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DESI: Story of Many Threads

DESI: Story of Many Threads

The handloom industry, if managed well, can provide wealth and prosperity to rural India. This needs people who can understand how to invest in social and natural capital over a long term, with a concomitant ability to manage the process. The firm, DESI, in Karnataka, sees its model as an innovation in the handloom sector.

DESI

Story of Many Threads

The handloom industry, if managed well, can provide wealth and prosperity to rural India. This needs people who can understand how to invest in social and natural capital over a long term, with a concomitant ability to manage the process. The firm, DESI, in Karnataka, sees its model as an innovation in the handloom sector.

POONAM BIR KASTURI, SWATI UNAKAR, ROLF MARREN, SUHANA MEDAPPA

Thread 1: The Vision

The Beginning

D
eveloping Ecological Sustainable Industry (DESI) is both the name of the store and the name of the handloom marketing endeavour, which is run by a not-for-profit trust. DESI the trust was established in 1998 with its first retail outlet at Southend circle, Bangalore. This store also has two other smaller outlets as franchisees – one in Bangalore itself and the other in Mysore city.

The driving force behind this initiative has been Prasanna, who formed Kavi Kavya Trust (KKT) in 1994, mainly to promote art and literature, with emphasis on folk art and traditional crafts. Over the years, watching how art and literature intersected with the questions of alternative livelihood options, he felt that, Kavi Kavya had the power to contribute towards assisting the rural poor, particularly women, to find a reliable source of income, as most of them were dependent on seasonal agricultural labour. He was also looking for ways to decrease pressure on the land and the fragile ecosystem of the Malnad region. With a hunch that well managed alternative employment for women might create change in many ways, he encouraged the formation of the Charakha Gramodhyoga Ghataka in 1994.

This unit started with training women in tailoring, and activities like weaving, dyeing, embroidery, painting were added gradually. This process was tough and members of the Ghataka had to work hard to convince dalit women to participate. Though weaving was virtually unknown in the Malnad regions, women in and around Bheemanakone in Sagar Taluk were trained. In 1995 the “Charakha Women’s Multipurpose Industrial Cooperative Society” was formed with 20 women who came largely from the backward classes.

Prasanna had already envisioned that the cooperative had to produce for the urban market and that merely training the rural poor to produce items, without marketing support, would have made the whole exercise meaningless. He chose the strategy of making a fashion statement through handloom products and specifically kurtas because he saw that it was easy for the rural artisan to understand the kurta and it was a profile that matched the urban market without too much intervention.

He began testing the market in small steps. Charakha Gramodhyoga Ghataka took up the job of marketing kurtas and other products at ‘jathre’ (village fairs), ‘santhe’ (Sunday market), seminar venues, schools and colleges.

The Vision

In Prasanna’s words, he is working “To attempt to give a new meaning to the concept of profitability, and to attempt to find ways of converting disadvantages such as decentralised production and labour intensiveness into advantages. In order to do so it is necessary to provide an interface between urban designers, marketing experts and the village crafts. It is a process of profiling each rural product afresh, so that they get converted into useful consumer products for the city markets. It is also a process of developing creative marketing strategies for such products.” Initially it was his initiative and interest that pushed the marketing endeavour. At a later stage, the trust was formed, comprising like-minded people, which took the initiative forward. The initial source of support entirely depended on the sum of money invested by Prasanna. As the market expanded and sales increased, DESI, the store, became wholly self-sustained and independent.

Result of the Vision Today

The efforts of Prasanna, members of Kavi Kavya, and Charakha along with the intrinsic quality of the products from Charakha, have helped popularise the products and build brand value, and the “society” is now a story of success, which is looked upon as a role model for other similar organisations. Over the recent years, DESI has proved to be a learning experience for both – the people involved in the making of the products, and the customers who come to buy these products. In the current urban scenario that is getting increasingly westernised, it’s interesting to see the DESI brand emphatically banking on a simple, clean and authentic visual positioning. It has given the customer, be it Indian or otherwise, a taste of the culture and traditions of India, in its own unique manner. Its patrons include people from all classes of society, all castes, every religion, and every age group. A permanent production-cum-training centre at Charakha has also been set up. The centre augments the facilities available with Charakha, to train an increasing number of people, mainly dalit and other weaker sections, to take to weaving as a viable source of income.

