Manipur — livelihoods

Basketful of progress

A band of women artisans in Thoubal district are using a supple water reed as raw material to craft an improved life for themselves

Sushila Moirangthem stopped asking her husband for money a while back and the reason was simple: she was making enough of the stuff off her own bat, with her very own skill and sweat. What this means is just as simple. “I can pay for tuitions for my children and occasionally buy something for myself, jewellery even,” says the 45-year-old villager from Khangabok Mayai Leikai in Thoubal district. “And I can save a bit, too.”

Ms Moirangthem is one of 175 women artisans from the district who have found a vocation thanks to a craft-based livelihoods programme in which Kauna — a water reed grown in the Northeast, especially in Manipur — is used to craft baskets of different shapes and sizes, cushions, purses, mats and more.

Welcome income

The women artisans, the majority of whom come from less privileged backgrounds, earn between 6,000 and 10,000 a month making products that now sell in upmarket city stores and e-commerce sites as well. This is welcome income for women like Manjuri Devi, a 38-year-old single mother from Khangabok Makha Leikai village.

“I have three kids and running my house is up to me,” she says. “What I earn here covers my kids’ schooling and household expenses. I’m hoping I can save some of this money to set up a grocery shop in my village. I want to build a house but that may have to wait till my children finish their education.”

The crafts programme capitalises on the traditional knowhow of the community in a region where the making of mats from Kauna reeds is an expertise handed down the generations. Used in homes and for ritual purposes, these mats are part of the local culture, but they don’t fetch much. Changing tack to create higher-value products has resulted in a recasting of the revenue equation for the women artisans.

The supple stem of the Kauna reed is ideal to be woven into baskets, mats, cushions and mattresses

The current phase of the programme began in 2016 and has the steadfast backing of the Tata Trusts. It is being implemented by the Centre for Microfinance & Livelihoods (CML), the nodal agency for the Trusts in Manipur, in partnership with the NGO, Odesh.

CML’s vehicle for implementation is called, in space-age style, ‘livelihood propulsion and support services’. There’s no rocket science, though, behind what the agency and Odesh have set out to achieve. Their objective is to build a Kauna craft ecosystem for Thoubal that blends technique and marketing to fashion a business model that will become self-sustaining in the near future.

The whole nine yards

In the details of how the idea will be further strengthened are trendy design, continual training, entrepreneurship, logistics, branding and packaging, quality upgrades, sales support and product diversification. The immediate goal is to widen the domestic client base and, for the longer term, to secure international recognition and start exporting Kauna products.

Upping the numbers of those in the programme is also a priority. “We want to add another 200 people and have a total of 375 artisans by 2020,” says Bharjit Singh, the chief executive of Odesh. “The potential is there. In fact, given the bulk orders we are getting, we can’t keep up with demand.”

Being unable to supply enough shows how far the project has come since the Trusts first began backing the Kauna artisans, back in 2013, with funding for an overhaul of their design process. Odesh was instrumental in making that happen and the spark was a livelihoods training workshop organised by the Trusts in Nalabari in Assam a year earlier. Mr Singh was in attendance and it opened his eyes to the possibilities available to chart a new course.

“I sensed we could use the traditional knowledge the women artisans had in mat making to do something different,” says Mr Singh. “That’s why we branched out into making baskets. We had already established a relationship with the villagers and that was an advantage. We concentrated on skills transfer, design and on cutting out the intermediaries fleecing the artisans.”

About 100 artisans were selected for training, producer groups were set up to get the best price for the products and the Odesh team got serious about publicising the appeal and quality of the Kauna merchandise. “We would take the products to exhibitions around India and we started looking at it as a proper business,” adds Mr Singh.

Nearing the magic mark

Kauna quality

Kauna grass — to call it by its proper name — is a species of water reed that grows extensively in the wetlands and marshlands of the Northeast. Manipur is a particularly fertile place for this hardy plant, which takes less time and effort than the more popular paddy to cultivate and harvest.

The stem of the Kauna reed is soft, spongy and supple, which makes it ideal to be woven into baskets, mats, cushions, mattresses and purses. The reed has to be processed before it can be crafted into products and this is done by cutting it near the base and drying it in the sun.

The Kauna reeds used by the women artisans are smoked and stored for a period — to increase its shelf life — before being woven with basic tools. Typically a secondary crop in rural Manipur, the reed’s flexibility, durability and water-resistant quality are its strengths.

The Kauna initiative has found its feet in the years since. It recorded a turnover of 210,000 in 2017-18 and the figure should rise substantially in the current financial year. “We are nearing the sustainability mark and we should get there by 2022,” says Mr Singh.

There are issues to be resolved and the partners in the project — this includes EXIM bank, which has pitched in with financial backing — are working hard to iron them out. “Our products are handmade and that results in a slowness of supply,” says Mr Singh. “Then there’s the problem of absences during the crop harvesting season, when everybody here, rich and poor, is required in the field.”

Adequate access to the raw material needed, the water reed, is another concern but that is being eased as more local farmers switch from paddy cultivation to growing Kauna. Niggles of this sort are not so much a deterrent as getting more women artisans involved in the project. “We have to up their numbers,” says Mr Singh.

From the Tata Trusts perspective, sustainability is the key and hopes are high that this can be achieved if the programme pans out further in the manner that it has thus far. “We do believe this initiative can be self-sustaining and we are doing everything we can to make that possible,” says Hravahlou Thekho, the CML project coordinator.

Mr Thekho cites the shift in the dynamics of the households brought into the programme. “Women making up to 10,000 a month — that has never happened in these families,” he says. “Earlier only husbands were breadwinners; now the wives also earn, sometimes more than the men.”