Features | October 21, 2017

How women artisans are reviving ancient crafts and modern livelihoods in rural India

Esha Chhabra
Guest Author

Esha Chhabra

MANIPUR, INDIA — Manipur, a mountainous state in the far east of India, is known as the country’s Switzerland. Residents in the villages in the picturesque region wrestle with a persistent problem: generating a consistent livelihood.

Now, old crafts have opened new opportunities. Global connectivity and networks of entrepreneurs are helping bring Manipur’s distinctive black pottery to markets in India and around the world. Local artisans, primarily women, are supplementing meager household incomes and gaining new authority in their families and villages.

Village handicrafts are part of an informal economic sector that is crucial for meeting Sustainable Development Goal №8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. Crafts account for three out of four new jobs across Southeast Asia, according to the Asian Development Society. About 40 million of the 50 million home-based workers in South Asia are women, according to the International Labor Organization.

When women work, economies grow, says Kristin Lane, chief marketing officer of Nest, a New York City non-profit that works to preserve of arts and crafts jobs in developing nations. Nest works with 36 artisan businesses’ representing more than 12,000 individuals in India who practice diverse crafts, including handloom silk weaving, mud-block printing and traditional Ikat dyeing, which produces intricately patterned yarns for woven fabrics.

Nest provides business training and capacity building for the groups and connects them with brands and retailers who market their designs. “This tradition of women working from the home will be lost if we don’t do something to support them,” says Nest’s founder Rebecca Van Bergen.

The global market for crafts is valued at $400 billion, but India commands less than a 2% of it, according to Dasra, a Mumbai-based social impact firm.

In Manipur, pottery-making is practiced by the Thankhul Naga tribes, who have been sculpting plates, bowls, and cups from local clay and serpentine stone for generations. The black pottery, known as Longpi Ham after the village of Longpi where it is made, designed, shaped, polished and sun-dried before being thrown into a bonfire. The pottery is polished with leaves from the machee tree, giving the pottery its color.

Manipur’s villages where the Longpi women live, farm, and work. Photo Credit: Manvee Vaid

In Longpi, like many other villages, handicrafts and agriculture are the two primary sources of income. Agriculture has well-established supply chains, but networks for buying and selling local handicrafts are fragmented. Artisans have a hard time getting their wares to consumers. Until recently, a lack of access to larger markets meant pottery making and other crafts didn’t generate much income.

Manvee Vaid, founder of Terra Klay, an Illinois-based startup, is helping women artisans in Manipur change that. A native of Mumbai now living in Naperville, Vaid is a freelance artist who has long admired the work of artists in her native country. “I have always been a sucker for the lesser known arts and crafts,” Vaid says.

When a tea shop in Indiana asked for local pottery to accompany their Indian teas last year, Vaid traveled to the hills of Manipur, met with local artisans and arranged to sell their black-clay teapots. She set up her company to take the region’s unique creations to the global market.

“The challenge is to find a way to succeed in keeping a craft alive by adapting to changes in style, taste, and trends,”says Vaid. “Making it more current to consumer taste, while still retaining the essence of the culture and the craft — that’s what’s needed.”

Through Terra Klay, women in the villages can generate additional income for the family, relieve themselves of some of their burdensome household duties and keep alive a traditional craft that might otherwise die out.

Their newfound role as breadwinners also makes them more independent and earns them status in the village. In a community where owning land is a big deal, the women are using money they earned to buy a plot where they can set up a pottery studio outside their homes. This way, Vaid says, women artisans can “prove to the community their right to be respected.”

Exposure to global markets has made the women more savvy entrepreneurs, Vaid says. They’re gaining confidence in making production and sales decisions, and they’re learning how to adapt designs to the tastes of U.S. consumers.

A growing ecosystem of organizations are supporting the development of women-led artisan businesses. The Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, an organization started by Hillary Clinton, promotes better compensation for handicraft workers, who often don’t receive fair wages or an adequate share of sale proceeds since they typically work through a series of middlemen.

The alliance helps artisan-based businesses access capital. Even small loans can make a big difference. The alliance has partnered with Kiva.org, a San Francisco nonprofit, which crowdsources interest-free loans and alternative financing for artisan groups and companies such as Terra Klay. To date, the Alliance has funded 18 loans totaling $130,000 for artisan enterprises.

Vaid named the teapots after the women who made them. Photo Credit: Terra Klay

Growth market

U.S. retailers are waking to the impact that their purchases can make. Target is working with AccompanyUS, which runs an online marketplace for artisan products from around the globe, on a new line that includes items from Mela Artisans and Raven + Lily, U.S. brands that work with women artisans in India.

Housewares retailer West Elm has incorporated rugs, pillows, and accent pieces from Indian artisans. The company works with GoodWeave, a non-profit network that started in India, to ensure that no child labor is involved in producing the goods.

Jaipur Living, previously known as Jaipur Rugs, has been working for more than 20 years with over 40,000 artisans, the majority of them women, who specialize in carpet weaving. Their rugs have been featured at Costco, Crate and Barrel, and other U.S. retailers. Proving that artisan enterprises can scale, Jaipur Living had more than $23 million in sales last year, says CEO Nand Kishore Chaudhary. In 2013 alone, Jaipur Rugs estimates it provided nearly $6 million in direct income to its network of artisans.

There’s plenty of opportunity for even more growth. Even if half of all the women artisans of India could be encouraged to work in commercial handicrafts, says Terra Klay’s Vaid, “they could unlock immense economic potential, for themselves and for the country.”

ImpactAlpha’s Women Rising in India series showcases people and projects that are advancing the global Sustainable Development Goals.