Twenty-eight-year old Vijaya from Thanakkankulam in Thiruparankundram block of Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district works with her hands, shaping the bark of the banana tree into baskets and other lifestyle products that finally find their way to the shelves of the Ikea chain of stores.

Vijaya may be young but after joining GreenKraft, a producer company comprising women artisans, she has been instrumental in supplementing the earnings of her family in financial distress. “My family was entirely dependent on my husband's income and we were finding it difficult to make ends meet. But ever since I started working at the local GreenKraft unit a year ago, things have begun to look up for our family. I have started saving money every month and we are preparing for any unexpected expenses that my family might incur. I am also saving for the higher education of my two daughters. I am glad that I joined the company. I can now hope to be independent," she says.

Vijaya is among the 6,000-plus women who are part of the creative manufacturing initiative under the “Producer-Owned Women Enterprises” (POWER) Project, executed by the Bengaluru-based Industree Foundation and supported by USAID. The project, being rolled out in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Odisha, supports women artisans and handholds them in forming enterprises that will ensure a sustainable livelihood.

Under the project, three readily-available, non-timber forest produce and natural fibres have been chosen as raw material. The women in the region are familiar with these materials and can transform them into high-end lifestyle products and home accessories that can be sold under established labels in developed markets.

While in Tamil Nadu Vijaya and her mates are working with banana bark, in Odisha women from the Kui tribe produce biodegradable tableware such as plates and bowls from Siali leaves. In Karnataka, Industree leverages the skills of the Medhar artisan community who have crafted bamboo for centuries but have rarely been able to market it in a substantial way.

Neelam Chibber, Co-Founder and Managing Trustee, Industree Foundation, says the initiative is akin to the Amul cooperative movement, though, of course, on a small scale right now. The idea is to form the women artisans into producer companies so that they collectively own what they work for. “We provide them professional management services so that by the time the three-year funding is over, each producer company is a self-sustaining unit. We are one year into the project and at a time like this, when we are globally trying to deal with a pandemic, it is heartening to see multiple entities coming together to support the creative sector, in particular, women.”

Using ‘6C framework’

Chibber outlines the ‘6C framework’ that they use for the project — construct, capacity, create, channel, capital and connect. It starts with constructing or rather forming women’s collectives, then training the members in a sustainable livelihood, helping them design creative market-oriented products, followed by creating a channel for market access and capital access such as loans and, lastly, creating a connect — a digital infrastructure that will help scale the business.

The above steps are reiterated by Saroja, a Medhar artisan from Channapatna, Karnataka, who works with bamboo. “We used to go to villages, and forests for bamboo to make products. What we were earning was not enough. If we work here (at the Bamboo Resource Centre), the products will get sold everywhere and we will get a monthly income. I want to go ahead in life, I want to earn more and have my own house,” she says.

In Karnataka, the National Bamboo Mission and Industree Foundation have partnered to establish a Bamboo Resource Centre to showcase the craftwork of the artisans. The Integrated Tribal Development Agency of the Central government is also part of the project.

In Odisha, Industree has roped in the State Government’s Odisha Forestry Sector Development Project for the leaf plate initiative and has Metro Cash & Carry as one of its clients. Forty-five-year-old Sudali Majhi from Landruguda village in Kandhamal district, who is a Producer Leader at her workplace, tells her story and the difference the business has made to her.

“My husband had drinking problems, the family had very meagre income. My children were getting impacted and that was very stressful. I, along with a few of my peers, started attending training sessions at Industree. This encouraged us to get together in a group to start working. My income can now go towards educating my children. We have also been able to eat better…”

The Industree initiative is helping marginal rural communities tap their potential to help themselves and to better their incomes. And this means a better living index and a brighter future — no doubt, a healthy prognosis.