIFED’s presence on Amazon India since September 2017 has led to annual sales of ₹50 lakh on that platform. Now eyeing the global marketplace, design consultants work with adivasi master craftsman to create contemporary patterns from traditional skills. They also receive training in the supply-demand mechanisms, marketing and digital transactions of the modern marketplace. “The idea is to work ourselves out of a job, training craftsman to become entrepreneurs in their own right. Look at Bodh Shawls or the Barmer artisan Ruma Devi, they got their initial exposure and training with TRIFED, but have graduated to become major players in the export market now,” said Mr. Krishna.

The next step for TRIFED is the ambitious Vandhan programme originally announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi a year ago, and finally ready for roll-out now. It aims to transform the ₹50,000 crore market for minor forest produce, ultimately putting control into the hands of Adivasi gatherers. Today, tribal communities who hold the sole rights to gather such produce — such as mahua, imli, chironji, amchur, wild honey — get a meagre 10% share of that pie, with the rest of the money going to middlemen.

Leveraging the existing self-help groups of the Aajeevika scheme, Vandhan will work through 60,000 SHGs, each with 20 members, who will be trained in value-addition, packaging, distribution and marketing. “Today, forest communities pick up and sell raw imli for ₹30 per kg,” said Mr. Krishna. “If they run a basic processing unit — drying, removing fibres and seeds, and packaging — they can sell it for ₹400 per kg.”

Vandhan has a proposed ₹1,000 crore annual budget, with a quarter of the amount coming from State governments. The first phase of 600 units will start work by September, as most gathering takes place post-monsoon.

Mr. Krishna, who spent eight years as a district magistrate in the tribal districts of Bastar and Sarguja in the early phase of his career, is aware of the challenges in moving from a gatherer to entrepreneur mindset. “Think of it as a tribal start-up. We expect a 40% failure rate, like any start-up. But for the 60% who succeed, there has been a transformation in thinking, an acceptance of ownership. That is vital,” he said.

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