Thread 2: Creating Livelihood with Equity and Dignity

Politics of Equity and Dignity

The learning from Charakha and DESI is that there is enough of a market available for handloom – what they have achieved is the ability to tap the market in a way that lets the wealth flow back to the rural sector and to the hand that works on the loom with no compromise on the product quality or its urban value. The issues as they see it are a lack of understanding of how handloom needs to be positioned and to what end. Handloom and other industry at the rural level can provide wealth and prosperity if managed well. This needs people who can understand how to invest in social and natural capital over a long term with a concomitant ability to manage the process. DESI sees its model as an innovation in the handloom sector and believes that it is equitable for all the people who produce and sell and is accountable in terms of the value to the customer.

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

Initial Hurdles and Challenges

The most difficult thing to overcome in Charakha was the “mindset” of the women. Women had to be convinced that handloom was a viable alternative and would provide them with dignity, their families had to trust the process and everyone was waiting for it to fail and say “I told you so”. Also to learn the skills of handling the spinning wheel and the loom was hard for novices initially.

Figuring out the challenge of product profiling on the retail front was a major one, the issue being how to create a coherence with the seemingly different objectives of equity, profitability and price. How do you work out a reasonable wage and still manage to keep the price down? Today each worker is paid Rs 6 per metre of cloth woven and receives a net amount of approximately Rs 1,200-1,500 per month. Though this may not seem a large sum of money to a city dweller, it is a sizeable supplementary income in a rural household. It is at par with what a person can earn by manual agricultural labour in the fields.

People-Centred Organisation

Charakha is a women’s cooperative society and wages are discussed by the eight-member board. It was a conscious decision to use the cooperative framework to constitute the group. There are a total of 226 members of the cooperative. The Charakha production centre hires 80 women who work at the looms and are also involved in tailoring, dyeing, embroidery, etc. Charakha organises cultural programmes, financial and insurance programmes and credit schemes that all contribute to making a workplace that is efficient and productive without the stress of the modern urban factory.

Charakha has brought in experts in the field of loom technology, natural dyeing, weaving, and pattern making to conduct workshops for the members. Both government agencies as well as individuals have given their time and knowledge. They have not had a formal design-training workshop or branding workshop as yet. Since most workers are women who join work to supplement the family income, the turnover of labour is high. Each new entrant undergoes a six-month training where she is taught the various tasks and paid Rs 350 per month. These young girls get married in the span of two years and new recruits need to be trained afresh. The training and learning curve is high.

The society is now working to provide women the possibility of working from home. They plan to create a scheme where looms can be placed in individual homes and the handloom produced can be bought by the society. If women find this convenient, it will only enhance the reach of the society – since women who live far away can avail of the opportunity to supplement their income.

Thread 3: Providing Great Value to the Customer

Value Delivered to the Customer

Categorical moderate pricing of the products, quality, and homeliness radiated by the store, make up parts of the unique selling point of DESI. The most noteworthy and high selling product in DESI has been the men’s kurta. A similar kurta in any other outlet is double the price for the same quality. This is a result of a vigilant strategy. And customers appreciate it. DESI has so far grown based on intuitive market feedback. They have not used any formal tool or method to assess their market or customers. They have, in some sense, created a market and now want to push it further with their natural dyed products. They are planning a campaign about management of ecofriendly clothing and that underscores their philosophy of looking at the whole picture rather than its parts.

Customer Profile

Customers from all strata of society form the “regular consumer” base. Initially, the response was primarily from the middle and lower middle classes of society, but of late, the upper classes and corporate consumers have shown interest and have begun buying at the store. There has also been an increase in younger customers. There is no data bank or formal process in place at the moment to evaluate this perception.

Product Profiling

Their deliberate emphasis on the kurta as the first product, helped establish the production systems and built brand credibility. There is a conscious effort to check if the product is designed to suit the urban needs, its size, colour, motif and cut.

