A Stitch In Time: When Masks Came To The Rescue Of Crumbling Businesses

Selling masks and not just wearing them helped many survive the pandemic

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Imagine how things would have been if masks, which have become as crucial as any body part, were ineffective against Coronavirus. Well, the losses could have been more catastrophic. Masks surely came to our rescue, to a great extent. But for some, masks did not only help protect themselves and their loved ones from the virus, but they also helped them feed their families when other avenues to earn closed.

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In the last two years, thousands of small businesses and independent workers such as house helps, drivers and factory workers, who lost jobs, took to stitching masks and selling them to keep their homes running. Here are two such stories.

Kusum's source of income was hanging on by a thread after the pandemic. She was cooking at seven houses till then and was the sole breadwinner in the family ever since her husband had a paralytic attack around six years ago. But, after the first lockdown, most houses did not pay her. This continued through months and this uncertainty over where the next month's grocery would come from gave her anxiety. That is when her teen daughters suggested stitching masks and selling them in the local market after the lockdown was lifted. Today, she is back to work, her daughters are back to their schools, but they take out time to stitch, while her husband sits in the shop.

For some, masks sales not only helped them keep the money coming but helped them earn more than what they were earning before COVID. Many small businesses started utilizing digital solutions and embraced them thoroughly to ensure the pandemic doesn't stop their children's education and all other basic needs were fulfilled.

Sunita Kushwa and Laxmi Narayan Kushwah are tailors by profession. Before the pandemic, they used to run a small tailoring unit from their home and took stitching orders for pants, shirts, blouses etc. For a family of four, that was their only source of income. When the pandemic struck, they lost all business opportunities and had to shut shop. Then they heard about iTokri and came to them in April 2020. Since then, both husband and wife are connected with them and have been making handmade fabric masks. Together they make close to 150-200 masks per day. From the money they made here, the Kushwah's have been able to restart their tailoring business once again. 20 days in a month they work at iTokri and the other days take stitching orders.

"When the pandemic hit, our business also became slow but we decided that we will not let this affect the artisans. We continued buying products as committed. Word spread about this gesture of ours and a lot of artisans came forward to join us. During the lockdown, we ended up onboarding more than 150 new artisans in our community. As a result of this, we also got tons of fabric. Now with so much more fabric, the team had to decide what to do because the sale of fabrics and clothes was slow. So we decided to make masks. We used all the lovely handloom fabrics to create masks and made more than 10 lakh handmade fabric masks sold in 3 lakh orders worth INR 5 Crores. This initiative impacted more than 5000 families and supported livelihood all through the Covid phase," said Nitin Pamnani, co-founder, iTokri. iTokri follows an inventory-based model where it buys things from the artisans first and then lists them on its site. It makes an upfront purchase from the artisans and then sells. It today sells close to 11,000-13,000 masks every month.

Many NGOs also helped women step up and support the family when men lost jobs. For instance, Little India Foundation brought together around 20 women to make cotton masks and a few others like Apnalaya, Coro India, Sneha also followed suit.

For many women and men across India, stitching and selling masks not only meant staying afloat, but this was also their contribution to the fight against COVID. According to April 2020 data from the Rural ministry, nearly 66,000 women from more than 14,500 self-help groups had made 1.32 crore cloth masks till then.