Deshpande Foundation

"Art to Mart" at the Deshpande Foundation’s Development Dialogue 2015

Following the Deshpande Foundation’s Development Dialogue 2015 conference in Hubli, published a series of session excerpts to share the learnings. I (Sreejith) had the chance to be a part of the "Art to Mart: How can we build an end-to-end value chain that brings artisans profitably to market?"  panel. 

The transcript of that session has been reprinted below as it appeared on The original article can be found here.

With over six million people (officially) working with Handicrafts in India, traditional handicrafts are a major source of income for a large number of people in rural communities, and have a huge market potential, about 20,000 crore according to some estimates, across the globe.

But while the market itself seems to be thriving, the livelihoods for most of these artisans are not.Various factors – like wages, market price gaps, and lack of technology – are forcing these artisans to move away from the handicrafts industry, to more profitable work.

How does one create a sustainable, equitable value chain for these markets? How do we ensure that rural artisans – all artisans, for that matter – are able to reach the right markets without losing out on the profits due to them?

A panel discussion hosted by Sattva at the Development Dialogues 2015 brought together practitioners who work across the craft value chain in India,: Sreejith from Upaya Social Ventures and ROPE International; Neelam Maheshwari from, and RangSutra‘s Sumita Ghose, moderated by Rathish Balakrishnan of Sattva.

Edited excerpts from the discussion:

Can market led solutions bring about equitable development?

Sumita: If we are talking about an equitable model of development, it is possible only in an organisation owned collectively by all, which is why RangSutra is a company owned by these artisans. It gives you a say in how the company is run, your wages etc. Earlier, a lot of the women we worked with were paid a pittance while working for middlemen, being paid per piece.

Now, they are paid properly, according to the material, skill and time inputs required. Having shares in the company gives them not just a right but also a responsibility. They ensure that the work is quality work because they know that the company’s profit decides their dividends.

The idea that your work is valuable, that there are people who are going to buy it and that you can make profit out of it gives them a power, an awareness of the value of your work, and that comes with equitable ownership. Using your own money makes a difference because it’s something you believe in, versus just doing something out of program funds.

An incident that really motivated me is when I visited this woman’s house in a village and she had framed a share certificate we had given her. She said it was the only property that I own, the land and the house are owned by my husband’s family. She was so proud.

Should the producer/community facing entity be different from the market-facing entity?

Sumita: We decided in the formation of RangSutra not to have many organizations, we don’t have one community facing and another market facing, that’s too complicated!

What these artisans do need are quality inputs, access to markets, efficiency, timing, delivery response etc. That remains a challenge especially in our case, where 95% of the artisans we work with are from villages.

Sreejith: A very important thing is for artisans to produce what sells, to keep updating what he makes. Can we find alternatives to the saree that a weaver can make if the saree market is going down? It’s possible. Like with artisans making mats for sleeping etc.. that market has completely vanished, nobody uses them anymore.  A few players including Industree started making table mats or runners with the same material, a lot of these artisans were able to come back to their profession.

Sreejith: I completely agree that we should have a model that combines the equitable value distribution of community owned model with the efficiency of the dynamism of a private enterprise. But if I had to choose one, I’d choose market focused, more dynamic and efficient model for the question of sustainability.

Let me tell you an example which inspired me to entrepreneurship: In 2005, in Thanjavur, I visited some of the weavers’ cooperative societies that started with the best of intentions but were not working very well. We went to procure some sarees and find market for it to give an assured market to weavers.  The cooperative societies complained that they had a huge stock of unsold sarees and therefore were unable to procure more from weavers. The weavers said that 90% of the weavers had migrated to cities to look for other jobs, so they had very little skilled labour.

They told me that someone had visited them from Holland, and was stunned by the beauty of these pieces but he asked them to make scarves or shawls as there was no market for sarees in Holland. But back then, there was no internet or any way of getting in touch with the market(or that man) and they got in the same rut of producing sarees in cooperative societies. The weavers told me they don’t want to weave sarees if there is market for it, they are glad to make anything else if it’s sold.

If that type of market dynamism were possible in a community led model, it would be great. But it’s not. Another reason is the shortage of capital.

I think for these reasons, the sustainability of the enterprise depends on their ability to continuously engage the artisans, irrespective of the structure is.

We always look for scale. Would you say that a simpler model could scale better?

Sreejith: A simpler model is more accountable, more efficient etc but that depends upon the entrepreneur who runs it. Of course, you need to scale, scaling is great, but it is not easy. Just because it has worked for some organizations in some sector, it doesn’t mean it will for all.  It takes investment in capacity building, in system and community owned structure to have a good organisation. In some cases, private entrepreneur can do it much more efficiently and they have access to capital.

Neelam: To think that in 60 years in India, we have had just one FabIndia.

We don’t have enough models, we should look at these people as beneficiaries, but also entrepreneurs. For me, it’s an information gap, we need to connect producers to market opportunities. There are so many artisans, we need many more models, we can’t stick with one or two models that we think are good.

Sumita: Today, there are also lots of people leaving the field, I have seen that it’s more for young men than women. For women, it’s convenient as it allows them to earn a livelihood while working from home, but sometimes with the men, it’s more profitable to work in a city in some other job.

Sreejith: In my experience, I’d say men too are interested… provided they have a sustained income from craft. It’s not that they want to preserve the art of anything, they really need a livelihood.

Which one is more relevant to artisans, the B2B or B2C model?

Sreejith: I think B2C is extremely relevant, but in my experience, it takes more capital and therefore for  smaller entrepreneurs with  less access to capital it’s a difficult ball game. Look at FabIndia, it’s a very successful B2C model, but it takes a lot of capital.

When I started my company (ROPE International) in 2007, I was attracted by B2B opportunities and therefore I’ll talk more about that. When we started out, we did a market research and we saw that the US had 60 or 70 retailers double the size of FabIndia. They said that India has beautiful artisanal products but they don’t source majorly from India as they had issues about production, organization, compliance to social norms and so on in India. So when I started ROPE, my challenge was to build a model where consistent large scale, quality production is possible.

Sumita: RangSutra’s overarching goal is sustainable livelihoods for artisans. So for us, B2C model wasn’t viable for us when we started out. It is more difficult in India, because people take hand-skills for granted, they don’t understand why they have to pay more. Globally there is much more respect (than India) for handmade, because most people in other parts of the world have lost that skill. We do have challenges given our goal, there have been situations where we have had to make an order and make no margin at all just so that an artisan can work.

The panel wrapped up with 2 important takeaways: Building sustainable livelihoods is the obviously the most important thing to keep artisans in their work. Produce what sells, be flexible.

This article is part of a series of panel discussions and reports from the Deshpande Foundation’s Development Dialogue 2015 conference in Hubli. The Development Dialogue is a conclave of like-minded people from across the country who believe in entrepreneurship as a way of nurturing scalable solutions for development, an International social entrepreneurship ecosystem conference hosted by Deshpande Foundation India.