Rural Indian Artisans Capitalize on E-Commerce to Boost Sales

sariBy Shaina Shealy

What if female artisans in rural areas could deliver embroidery to the market directly from their village homes?  Would acquiring full reign over design, production and income amplify their independence and enrich their contribution to positive change in their communities?

Technology’s Gift to India

In 2011, 904 million people in India – 75 percent of the population –  were mobile phone users, and 78.7 million of those were mobile internet users.

E-commerce is developing rapidly in the craft sector of rural India, bridging the gap between female artisans and buyers all over the world. But these artisans also face challenges when it comes to capitalizing on the power of the Interned.
“Breathe in.” Dr. Ismael Khatri, Gujarat’s most admired block-printer, shoved a densely decorated scarf into my face when I visited his home in 2011. It smelled like my lunch.
“Turmeric and Pomegranate skins for yellow,” Dr. Ismael explained that smell is the way buyers ensure that the dye used is natural.

Dr. Ismael was born into a centuries-old tradition of Ajrakh, or block printing; his family was recruited from Sindh in the 16th century at the king’s request for handmade textiles. Dr. Ismael runs a family textile operation in rural Gujarat, a hamlet for Indian and international tourists seeking handmade textiles in India. The family delivers custom orders for fashion designers throughout north America, Europe, Asia and Australia, and its members have led workshops and conferences related to craft in Europe, India and the United States.

“Yes, online business is good. The future is in the internet,” Sufiyan Khatri, Dr. Ismail’s son, told me over Skype from his village home. 

Sufiyan recently created a Facebook page, “Ajrakh,” for his family’s operation, which garnered close to 1,000 “likes” in less than one year. When Sufiyan is not showing tourists around the facility, he’s hooked to his phone sending eager Thank You’s to almost every one who “likes” his page. He responds quickly to questions and comments, and regularly uploads photos of new patterns, the goats in his village and block-printing workshops. Such internet communication has allowed his family to reach customers globally, broadening the scope of its sales and inspiring appreciation of handcrafted goods worldwide.

The Khatri family is now exploring an e-commerce partnership with NGOs that manage online sales operations including posting images, pricing, marketing and fulfillment. Many intermediary e-commerce portals curate online marketplaces for Indian handcraft such as Craftsvilla and IndiaMart. Because cost-of-living is relatively low in remote areas, rural artisans categorically under-price their goods. The advent of handcrafted goods on internet sites equips artisans with tools to price their products fairly, furthering prosperity among marginalized artisans by rallying fairer wages. Further, rural artisans who may not have had exposure to a diverse range of handcrafted goods can use such sites to learn more about current market trends.

Sufiyan would like to set up an online shop for his family’s work, but knows that the endeavor would make it impossible for him to continue his career as an artisan.

“On the internet, there can be many questions about just one product. If I put up a website at my home, I need to answer the questions because I need to give good service. If I answer all of the questions, I will spend all day and night in front of the computer.”

Sufiyan’s concerns are realistic: he cannot send samples to everyone who expresses interest online and he lamented that repeat orders of any handmade textiles are difficult because it is almost impossible to match original samples. There is always a 10 – 15 percent color variation due to the organic production process, which is contingent on erratic conditions such as climate. And Sufiyan worries that international customers might not understand the realities of production in India (that humidity can delay cloth from drying or marriage season bogs down the facility with massive orders).

“E-commerce can work for artisans who can handle online systems by themselves.” Jabbar Khatri, an independent artisan in Kutch explained. “But most who are doing well with e-commerce are not artisans, they are traders.”

Despite such challenges, most of the artisans agreed that e-commerce is crucial to building a brand name and gaining exposure. Jabbar affirmed, “If your name is online at least people know they can find you.”

As Jabbar explained,  many artisans fail to succeed online because they are busy creating art. He suggested that women may play a unique role in internet business. In Kutch, women are not typically in the front-lines of business. Yet, Jabbar proposed that “maybe women can be involved because the work can be done from home.”

Throughout the world, women employ their craft skills to contribute to their economies, gain financial independence and transmit their cultural heritage.  While artisans like Jabbar and Sufiyan Khatri have traveled across India and the world to attend trade shows and workshops, such opportunities are often unavailable to female artisans, who can be bound to their homes by limited physical mobility due to cultural or religious norms. Whereas internet communication and e-commerce have the potential to scale business for all artisans in developing regions, it could be a game-changer for women: it can connect female artisans with global markets and can provide craftswomen with greater control over creativity, design, production, marketing and sales.

Suschila, a participant of an independent weaving collective for women housed by The Action Northeast Trust (The ANT) in Assam explained why craft production is important to her, “weaving is our tradition … I can save for my future. With money [made from weaving], I have purchased land in town…”

Suschila defines empowerment as the ability to depend on herself.

By giving women the power to manage their supply chain and sales as they connect to national and international buyers directly, e-commerce empowers them to take greater control of the income that they generate with their craft, and – the key – it enables them to do it from their home villages. By providing opportunities to build solidarity across physical distance and the ability to access to legal information, business resources and networks of global designers and artisans, internet can strengthen the capacity of craftswomen’s self-help groups.

However, if internet communications is not made available to women at the same rate that they are made available to men, the preexisting gender-equality gap may widen. And, the unfortunate reality is that girls have less access to internet than boys in developing countries.

As men gain more information from the internet than women, they may feel more entitled to dominate household decision-making. If women are not deliberately targeted as internet users, they may be left behind.

Reveling in Choice

For now, Suschila is focused on improving The ANT’s products. During our conversation, Suschila asked, “Are the people who are buying more women or more men? People in high society or middle society?  What colors are they wearing?” She told me, “I want to sell more.

Internet can deliver the latest trends in global textile production to Suschila’s fingertips; it can show her who is buying her woven products, which can inform her design choices; it can introduce her to new systems of efficiency, production and sales.  By mastering internet skills, Suschila may even attempt her own textile business outside of The ANT’s umbrella. By connecting Suschila directly to her customers, the internet can put all the strings of production and sales, for the first time, into her hands.

But unless Suschila is targeted as an internet user and trained appropriately, she will most likely remain in the cloud of go-betweens, heralding messages from The ANT’s administrative staff (who are mostly men) to weavers while picking up clues about The ANT’s customers along the way.

At least this cloud offers Suschila protection: to this effect, The ANT has allowed her to channel her weaving skills into steady income generation, introduced her to a cohort of entrepreneurial women, and provided her with a supportive infrastructure that manages marketing and sales on her behalf. Why would Suschila leave the structural benefits of The ANT to face the headache of internet business, knowing that she may not be able to manage an internet marketplace on her own or create an appreciation of the “handcrafted” experience online?

Why do any of us risk security to build something bigger? Because we can.

[Image credit: Peter Rivera, Flickr]

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