Retail Strategy

The product range has grown over the recent years. It now includes men’s kurtas, women’s as well as children’s kurtas and other clothing. Accessories such as bags, stoles, pouches, handkerchiefs, etc, are also being manufactured. Besides these, a very reasonably priced quilt (produced from waste generated in the cooperative) sells very well because of its pricing strategy. Currently, an approximate number of 90 products are in production. Sales have steadily grown over the years, from approx one crore to over Rs 6 crore.

Besides the products manufactured in-house at Charakha, a variety of products have been added to the portfolio by way of outsourcing. Products made of wood, cane, jute, paper, handmade paper, terracotta, metal, straw, food and health products, etc, are being outsourced from rural suppliers all over the country. This has been done again as a strategy to provide a “value for money” experience to the customer. DESI applies different margins on different items and reverses the perceptions of how customers perceive products like handloom sarees and mill-loom sarees. For example, the outsourced mill-loom sarees are priced higher than the handloom sarees because the margins are different. So DESI can sell more handloom sarees this way and support this sector positively.

The choice of producers from whom these products are procured is based on the organisations’ structure and working. Most producer groups that DESI works with fall into the categories of self-help groups, women-based production groups, NGOs, rural crafts people, craft councils and societies and individuals. These groups are primarily chosen due to the nature of their constitution. Though new products are welcome, they are scrutinised by a “purchase committee” and are released only after the standard requirements are met. Product price is also critical. DESI does not sell products where the price is perceived as “too high” or disproportionate to perceived value of product.

Procurement of products supplied from Charakha occurs through a conciliator, KKT. KKT acts as the mediator and receives and delivers orders and consignments. Orders for Charakha products are given a priority by KKT. Most products are delivered from existing or “creatable” stock.

Procurement occurs in different modes. Products supplied by Charakha (the production unit of DESI) are procured on a fortnightly basis. The store has a record of priority products that are in constant demand, and these are procured regardless of excess. A manual system of checking supply and demand is in place. Outsourced products are procured as and when the

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

goods are felt to be low in supply or high on demand.

Production Strategy

DESI is able to deliver a well-priced, well-finished product only because they have efficient production processes in place. The production unit is clean, airy, large and well maintained. Installation of rainwater harvesting, filtration plants for dyeing waste, growing of trees needed for natural dyes, etc, all reflect the values of sustainability that DESI promotes as its brand. The society has invested in good quality looms, dyeing set-up and spinning and warping tools. There is a well-defined understanding of the technicality of each process and the supervisors are competent and efficient. It takes a 20-day cycle to get a cloth of 200 metres from start to finish produced. Eighty to hundred kurtas can be produced per working day at Charakha.

Quality

Charakha considers quality to be of prime importance. Initially they did not realise that they had to build checks into the system and had to suffer from goods being returned to them from the retail outlet DESI. They now have a system of checks at every stage from the dyeing to the packing.

Design

On the design front, very limited changes have been implemented. This is due to very high customer satisfaction and demand for the original. Slight variations in style have been accepted in new versions of products. A vast range of colours is being used, apart from an array of woven stripes (double and multicoloured). Incremental changes were made in response to a need for larger variety and selection, a need to give the customer something new, and to enhance production capability by learning to create different products.

Introduction of new/varied versions of the products at appropriate occasions assured the acceptance of these products by the consumer. For example, kurtas made of thin, more breathable, and soft fabric, introduced during summer, ensured that it addressed the needs of the customer and a context. At present DESI is able to give design inputs to its prime supplier Charakha, with the help of fashion and apparel designers working with the institution.

The incremental approach to change is interesting to see at Charakha and DESI. It has an exponential effect on the value they have built up. This is apparent in how their and invested in every stage of the process to relentless perseverance to convert to natural deliver value to the customer in a proactive dye has now enhanced their product range way. That is a good business strategy. and the value the customer enjoys. They have researched on behalf of the customer Email: pbkasturi@usermail.com

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

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