Building Bridges, Breaking Walls: Women-Led Entrepreneurship in Rural India

The sky glistened with magnificent hues of crimson and gold as the AIF Clinton Fellows embarked on the journey to Uttarakhand for a 3-day rural homestay experience as part of the 2-week Orientation. Meandering across the winding roads and lush green valleys of Kumaon region, we reached Peora and Satkol – two quaint villages nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas.

We were greeted by our host, Maya, when we entered the picturesque homestay overlooking the orchard valleys. The homestay truly felt like home as we immersed with the family routine since day one. While preparing for the next day, Maya volunteered to take us for a short trek in the nearby forest. 

While trekking the following morning, Maya took us to her favourite spots in the jungle laden with pine, oak, wild berries and rhododendron trees. During a breather, she happened to check her phone. “This venture requires us to be tech-savvy”, said Maya, as she replied to a customer on an online booking application that helps her host people from around the world.

In another conversation, she told us about the impact and importance of online reviews of her homestay. It was intriguing to learn how the realm of social currency affects her business as well. We were fascinated with Maya’s knowledge and entrepreneurial drive. On being asked, how she hatched the concept of running this homestay, she told us about Aarohi, a non-profit organisation that facilitates villages in Kumaon in becoming self-sustaining, eco-tourism spots. That’s how most of the inhabitants opened their doors to tourists for a sustainable income without having to migrate from this hilly region 6,600 ft above sea level with an uncertain and difficult environment.

“I am grateful to be here. My father had a transferrable job which required me to live in some bigger cities of India, but it was never as satisfying and tranquil as it is here, in Peora. Today, we have a stable income, a place to call home, a small farm where we grow our produce, we educate our kids in good schools and colleges in Almora, and whenever I want to clear my mind, I visit the forest which is a blink away – why run in the rat race, when you can have it all here”, said Maya as we stared at the vast skies under the canopy of oak trees.

They also built livelihood opportunities in the region by using locally available raw materials to create a range of body-care and culinary products to sell online and offline. It is inspiring how Aarohi surpassed the geographical & mental constraints and successfully created development opportunities in the Kumaon region.

It is exemplary how Aarohi bridges the gap between Kumaon inhabitants and consumers or travellers from the world whilst preserving the culture and tradition of the communities. As an AIF Clinton Fellow, I am serving at one such remarkable organisation that also believes in development through the bottom-up approach to build livelihood opportunities for artisans of Kachchh.

Khamir, an organisation that works on the crafts, heritage, and cultural ecology of the Kachchh region. Kachchh is the land of rich culture, history, long-lived crafts and unparalleled geography with one of the largest salt deserts in the world. For centuries, tucked away in a remote corner of India, the people of this region have produced some of the finest textiles and embroideries, reared the best cattle, and lived with rare grace, in the face of a harsh and exacting environment (Shah, 2013).

Unfortunately, this beautiful district is also a zone 5 earthquake-prone region, which makes its topography volatile to seismic activities with major changes ensuing the land every few decades. 

One such tragedy struck in the form of a devastating earthquake in Bhuj in 2001, that completely changed the face of the region; it wiped out between 13,805 and 20,023 people, injured another 167,000 and destroyed nearly 400,000 homes (Wikipedia, 2019). That earthquake was also the reason that AIF was founded.

Besides causing massive destruction of life and property, the earthquake destroyed many artisans’ workshops and raw materials leading to a major loss in livelihood. The initial rehabilitation by the organisations, Kachchh Nav Nirman Abhiyan and Nehru Foundation Development led to the realisation that an institutional response to reinstating the rich cultural livelihoods was required, and that is how Khamir came into existence (Kachchh, Khamir).

Siju Naran Mandan is an inhabitant of Bhujodi, a village where ambitions and aspirations are woven into a fabric. Naran began his career in weaving right after 10th grade due to unfavourable financial condition and father’s health issues. As a tyro, he worked with his uncle and continued working under him for 20 years until he decided to start independently. When Naran learnt about Khamir, he got the opportunity to expand his business in carpet weaving. Khamir not only connected him with the Indian market but also facilitated trade between him and buyers from as far as Finland. Naran has involved his whole family in this business and educated his children from a craft institute to incorporate newer technology and innovative designs. He and his children have woven together with a legacy deeply rooted in the art of their ancestors (Kachchh-Weaving, Khamir).

Khamir is not only bridging the gap between the artisans and the global market but also building a bridge between today’s youth in Kachchh and the traditional Kutchi crafts through ‘Khamir Education Program’. The program aims to integrate the knowledge of Kutchi crafts with the regular school curriculum in the district to create a holistic learning environment. Khamir believes that the need to move from the practising artisans to the new generation – children and youth, is the need of the hour if we want to enhance the life of craft practices along with preserving the ecosystem at large (Education Program Data, Khamir).

It is 7 in the morning and Champa, an exceptionally motivated and headstrong 22-year-old aspiring entrepreneur is ready to begin her day. She treads towards her workplace, which is a convenient 1-minute walk, right outside her bedroom and places herself near her handloom. Champa befriended the loom when most of the people of her age were either studying or getting married.

