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Sustaining The Crafts And Craftspeople In Current Times



The Craft Catapult, the recent national accelerator program by Startup Oasis, has been a huge step towards bringing traditional crafts and modern technologies together and leveraging them to position India as a crafting hub of the world for sustainable, high quality handcrafted products.

The current lockdown imposed due to COVID-19 however, has disrupted the craft sector just as significantly as many others. The challenge in front of craft entrepreneurs is not only the survival of their enterprise but also the sustenance of their beneficiaries — the artisan communities across the nation. We recently hosted a webinar to help craft businesses prepare for the impacts of COVID-19.

In its quest for deeper insights into the impact of COVID-19 on craft enterprises and possible solutions, Startup Oasis and CIIE.CO reached out to Padma Shri Laila Tyabji. A pioneer figure in the crafts ecosystem in India, Laila ji has been working extensively with Crafts and Craftspeople across India for around 4 decades. She continues to mentor artisans, entrepreneurs and organisations both through the Dastkar Society for Crafts & Craftspeople, and as a thought leader. She expressed her views on the current situation on an e-interview:

What are the biggest challenges for artisans and craft startups right now during lockdown and business restrictions?

The biggest challenge for enterprises is to sustain themselves and their workers at a time when their markets are closed, and no sales or orders are happening. During this period, they also need to continue working and building up stock for when the markets reopen. Without cash flow to buy raw material or pay wages to their workers, this is well nigh impossible. Hence, the need for grants/loans at zero or minimal interest is crucial right now.

How can the startups help the crafts sector sustain during and after current restrictions?

Since most craft enterprises, whether they be artisan cooperatives, NGOs or self-owned businesses, are small in nature and without much financial backup of their own, our first task is to act as a pressure group to lobby the government to recognise the craftspeople and their requirements of the same subsidies, loans, and relief as the daily wagers.

Second would be to help them dispose of the existing inventory by reaching out to the customers through shared images of craftspeople and their products. This is the time to strike the sympathy chord (which otherwise I disapprove of as a selling mechanism)!

Third would be to give them the wherewithal to prepare for the upcoming season and what will be a very different market scenario — not just through financial help, but also through interventions in design and product development.

What could be the different opportunities that startups can create for livelihood of artisans, and for other stakeholders in the value chain?

Startups can undertake the following interventions:

• Secure confirmed orders of simple standardised functional products from Government Departments and corporates — masks of course, bedsheets, aprons, waste bins, durries and floor coverings, etc, that can be made in bulk and can help tide the artisans over these next few months.

• Promote the importance of crafts and craftspeople and create an awareness, so that when the markets reopen there is a concomitant demand.

• Work with craftspeople to create new products with a contemporary edge and appeal, so that they have an edge in what is going to be a very different, much smaller, and more competitive marketplace.

Should startups change their business models or product portfolio to create opportunities for artisans? If yes, how can they do this?

There needs to be a change in both — how we market, and what we market. On-line marketing, which most of us have resisted due to logistics that are difficult for both craftspeople and grassroots NGOs, and institutional marketing are two obvious areas.

Products need to be re-evaluated as well. It’s a mistake to think that only cheap products will sell. However cheap, craft is no longer competitive in price in comparison to machine made goods. Value-addition, better quality, upgrading production processes, tailoring products to consumers demands and tastes, limiting product ranges and quantities of stock, (and having catalogues and swatch cards of fabrics instead) are the way forward.

In times of no demand, can startups create demand through online channels and e-commerce?

Same as above.

How can startups use technology across the value chain to help the sector sustain and eventually revive?

Technology to make craft less time-consuming and hazardous to health is a need that has not been addressed yet. It will not only professionalise the whole process and cut down on labour costs, but will also make craft a more attractive and socially acceptable professional option for the new generation of craftspeople. But it needs to be done sensitively, looking at streamlining the processes and tools, without losing the individual creativity of the craftsperson.

We also have a few questions about the sector as a whole. There are several government schemes which focus on ‘welfare’ of artisans. Is crafts seen as a sector which contributes to the economy? Or is it seen as a sector where artisans need to be uplifted?

Craft, over successive Governments, has never been seen as an economic strength. Part of this confusion arises as the sector though huge, is still so dispersed and diverse. Besides, it is seen as art and culture and not economics. It’s only seen as having export or tourist potential. It has huge potential, especially when green and handmade, low carbon footprint, natural fibres, etc are becoming increasingly important internationally. However, this gold mine needs investment and digging deep and no government has had the vision. Government schemes have remained virtually unchanged for decades.

What is the biggest difference in what artisan communities need now in comparison to 30 years ago? What are their biggest problem areas today?

Not much has changed except that the marketplace has changed and craftspeople need the knowledge and tools to react to that change.

You often talk about making artisans self sustainable and making Dastkar redundant after a point. What steps have you taken in this direction! How effective have these steps been?

I can’t go into the history and methodology of Dastkar here, but a very large percentage of the groups we work with are sustainable now, and when some still use Dastkar services, they pay for it! The proof of this sustainability is that Dastkar is no longer externally funded, either by government or other donors, and we are totally supported from the revenue our programmes and projects generate.

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