Ethically crafted to empower

13 min read
18 Jul 2017
13 min read
2658 words
From the Archive (Sept, 2016): Some of Nepal’s leading handicraft producers work with a business model that focuses on empowering their women workers, rather than on making a profit

As a kid, Laxmi Maharjan gave up studying so that her siblings could go to school. She went to school for only two years, after which she dropped out so that she could take care of things around the house. She knew her lack of education would mean that she wouldn’t be able to get a well-paying job. And later, with her small tailoring business, there was no telling how business was going to be. So working at Association for Craft Producers (ACP) and putting her sewing skills to use meant taking charge of her life.

Today, after some 25 years of working at ACP, Maharjan, 45, works as a group leader for one of ACP’s producer groups in Lubhu, Lalitpur. She oversees around eight women who produce hand-made dolls, hats and other products. Laxmi is one of the many women whom ACP, a non-profit, fair trade handicraft organisation, has given an opportunity to be self-reliant, over its more than three decades of operation. Socially conscious organisations in Nepal, such as ACP, Mahaguthi Craft with Conscience, Nepal Knotcraft Centre (NKC), Nepal Girls Care Centre, and Women Development Service Centre, among others, have been working for decades to primarily provide marginalised Nepalis—especially women—with income-generating opportunities. The main aim of these organisations is to help improve their producers’ socio-economic status, rather than focusing on profits.

“For women who have long been dependent on their husbands and families for financial support, empowerment comes first from being able to earn to fulfil their and their families’ needs,” says Meera Bhattarai, founder member and executive director of ACP, Rabi Bhawan. ACP, NKC and Mahaguthi make sure that they provide women, all over Nepal, with skill development and advancement training. Through an integrated approach taken by these organisations, the women get to hone their skills—weaving, knitting, sewing—make the products, learn marketing skills and also find market linkages. Because of the organisations’ ready pool of customers, within and outside the country, the producers don’t have to worry about their products not selling. Within Nepal, the market is increasing and both ACP’s retail outlets, Dhukuti, and Mahaguthi’s two outlets boast an always-enlarging pool of customers. ACP also exports its products through Nepal Craft Trading to the US, Canada and some parts of Asia and Europe, and in the international market, Mahaguthi’s main buyers are located in Japan, the US, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy, among others.

By selling their craft in the expansive market, the women, many of whom didn’t get to pursue an education and were married early on in their lives, find a platform to help them find economic freedom. The women can either work within the organisations’ factories as in-house producers or as home-based artisans in outside-producer groups.

Over the last three decades, more than two hundred producer groups have got job opportunities through Mahaguthi Craft with Conscience. The organisation was started, in 1984, as a commercial outlet to sell fabrics made by women at Nepali Charkha Pracharak Gandhi Smarak Mahaguthi, an ashram established by Tulsi Mehar, in 1927. Women in the ashram were given vocational training for weaving. Today, the organisation’s producer groups are spread across some 15 districts—Dolakha, Pyuthan, Dhanusa and Kaski, among others—and it has a network of 1,500 home-based artisans, out of whom more than 60 per cent are women. In the company, whose primary offerings include handloom textiles, musical instruments, handmade paper products, and so on, the outside producer groups produce more than 60 per cent of the products—everything in their inventory apart from handmade paper products and textiles.

For women working in such organisations, both in and outside the factory setting, the companies make sure that there are opportunities for career growth. Some women at both ACP and Mahaguthi have been with the companies since the very beginning, and they have grown in terms of the skills they possess and the position they hold in the company. One such employee, for example, says Mohit Maharjan, Head of Operation at Mahaguthi, started out as a seamstress in the company, and today, works as a production supervisor in the organisation.

Today, Laxmi, as a group leader, is able to provide opportunities to other women in her locality, and owing to the leadership role she plays, how people there view her has changed drastically. This change in people’s attitudes means that for women like her, the economic freedom afforded them by such organisations also translates into social independence. Their work provides them with opportunities to create a self-identity—their identities no longer have to be based on their father’s or their husband’s. People in their localities today know them as artisans, jobholders and entrepreneurs. To help the women set up their own micro-enterprise, ACP also provides them with zero-interest loans. As a non-profit organisation, all the profits the company makes are ploughed back for the artisans’ benefit. 

The company also has several producers’ benefit programmes, such as Education Allowance, whereby they provide producers’ kids, who are high-scoring students, an allowance for their education. The organisation also has other programmes, such as the Producers Saving Programme, which allows producers to save a portion of their earnings; there’s also the Foresight Fund for Producers, also known as Producers’ Retirement Fund, and paid maternity leave, among others.

As members of Fair Trade Group (FTG) Nepal, a consortium of social organisations, the companies comply with FTG’s fundamental principles—from ensuring good working environments to making use of eco-friendly materials—keeping their artisans and their customers’ wellbeing in mind. Both Mahaguthi and ACP are among the founding members of Fair Trade Group Nepal and have been accredited by the World Fair Trade Organization as their Guaranteed Fair Trade members, which is a rigorous social audit conducted by an outsourced consultant recruited by the WFTO headquarters in the Netherlands.

All these Nepali organisations have grown leaps and bounds from where they started. ACP started with 38 producers in 1984, and is now able to help more than 1,200 producers, including some 1,000 women. Along the way, they have had to come up with creative ways to overcome many social constraints. For example, because the women in many communities are constantly busy with household chores they often don’t show up for training regularly. “In one such instance, one of the trainees asked me how much we had to invest to train one of them,” says Mohit Maharjan. “She enquired if we could give her the money instead of spending it on her training.” Mahaguthi also makes sure to train and work with differently abled women, even though getting their families to come around is particularly difficult.

