Hi everyone! My name is Manas Baba, and I’m a rising sophomore majoring in International Relations/Economics. As part of the BUILD: India summer trip team, I’ve been researching social enterprises in Tamil Nadu engaged in rural economic development. In addition to the businesses David mentioned, I got to meet with two others in Bangalore while staying with my aunt.
During my search for businesses in Bangalore, I looked for ones that specifically operated with the rural artisan market, as BUILD: India’s initial business idea was to draw on the Thottiapattians’ talent for kolam, a traditional South Indian art form, and use their original kolam designs to create and sell products such as notebooks or purses. These sales would ease pressure to migrate for work and answer one of Thottiapatti’s most pressing issues: a lack of consistent income.
There were so many unknown elements raised with this idea: is there a market for this kind of product? How would we arrange this business to be as inclusive and efficient as possible? Unable to adequately answer these questions on campus, we often found ourselves trapped in circular debates this past semester, coming up with fresh approaches now and then but unable to fully flesh them out. These business meetings thus were supposed to address all our concerns and questions, offering us new perspective and knowledge that would direct us on a more fruitful path. In specific, I looked at the two businesses I met with in Bangalore, ASCENT and Kala Madhyam, to answer questions of how to organize such an enterprise and how viable kolam products would be in the Indian market.
I first met with ASCENT (Asian Centre for Entrepreneurial Initiatives), an NPO founded by Madhura Chatrapathy that strives to develop entrepreneurial skills in people and organizations. Specifically, ASCENT has been servicing a group of village artisans in Athani, Karnataka. As a result, these artisans came together to form ToeHold Artisan Collaborative, a group enterprise that specializes in making shoes of the Kolhapuri tradition that target the class market. The group, composed of 14 women SHGs and men, developed their business acumen through a combination of training offered by ASCENT and exposure visits to international fairs and nearby artisan stores. In terms of structure, the SHGs produce against orders (meaning 0 inventory) from their own homes and report back to the TAC centre, which includes a Common Facility Centre and a Raw Materials Bank. Profits are divided with 40% going to artisans, 40% to TAC itself, and 20% to SHG. As a result of ASCENT’s measured involvement, TAC boasts over $100,000 in exports (94% revenue comes from international market) and high productivity.
What struck me the most about TAC is how well structured and independent their operations are, a standard that we aspire to for Thottiapatti. In fact, this independence was something Ms. Chatrapathy emphasized a lot, criticizing NGOs for fostering too much dependence and not enough empowerment. The problem is that Athani can more readily stand on its own two feet because it possesses a skill traditionally passed down from many generations. While Thottiapattians are talented in kolam, they would still need formal design training to formulate the final product in addition to business training. Consequently, the dependence on outside help is not as easy to shake off in Thottiapatti’s case. To further compound issues, Ms. Chatrapathy dismissed the kolam idea, arguing that it’s too pervasive throughout South India to be a marketable idea.
I next met with Meena, a representative of Kala Madhyam, a store in Bangalore that sells a variety of folk and tribal arts and crafts. KM began around 2000, and it seeks to promote indigenous art and economically empower rural artists by connecting rural crafts to urban markets. 60% of proceeds go to the crafts people, 30% to other art promotional activities, and 10% to administrative expenses. Aside from their store, KM also connects artists to the market through a variety of monthly melas (trade fairs). As opposed to TAC, which targets the class market, KM targets the mass population, meaning their prices rarely go over Rs 500 for most items.
I expected Meena to similarly reject the kolam idea, but she seemed supportive instead, claiming that if we could put it on a good utility product, it could work. She projected that the enterprise would need at least a year to stand on its own feet, and she advised Thottiapatti to target the mass market. The kolam idea isn’t entirely original, however, since comparable artistic styles, like chittara, have been used in a similar manner. Meena also explained that the market for artisan crafts is becoming rather saturated and that China has also recently brought in a lot of competition. Keeping these traditional crafts consistently relevant has consequently been a big challenge for Kala Madhyam.
I learned a lot from these meetings in terms of group enterprise structures, imparting business knowledge to Thottiapattians, and what to expect from the market. Nevertheless, having initially expected to gain a clearer idea of how to continue or reformat our plan, I somewhat felt as if we were back to square one. Throughout the rest of the meetings, we were exposed to new and exciting business ideas only to later understand the difficulty we’d have implementing them in Thottiapatti. In some of our final meetings, we could accurately predict the suggestions the businesses would give us. In one sense, it’s frustrating to not discover another viable solution, but in a more optimistic sense, it means that we really learned as much as we could about the rural market. Taking into account all this information, the business idea Thottiapatti, BUILD, and Payir develop may not be entirely problem-free, but as long as Thottiapattians have the opportunity to at least learn and try something empowering, it’s still a positive and worthwhile advance.