These Startups Are Preventing India's Rich Handicraft Culture From Fading Away

Startup community realised artisans typically are unaware of market places and heavily rely on middle men

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If India is known for its agriculture, then it surely is also known for art and crafts across the whole world. Millions of tourists come every year to visit deserted villages in a bid to catch a glimpse of ‘Real India’ and also get a sneak peak of India’s vibrant wearables that are sold at thousands of dollars when exported to their own country. For years, the world has been curious about the complicated and yet eye soothing embroidery, intricate yet inscrutable designs, rich yet simple colors, and more importantly the dedication put behind these delicate work.

Kopai-Paar
Artisan Working

However, post-Independence, artisans have been vanishing gradually. Nope, they are not sucked by the aliens, but are finding an alternative livelihood in various pockets of  nearby towns/cities. Low income rate, absence of market place, and lack of raw material have only made the matters worse. As per the Development Commissioner Handicrafts (DCH), at present only 7 million of handicrafts artisans earn their livelihood through handicraft, a significant drop for the second largest employment generator after agriculture. 

Online Is The Key?

Government along with various private and social sector initiatives have tried to address worries of skilled artists in India, trying to convince them not to quit the traditional profession, promising them raw materials, training and even at times offering them incentives. But has it helped them? The answer would be no. According to a report by the UN, over the past 30 years, the number of artisans in the country has dropped by 30 per cent, strongly suggesting the dire need to re-invest in artisans to safeguard culture, history and an important source of livelihood.

Startups, which generally focus on multiple pain points present in a sector rather than the entire sector have found a way to invigorate the morale of these artisans. Startup community realised unlike agriculture, the handicrafts sector does not enjoy the concern as much as the agriculture sector does.

“ Because of the pandemic, one of the biggest problems that we found after connecting with 6,000 SMEs (artisans) on ground was that they were all looking for a digitised webstore for the products which were lying in their shops/ houses.” said Maneet Gohil, chief executive officer and co-founder of Lal10.

Ideally, exhibitions are the only places where artisans products are showcased and their work is appreciated. In the 21st century it was the time when the artisans too get their identity on the Internet and sell their products online. Lal10 is a technology driven, B2B platform that helps global SMBs source authentic Indian handloom and handicraft products. It provides easy to use mobile applications to rural artisans to create digitised inventories on their web-stores on the Lal10 platform

Lal10 co-founders: Albin Jose, Maneet Gohil, Sanchit Govil

Kailash Tulsi Gajara, founder and CEO of Megastores.com said they discovered artisans were mostly old and as the current generation doesn't want to remain in the craft making business, artisans hardly have any idea on how to sell their products, thus relying heavily on the middle men and traders to market their products.

“Artisans cannot start a physical retail store because it’s not affordable in the cities where their customers belong. They are currently only able to market through exhibitions. They don’t get decent money for their hard work and lose their identity,” added Gajara. 

Gajara said artisans need a hand-holding approach to overcome many obstacles using technology interventions. Megastores is an online marketplace, a platform where customers can directly purchase authentic handicraft products from artists.

Interestingly, Gohil said another issue that impedes artists' sales is that they are unaware of quality parameters or design interventions that can match up their products to international standards.

Supporting Gohil, Kopai-Paar’s Neha Rungta said, “There is a huge aesthetic gap in the way traditional handicrafts are being developed, designed and are presented to the consumer. For handicrafts to survive and be relevant today, a new approach to design and quality is required.”

Kopai-Paar is a self-funded startup that identifies artists, trains them, works on designs with them, creates new handicrafts items and eventually sells them to the concerned customer online or offline.

Digital Empowerment Of Artisans

Gohil, whose grandfather was into leather shoe making business, early on learnt that his grandfather struggled as he failed to take his products to local or international market. Gohil, who is the second engineer in the family, understood the need to create easy market access for such handcrafted products.

As a B2B startup, Lal10 creates market access for rich handcrafted products which are visible to retailers and buyers and are sold in bulk. The startup on the demand side works on two fronts. First, the enterprise model, where it collaborates with popular brands and helps them get handcrafted products from artisans and second where the buyers are typically global SMBs like boutiques/ resellers, who prefer the items from the inventory.

The startup also trains them to achieve better product quality, source them with raw materials and help them with designs.

The startup has also come up with a mobile application through which artisans can digitize their inventories and create a webstore on their own.

Megastores’s team visits artisans, makes their stories, documents their craft and at the same time checks the authenticity of the product. “We provide complete product cataloging for free which includes product photography, writing product descriptions and specifications. This helps the artisans create their own brand and get the due credit for their art work,” Gajara added.

