Kadam – Natural Fibre Products from West Bengal, India
I travelled to the villages in West Bengal and Assam to teach the youth employed with Kadam. While the people were committed to producing high quality work, I noticed not much was referenced from their own cultural influences. The designs of the products were contemporary but failed to capitalise on the artistic heritage of the region that is historically known for its use of the abundantly available sabai grass. It is also a GI tagged region for products made from Sabai grass.
Although Kadam is a youth centric initiative, a major hurdle for it is access to market opportunities. Even the volunteers and professionals employed with Kadam are good at design and are able to make beautiful products but find it difficult to create engaging conversations with customers.
One of the reasons for this, I identified, is that the team did not indulge in researching the artistic heritage of the region. Without a team member who actively researched and documented the stories that abound in the region about sabai grass and its use in myriad of daily activities, the group was losing out on an excellent opportunity to distinguish themselves from the other similar producers.
In addition, as sustainability was the prime focus of the organisation, the team was usually engrossed in “making ends meet” so to speak. The daily work involved making sure recurring; larger orders were sourced so that the villagers continue to have a steady income. Being lean is one of the only ways a non-profit can cut costs. Recruiting talent and growing the team as per the requirement (the way corporate companies can recruit) is relatively difficult.
An obvious way to circumvent this challenge, in my opinion, is to train the existing staff and empower them with simple story telling techniques. Stories are an important form of engagement with potential customers. In an effort to do that, the team is now actively employed in researching and documenting the cultural nuances of the region.
Rug weavers of Soolkaama, MP
A tiny hamlet of around 30 huts in MP, about 50 Kms from Maihar, there is a village of sheep and cattle herders called Soolkhama. Being discriminated as an inferior caste they are forced to stay relatively far away from easy transport options. A visit to this village is one of the first reasons why I decided to do something about rural arts and crafts. Every household here is involved in weaving rugs made of sheep wool. Organic, hand made, exquisite rugs. Sold for 400rs a piece to customers from adjoining villages. These rugs functioned as a meagre supplemental income to the families. To me this was heart breaking. The demand for organic hand made products in the world has never been more as high as it has been in recent times.
During my art research residency at Art Ichol, I sourced these rugs from the villagers and sold them as a sample run during the exhibition at Bikaner House in New Delhi. It was sold out in 3 days.
Soolkhama has no external intervention of any kind. They have no access to a marketplace. Their culture and artistic history is beautifully preserved in these hand-made rugs. The youth are not interested, as 400Rs for something that takes 10 days to make is, understandably, not a worthwhile effort. Most of the young men from the village work in Maihar, driving auto rickshaws, working in hotels etc… The challenge is to find ways to identify such untapped sub-cultures and connect them to urban market places. There are plenty of examples in India where only a handful of locals are aware of the presence of a people that are unique in some way. I do not have all the answers, but I am most interested in researching methods to bridge this gap.
Soul of Africa – Ethical, handmade leather shoes from Ethiopia
Founded by Lance Clark, from the famous Clark Shoes, SoulOfAfrica (SOA) makes shoes in South Africa, Tunisia and Ethiopia, generating much-needed earnings. Run tightly, as an efficient business, it has generated over £481,100 – all transferred to the Soul of Africa Trust that has invested the funds in projects to help almost 18,000 African orphans.
By making African inspired light and flexible shoes in Africa, SOA runs as an efficient social enterprise and invests the profits to create further jobs in the continent and to support local communities by:
- providing education and training skills.
- establishing or facilitating quality shoemaking.
- promoting African Heritage and culture while marketing the shoes and changing wider public perceptions of Africa at the same time.
I was contacted by Dulma Clark, the MD of the company to help produce marketing collateral for the brand. Apart from documenting the work she required, I also conducted workshops in the charities supported by Clarks shoes. I taught product photography to young students so that they could continue to produce the content for the company and also earn revenue while doing so. Photography is a difficult business, but when companies are willing to support local talent it can become a source of sustenance and also an exciting vocation for young minds.
Weavers of Satna Jail, MP
I worked with textile designers from Australia – Trish and Nathan Bygot on this project and together we visited Satna Jail where prisoners were taught to weave rugs made from locally sourced wool. The rugs were bought from the jail and local women in the village of Ichol, MP were taught to embroider motifs on them. The motifs were designed by the women themselves and inspired by locally relevant designs that were found painted on the walls of their houses, created as a rangoli or simply inspired by tradition.
Tambat Ali – Copper-ware of Pune, Maharashtra
This is a work in progress, where in I am documenting the life of Vikrant Dhakave, one of the youngest remaining coppersmiths from the community of the Tvastha Kasar Samaj. I am working with him to promote his work and also educate him on the copper work done all over the world. Through this education, I intend to encourage Vikrant to create his own designs that are rooted in his family’s personal journey of being part of this craft for centuries. I assist him in reaching the right markets to sell his wares. I am in the process of developing a film about Vikrant.
My firm belief is that once customers are allowed to know the person behind the product, the value they place on these products will increase. As such, I want to simplify marketing by telling the story of the craftsman.
Mbale Coffee production, Mt Elgon, Uganda
Coffee was introduced to Uganda from Ethiopia and was naturalised along the slopes of Mount Elgon. Arabica coffee continues to be one of Uganda’s major export crop. The farmer dries the coffee beans under the sun and then removes the coffee husks, sorting of the different coffee bean sizes, roasting, grinding and packaging. The process is entirely organic with no use of machinery and done collectively by the community living along the slopes of the mountain.