Reviving India’s Artisans: How a Hybrid Model Helped One Social Enterprise Connect Craft Makers with Consumers
The creative manufacturing sector is widely known for its exploitative nature, particularly the garment industry. Globally, consumers are gaining awareness of the often-oppressive working conditions in which their clothes and accessories are created. However, although it may seem counterintuitive, this sector has vast potential to drive inclusive growth, particularly in countries like India, where 70 percent of the population resides in rural areas.
Creative manufacturing is labor-intensive, and it’s not just anchored in huge garment factories. Much like the 93 percent of the Indian workforce that lies in the informal sector, the majority of creative producers work in small or informal enterprises, and struggle to obtain regular orders, avoid exploitation by middlemen and meet quality standards. For women, there are also the added struggles of working outside their homes and avoiding harassment.
In this sector, a little support can go a long way towards inclusive growth, particularly in a country where women and girls still struggle for gender equality.
Greater Impact Through a Hybrid Model
Industree was founded in 1994 with a clear view that our work should focus on the vast rural populations of India earning their livelihoods from handicrafts, including the many women working without pay or recognition. Over the years, we had witnessed many craft-based communities reaching dead ends, while local markets for artisanal products collapsed as villages were flooded with inexpensive plastic alternatives from other parts of Asia. Without a knowledge of customer preferences or market insights, these artisans’ products languished in government stores. The vexing process of skilling creative producers and building small-scale manufacturing units, only to see them fail due to lack of working capital or reliable energy access, motivated us to make a change.
Our goal was to create and sell high-quality products in domestic and international markets by combining traditional crafts and natural fibre materials with contemporary designs and bridging the gap between artisans and consumers. We started this endeavor in 1996 by setting up a for-profit retail company in Bangalore. But while the store was a local success, we felt that to create sustainable and scalable impact, we had to build out a larger ecosystem. Many of the artisan groups we worked with were unable to provide consistent quality due to a lack of training, and at times the working conditions in their villages didn’t measure up to international compliance standards, preventing the enterprises from scaling to that level.
At this point, Industree decided to change course, transforming into a hybrid organisation. We’d realized that the diverse needs of the sector included everything from artisans’ financial literacy and capacity-building to better product designs – and that these needs couldn’t be fully met by our enterprise alone. So in 2000 we founded Industree Foundation, our not-for-profit arm meant to fill the gaps that were not being addressed by the for-profit company. Leveraging philanthropic support from private donors as well as government schemes, Industree Foundation began creating an ecosystem that would foster a producer ownership model, putting agency back into the hands of those working in the creative manufacturing sector.
The Challenge of Scale
This transformation continued with the establishment of Industree Skills Transform Private Limited (ISTPL), the for-profit training arm of Industree. ISTPL began conducting capacity-building activities while Industree Foundation provided professional management support to producers, facilitating their access to working capital, designers, markets, digital tools and more. The foundation began to act as an incubator and accelerator for women-majority, producer-owned companies that could supply to our original retail outlets. The model had begun to meet the demand created by the initial for-profit company, enabling artisans in rural areas to retain orders from contemporary markets.
However, the issue of scale was still present. Our stores were doing well, but we knew that in order for this model to have real impact at the grassroots, it would have to progress from the exception to the norm. That’s when Future Group, one of India’s leading retailers, became interested in Industree’s model and stepped in, providing for-profit investment capital and mentorship that allowed us to supply artisanal products to customers across the country. The artisans were ready to scale up, and so with the mentorship and investment of Future Group, along with investment and support from the Grassroots Business Fund, we created the fashion and lifestyle brand Mother Earth. It now has retail outlets in more than 11 states and over 20 different cities across India. What’s more, the producer-owned companies incubated by the Foundation began to grow and now regularly supply to international brands, such as IKEA. Thanks to our hybrid model’s blend of non-profit social focus with for-profit business savvy, artisans have gradually started gaining the valuable foothold they needed to reach consistent markets and earn stable livelihoods.
Planting Seeds of Sustainability
Over the years, we have realized that while the skill, need and want for work exist among producers, especially women, their lack of connection with modern markets hinders the development of skill and design, causing craft livelihoods to die out. Many Indians in rural areas prefer to migrate to cities, taking on jobs as drivers, security guards or members of the growing IT sector, trading tradition for a paycheck. This migration is not only increasing India’s carbon footprint, it’s also reducing the country’s potential for truly inclusive economic growth.
The economic potential in the creative manufacturing sector is vast. Industree recognizes this potential, and aims to guide creative producers towards a model of sustainable livelihoods: one in which ownership lies in the hands of the producers and employment is brought to their doorsteps, curbing migration to overcrowded Indian cities.
Even so, connecting the dots isn’t easy in this sector. It took us more than twenty years and a carefully planned combination of not-for-profit organisation, training and real market access through retail outlets to build a model that can truly address the complex needs of rural India, while building scalable economic growth. But by learning from the past, practicing patience and persisting in our goal of creating systemic change, we are convinced that rural India’s rich heritage of craft manufacturing can not only survive, but thrive in the coming century.
Alison Wynn is the communications manager at Industree Foundation.
Fayiqa Halim is a fundraising consultant at Industree Foundation.
Image provided by authors.