Kailash Tulsi Gajara, founder and CEO of Megastores.com

Rungta said during the pandemic, when the economy of the entire world crippled, Kopai-Paar still managed to give work opportunities to few of the artists, as intermittent orders came via online.

COVID-19 Impact

The ongoing pandemic has been nothing less than ruthless to business across the sectors. Business with even millions of dollars as cash runaway cowed, as lockdowns continued to be imposed in the backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases.  The livelihood of artisans suffered the most as their work was not considered as “essential”. Even customers who had interests in their products, tried to cut their expenses as financial uncertainty loomed over.

After hearing from the artists when the first lockdown was imposed in the country, Gohil and team discovered that a lot of SMEs were sitting on the deadstock of products, fabrics and inventory. Gohil said even in villages where electricity is yet to reach, people already own a smartphone and as the lockdown was in place restricting their movement, Lal10 came up with a mobile application which helped the artisans to connect to the market from the comfort of their home.  He further stressed that artisans until now did not want to go online or use mobile applications as they considered their sole market as exhibitions.

The startup in 2020, in terms of revenue grew by three times and in 2021 is expected to grow by eight times. The Noida-based startup every month is working around 1,800 SMEs and seeing a growth of 15 per cent month on month. By the end of the year, the startup intends to work with close to 12,000 SMEs.

Rungta said that due to the pandemic, their overseas orders were halted. However, as the startup quickly shifted to online, it saw gradual rise in orders. “ We tried to give them work as much as was possible, kept more unsold stocks with us just so that they could get work, but still of course we could not supplement all their regular incomes,” she added.

Neha Rungta, founder of Kopai-Paar

Kopai-Paar at present works with 30-35 artisans. These artisans do not exclusively work with the startups.

“Because most artisans’ products are “non-essential”, we had seen a downtrend in total orders. This resulted in unsold inventory piling up at the artisans shop,”added Gajara. He continued that the artisans did not have any capital to reinvest in purchasing raw material and their exhibitions were cancelled.

As per him, few of the artisans even started working on agricultural land to sustain.

The startup started taking small orders that they could manage. They also created a few unique campaigns on social media that helped to clear the existing stock and also started selling masks and manual hand sanitizer machines that were designed by artisans.

“Because of high availability of customers on online social media, our cost of acquiring customers reduced by almost 40%. We also started contacting businesses to get bulk orders and that we were able to give to artisans.”

The startup is working with 300 artisans from different parts of India. “Many of our artisans get more than INR 10,000/- per month from our B2C orders and many have received orders worth INR 5,00,000 from our B2B channels,” he added. 

Existing Problems and Trigger Growth

Though these startups have been working to provide a better livelihood to artists and restore the cultural heritage of the country, they still continue to face challenges. According to Gohil, most of the artisans are using mobile for the first time, so the startup had to offer them with a simplified application much like WhatsApp for convenience. Apart from this the other issue that the startup faces is at times artists need  money in advance whereas big enterprises agree to pay after receiving the order. 

Gajara while talking about the issues he continues to face pointed out sourcing of artisans, connecting with the right customer, marketing, return of goods and warranty. 

While stressing on the lack of funding in the sector, he added, “Currently no one is interested in funding an e-commerce startup and especially in the handicraft space as the usual misunderstanding is that handicrafts promote slow fashion and it has not a good market and its supply chain is not efficient and we can not scale. Breaking this dilemma is the biggest challenge,” 

Rungta underlines that finding consumers who understand and appreciate the value of handicraft and appreciate the time, effort and skills that go into creating each piece is an enduring problem. 

“To be brutally honest, in my experience, Indians value their crafts and culture a lot less than people from outside India. All around the world there’s appreciation and respect for Indian handicrafts, the consumer is more than willing to pay a premium for the craft pieces, but in our own country the percentage of people who appreciate and respect that is very little,” she added.

According to Gohil, Lal10 digitizing the rural SMEs will help it stay ahead in the sector. He said that the startup will ensure that the artisans are online on the web store and get orders from different corners of the world. The startup is also looking ahead to raise its Series A round this year. 

For Megastores, Gajara said that it is working on its new product called Megastores Social - a social network for artisans and brands within the Megastores ecosystem, where they can promote their brand and get maximum order on the platform. The startup has also started shipping handicraft products internationally and is looking towards generating bulk orders from other businesses. He also highlighted that Megastores app and website will also be available in multilingual languages soon. 

Rungta explains that the Kopai-Paar is cautious about the materials that go into creating handicrafts as the startup is careful about the state of the environment and the impact large-scale consumerism has on Earth’s limited resources. One of the campaigns that the startup has initiated lately is called ‘Kantha blanket project’ where it seeks old sarees and turns them into blankets and bedsheets using kantha embroidery. For the artisans, the startup is actively working to help them grow ethically and financially.