A Weaver’s Companion: A Bunkar Sakhi’s Purpose

It seems that when anyone needs to make a positive change in their life, the act of making that change becomes more of an unwanted challenge. What helps people take on that challenge, is usually a gentle nudge from those closest to them. The story of Jaipur Rugs’ famed weavers is no different. The principles of Jaipur Rugs were founded back in 1978 by Nand Kishore Chaudhary, who sought to keep hand-knotting as a trade and art flourishing through a flexible network of 40,000+ weavers and a decentralized social enterprise.

A visual overview of the many moving parts of Jaipur Rugs’ business model.

To the outside eye, the Jaipur Rugs business model is simple enough. Looms and raw materials are placed right within weavers’ homes, designs are sent over from our headquarters (more on this and an exciting project involving weavers’ own designs coming soon!), the weavers are then paid for the work they complete at their own pace. Due to the entire process falling under the standardized weaving and brand practices of Jaipur Rugs, the exploitative nature of middlemen is removed and replaced with an efficient social venture. But what, or better yet, who makes a business that works similarly to a freelance hub, run as smoothly as it does? The answer lies in Jaipur Rugs’ Bunkar Sakhis, directly translated as weavers’ companions.

The Bunkar Sakhi program was started by the Jaipur Rugs Foundation in August 2014 after an experiment demonstrated that experienced weavers had a lot of ideas to improve efficiency, reduce material wastage, and solve the communication issues often found between rural and urban populations.The program focused on filling the managerial and gender gap between weavers and quality supervisors and branch managers. The Bunkar Sakhis are thoroughly trained on communication, leadership, grassroots weaver mobilization, quality control, and escalation. Along with an opportunity to make more money, this program created a ladder on which day-to-day weavers can aspire to climb as they grow more confident and competent.

These are the women who nudge the ones that need some positive changes in their life. They not only persuade other women to take up carpet weaving and ownership of their finances but push them to become more self-assured and ambitious humans. As weavers themselves, Bunkar Sakhis know what it takes to do the job well and fit weaving into the community-oriented culture that’s so important in villages. They ensure that the quality of work for each of their assigned weavers is up to high quality standards expected by Jaipur Rugs’ customers, but more importantly, they do so in a manner that is familiar and comfortable. They work as mentors and role-models in a setting where women generally have very limited work options.

As a Westerner, my instinct, when it came to any sort of development work, was to come in and change everything to the standards I’m accustomed to. After my first rural immersion visit in Dhanota, Rajasthan, I quickly came to realize that handing over the right tools to the people who’ve gone through the struggles of living there is far more empowering than changing things on my own. This was further proven when I met Suman Ramesh, the Bunkar Sakhi for the entire Dhanota branch. A calm but highly determined young woman who places furthering education in any category as mandatory for not only herself but her entire family (four generations reside in the home she helps upkeep). Having gone through the training and showcasing the upsides of her growth to her family, she was able to garner the support of her in-laws, her husband, and her younger sister, all on her own.

Suman Ramesh - Dhanota Bunkar Sakhi
Suman Ramesh – Dhanota Branch’s Bunkar Sakhi.

The results speak for themselves: Dhanota is one of the strongest branches in the Jaipur Rugs network, Suman’s husband also started working as a rug finisher with the company, and she’s even managed to get her younger sister to join the trade. As a unit, they have a complete small business out of their home, and as a Bunkar Sakhi, Suman has elevated the lives of her family and peers.

To date, there have been 12 Bunkar Sakhis who have been certified through this program, with an ever-growing funnel of qualified candidates for years to come. As a hopeful future entrepreneur, I find it amazing to see an initiative that promotes sound business principles along with social benevolence. Customers get hand-crafted rugs and the priceless feeling of helping fulfill the livelihoods of rural villagers. Jaipur Rugs retains the longevity of the craft through great local leaders without the financial costs and the potential communication barriers associated with “formally educated” middle managers in a rural setting. Bunkar Sakhis receive paid training for skills that can be utilized for things outside of carpet weaving with the upside of inheriting a “founder’s mentality”. And the overall weaver community grows with the help of a local female role model, women are empowered to work, reach for bigger goals than what’s only placed in front of them, and find a way out of any sense of mediocrity.

Vipin was born in India but hasn't spent time there since his move to the U.S. at age 6. He understands the magnitude of change the country has gone through in the last 21 years but is now thrilled to experience it first-hand. He hopes to use his skills in digital marketing and technology to help bridge the gap between untapped artisans, skills building, and leadership training at Jaipur Rugs Foundation. Before becoming an AIF Clinton Fellow, he's had the unique experience of working directly with AIF as a volunteer with the New York Young Professionals Chapter for the past four years to raise funds and awareness about AIF's programs among young South Asian professionals. One of his goals is to see if what he's learned as a physically distant volunteer, effectively translates to the work required on the ground. Another goal? He wants to try as many regional varieties of biryani as his ten months will allow him to stomach and see if his current favorite, the hometown Hyderabadi variant, can be topped.

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