Champa at her workshop
Champa weaving at her workshop

Hailing from a small village, Aawadhnagar, located 14 km from Bhuj, her affair with schooling was an unpleasant one. With much trials and tribulations, Champa somehow managed to clear her 10th-grade exams and decided to join a nearby factory to work in a 9 to 5, unaware of the fact that the job was soul-less. The restrictions and inflexibility of the job made Champa feel like a caged bird yearning to set free. Watching her father, a veteran weaver, on the loom every day, she was inspired. For her, it was fascinating to see the weaver and the loom becoming one as it synchronised to create rhythmic movements, interlacing the strands of colour to give life to a fabric. She shared with her father about her intentions of quitting the job to weave professionally. In the time when most of the youngsters were drifting away from the traditional craft, her father was both shocked and surprised. He also tried to warn her that it would take her six months to learn the craft and that it is a tedious job, but she was resolute to get her way. To everyone’s surprise, Champa learnt how to operate the loom and weave a perfect fabric out of it within eight days. Indeed, weaving was in her blood.

Champa at her workshop
Champa weaving at her workshop

Recognising her potential, Khamir offered Champa to participate in a 15-day exchange program between India and Wales, United Kingdom, and that is how a girl with limited exposure and big dreams, got wings to fly. For somebody who hadn’t even travelled outside the periphery of her hometown, this was a great head-start to her professional career. She not only had the opportunity to learn from the artisans of the UK but also exhibit and sell her work at the Ruthin Craft Centre, Ruthin, North Wales.

Champa in the UK
Champa weaving on a loom in the UK

With this exposure, Champa also realised the significance of her craft and this lifetime opportunity that expanded her worldview. This motivated her to be an entrepreneur. 

When Juhi Pandya, Former Director of Khamir, saw the zeal and passion in Champa, she helped Champa procure admission at IIM Ahmedabad, the most prestigious Business Management Institution in India, in the Arts and Culture Business Course. 

Champa is not only preserving the art of handloom weaving but also manifesting a strong example of women empowerment. Her inspiration emanates from nature and travelling – from the beaches of Kachchh, the expansive White Rann and vivid grasslands to the waterfalls, mountains and castles of Wales. Champa’s woven wall-hangings and stoles are still exhibited at the university town of Aberystwyth, Wales. 

Borders across geographies are diminishing with advancements in technology and disruptive communication. Today, artisans from extremely remote villages in India are doing business with importers from the West. Rightful interventions and facilitation from NGOs in such remote regions along with the reach of high-speed internet and telecommunication have made this world a global village. The fourth industrial revolution is indeed building bridges and breaking walls through collaborations and partnerships. The world is not only driven more by individuals but also by a much more diverse — non-western, non-white — group of individuals. (Friedman, 2005). In spite of the globe becoming more homogenous, the diverse cultures and lifestyles of people are heterogeneous in their capacity. 

Crafts tend to be studied within cultural contexts since they have little meaning in isolation (Shah, 2013). With globalisation and free trade comes profit-making. The only question that runs my mind when I see such advancements happening is how are the artisans going to keep the original meaning and the quality of craft intact, amidst the fast-moving demands and rapid changes in the world of trade?


Sources:

“Education Program Data, Khamir.” Khamir Database (internal). Accessed on 5 Oct. 2019.

Friedman, Thomas L. (2005). “It’s a Flat World, After All.” New York Times Magazine, 3 Apr. 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/03/magazine/its-a-flat-world-after-all.html

“Kachchh.” Khamir, khamir.org/about/kachchh. Accessed on 5 Oct. 2019. 

“Kachchh Weaving.” Khamir. http://khamir.org/crafts/kachchh-weaving. Accessed on 5 Oct. 2019.

Shah, Archana (2013). Shifting Sands, Kutch: A Land in Transition. Ahmedabad: Bandhej Books.

“2001 Gujarat Earthquake.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Sept. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001_Gujarat_earthquake. Accessed on 5 Oct. 2019.

Aishwarya is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Khamir in Bhuj, Gujarat. For her Fellowship project, she is designing a unique range of craft products and publicity materials to support local artisans reach new markets, increase their income, and secure their livelihoods. Born and brought up in a small town, Aishwarya always questioned the increasing dichotomies between the developed and developing world. To channelize her curiosity for social impact, she decided to pursue her graduation in mass communication. During her undergrad, she participated in the YES Foundation Media for Social Change Fellowship to learn about the impact of social media in the development sector. She did an internship with the Indian Express as a journalist and photojournalist, where she covered issues ranging from mob lynching to climate change. A stint at TEDxGateway 2018 gave her an opportunity to work with inventors from around the world, learning aobut the power of storytelling as a medium for change. Aishwarya made a documentary on the Juvenile Justice Act 2015 to study the increase in juvenile crime rate and the discrepancies between the act and implementation. In 2018, Aishwarya participated in a 15-day entrepreneurial train journey across rural India to meet social change-makers who enlightened her about the balance between social impact and profitability. This experience also made Aishwarya look at her hometown in new light: she learned about problems related to declining tourism and waste management. She founded her own nonprofit, ARTC Foundation, to solve these issues. In her free time, she enjoys reading, travel, and photography. Aishwarya is honored to be serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow to expand her horizons in the development sector.

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3 thoughts on “Building Bridges, Breaking Walls: Women-Led Entrepreneurship in Rural India

  1. Excellently written and beautifully explained…. thank you for spreading so much positivity and exploring the unseen and beautiful side of INDIA…….we are proud of you aishwarya…… keep GOING, keep TRAVELING, keep EXPLORING, keep EXPRESSING❤

  2. Excellently written and beautifully explained…. thank you for spreading so much positivity and exploring the unseen and beautiful side of INDIA……. the motivation you set for US in relation to society development, carrier goals, youth power is incredible and the PUSH you give to all the artists is speechless…….we are proud of you aishwarya…… keep GOING, keep TRAVELING, keep EXPLORING, keep EXPRESSING❤

  3. Great work! I am glad to know the work and progress of your host organization. I look forward to reading more about your organization.

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