The organisations also have to work on issues such as convincing the trainees’ parents about the importance of their daughters’ working to convincing the trainees themselves about the benefits of doing so too. Mahaguthi sits down with their producers’ families, especially in the case of differently abled women, and explains to them the purpose of the training and the change it can bring about.

“With the prize money that I received from my Ashoka Fellowship, in 1992, I organised an event for the women’s families, where they could see for themselves the work that the organisation was doing and the working environment,” says Bhattarai. At Mahaguthi, because some home-based artisans prefer to work in an office-like environment, the organisation has built community centres (in collaboration with local authorities) where they can work.

“To ensure that the handicraft made by the outside groups are up to the mark in terms of design and quality, the company intervenes early on in the design phase,” says Mohit Maharjan. The company provides designs, in accordance with their buyers’ specifications, to their home-based artisans, and also trains them to work based on those designs. In ACP too, where they believe in constant innovation in designs across the 23 product categories they produce, the artisans attend orientation programmes to familiarise themselves with the changing designs and methods used to make functional products using a combination of modern and traditional techniques.

Because of their increasing repertoire of techniques, the artisans are constantly becoming better at their vocation. The work helps develop their sense of self-worth, and women who used to previously hesitate to even speak with people can now question social norms and make their own decisions. They now have a say in matters in their family and society. “Being listened to and being treated with respect makes them believe that they are worth something,” says Bhattarai.

“I know what it feels like to be disregarded and to feel invisible in a room full of two hundred men, and that was despite my having an education and a job,” she says. “Today, what makes me feel even more empowered is being able to give women opportunities to be self-sufficient.” In the beginning, Laxmi Maharjan used to ask her husband to handle the accounts for her. Today, she can do more than just that, all without her husband’s assistance.

Now her husband too works at ACP as a leader of another producer group in Lubhu. Their daughter is a staff nurse and lives in the UK, and their son has a degree in business and has recently started working. “When my kids were in school, I used to buy them stationery items with the money I got from my work,” she says. “Being able to buy my kids something as simple as school supplies made me realise that I too could help shape their future. That realisation made me feel capable, and with every other achievement, big or small, that feeling has only grown stronger.” 

Au naturale

There is a quiet serenity in the lush garden of the Kantipur Temple House where Prabighya Basnet sits and toils over her notes on forestry and natural fibres. The hotel, belonging to her father, is a haven for nature lovers because of its natural ambience: Birds chirp from nearby nests, and small black ants amble over the wooden table on which is spread out the natural-fibre products from Khali Khutta. Basnet, seated behind the table, talks about forests, natural fibre and communities dependent on natural produce as she explains the social-entrepreneurship model employed by her company, Khali Khutta.

Started very recently, in 2015, Khali Khutta is a company that produces consumables made from materials and fibres available in Nepal. The company’s co-founder is David Smith, whom Basnet met while she was pursuing her master’s degree in Environmental Science at Bangor University in Wales. The idea for Khali Khutta did not take root during their time at college, but was sparked after both Basnet and Smith had graduated—when Reetha (soap nut) was starting to become popular as an alternative to chemically made soap in Europe. The company initially only dealt with soap nut, which grows in ample quantities in eastern Nepal. Experimenting with the nut, the company started producing soap liquids and powders from the nut for the European market. Today, the company’s product lineup has expanded quite a bit, with the addition of natural products like lip balms, body balms and soaps that are made out of wild material like beeswax, nettle and hemp. Staying true to the company’s eco-conscious ethos, they even use natural dyes to colour their products. Currently, Khali Khutta sells their products primarily in the UK and the US, through the popular online art-market portal Etsy, but they have plans to make their products available for local consumers too, through the Yala Mandala in Patan.

To create their products, the company sources materials from different parts of the country: They get wild nettle from Sankhuwasabha, in eastern Nepal; natural dyes from Lubhu, in Lalitpur; hemp from Darchula, in the far-west; and beeswax from bee farmers in Jawalakhel. The company does not merely source materials from all these far-flung places, Khali Khutta also believes in giving back to the communities there. They do this by providing a sustainable economic model the suppliers can work with, by buying from local, especially women, providers of their raw material. 

One of the communities they work with is Sankhuwasabha’s Kulung community, who have for generations harvested nettle and extracted the plant’s fibre with their teeth. The community’s women have often had to depend on selling nettle fibre during financially difficult times. Hemp, another wild plant, is another resource plant for people of the far-west, where hemp grows exceptionally well. The fibres from the weed, which make a strong fabric, are used by Khali Khutta to produce their hemp yoga mats.

Even the containers Khali Khutta’s products come in have been thoughtfully produced. Their lip balms and body balms come in rounded sal-wood boxes crafted by Patan Handicraft Centre.

Basnet believes that for the Nepali natural-product industry to grow, Nepali producers need to produce well-designed products that can garner premium price in the Western market. Thus, Khali Khutta focuses on smart design and exceptional quality. Their hemp yoga mats feel comfortable and are lined with nettle fabrics on the sides to provide extra durability. They are also dyed with colours that don’t rub off on the skin during sweaty workout routines. Basnet says that since Nepal is still seen as a third world country, Western buyers tend to think that all Nepali products are cheap. Until Nepali producers start producing quality products that can be sold for a higher price, the local communities will not be able to make more money off product sales.

Khali Khutta has bigger plans for the future—even in how they source their raw materials. Basnet wants to establish permaculture—the creating of agricultural systems that mimic natural ecosystems--in the rural parts of the country. The company has already been supporting permaculture by finding use for wild plants and natural by-products. But Basnet wants to establish permaculture more rigorously, in order to allow local communities to become economically self-sufficient and to preserve the environment at the same time.