Ahmedabad: The Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) has stepped into an arena where no one thought it would venture into - five-star hotels.
The more-than-three decades-old non-governmental organisation (NGO) has signed an agreement with the Taj Ummed in Ahmedabad to open an outlet of SEWA's product line within the premises of the five-star hotel. It might appear radical to some, but the organisation, founded by Ela Bhatt and now spearheaded by Reema Nanavaty, has a vivid idea in its mind as to where it is headed.
"Our basic objectives remain unchanged and our goals are still the same," insists Nanavaty, who took over as SEWA director in 2000. "The mission, to this day, is to create means by which self-employed, poor women have access to justice and finance and security, including access to healthcare, child care, insurance, housing and old age benefits. And SEWA continues to be an organisation of informal sector workers - including seasonal workers, home-based workers, vendors, manual workers, craftswomen."
While SEWA started as an urban trade union movement, it soon moved into rural areas, starting a rural membership drive in the early eighties. It charges a token Rs 5 per annum as membership fee. As of now, two-thirds membership is rural and while most of the cadre is Gujarat-based, SEWA is also active in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kerala (affiliation), Bihar, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. It has even extended its reach beyond national borders and is present in countries like South Africa, Turkey, Yemen and Mexico.
In its endeavour to create gainful employment for the women workers, SEWA has been involved in activities like papad-making, preparation of various kinds of snacks and food items, incense sticks, salt, gum and the like, which were then marketed by the organisation through its own members. But the identification of craft as a commercial activity was a major breakthrough for SEWA.
"We stumbled upon craft as a means of livelihood when we were working with the drought-stricken women of Banaskantha in the years between 1985 and 1987," recalls Nanavaty. "These women had always been involved in crafts but they had not thought of exploiting their art commercially. So, SEWA stepped in and took up crafts as a pilot project and tested the market for economic viability. We first experimented with traditional samples, mainly relying on indigenous skirts and blouses (ghagras and cholis). In October 1988, SEWA put up the first exhibition of crafts in Delhi. To our surprise, we got a very good response and also bagged a huge order of exports."
From then onwards, there has been no looking back but various issues have had to be tackled. "Our biggest problem has been ensuring standardisation and quality control," says Nanavaty. Adds Mona Dave, chief coordinator, SEWA: "For this, we had to groom the women and discipline them so that they would put in quality work. Sometimes, we had to be harsh with them to make them understand that there could be no compromise in quality if the craft had to be exploited commercially in a meaningful way."
In order to give a fillip to the activity, SEWA set up Banascraft, the marketing outlet of these artisans. Women were organised into groups and group leaders were appointed. "We introduced innovations and changes in the patterns, threads, embroidery styles and the kind of material which could be embroidered and eventually sold. Intensive monitoring has finally ensured skill upgrading. We have also tied up with Dastkar, a Delhi-based NGO which promotes crafts, which has helped us in marketing the products," says Dave.
After successfully introducing craft as a means of livelihood in Banaskantha, SEWA started a similar programme in Kutch as well on the request of the government of Gujarat in 1993-94. "Kutch is an area which experiences frequent droughts and faces acute water shortage. In 2000, which was a drought year, we demanded that the government should recognise craft as drought relief work. To get started, we set up a revolving fund to cover raw material costs, wages and marketing expenses. We involved 5,000 families in this endeavour, thus giving them economic security," says Nanavaty.
In view of the considerable success of craft as a source of ensuring sustained livelihood and its acceptance as a disaster mitigation tool, SEWA felt the need to expand the marketing efforts at the national and global level. "Moreover, with a rapidly liberalising economy and increasing competition, we had to build capacity and competence and develop the craft promotion activity as a trade. Accordingly, we set up the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre [STFC] in 1999," says Nanavaty. The main objective of setting up STFC was to market the services and facilities and enhance competencies.
"In the SEWA tradition, artisans are the owners as well as the managers and the producers themselves are the shareholders in this not-for-profit organisation. Its major functions are ensuring more profitable trade of the crafts by going for partnerships, domestically as well as globally. Accordingly, we have tie-ups with National Institute of Design and National Institute of Fashion Technology within India and Saint Martian's Institute in the UK and Fashion Technology Institute, New York. The partnerships have strengthened production quality and ensured standardisation. We are thus preparing our craftswomen to be export-ready," says Nanavaty.
In this endeavour, SEWA has also engaged the services of the Ahmedabad-based retail and marketing consultancy, Ergo. Says M P Chandran, founder and managing director, Ergo: "STFC serves as a bridge between rural micro-level enterprises and the global markets. With the objectives of capacity building, product development and exploration of new markets, STFC has an integrated marketing approach. Our role is to facilitate the trading activity, help explore new markets and provide research and data to enable networking within national and international markets."
SEWA is now increasingly looking at exports and has identified markets in Europe, the US, South Africa, the Middle East and Japan. As of now, STFC is focusing on capacity building and expanding the market. SEWA has also organised international exhibitions. Artisans of Banaskantha and Kutch have exhibited and sold their textile products in Paris and three other cities in France.
Domestically, it has tied up with big retail outlets like Pantaloons and Shoppers Stop. In this bid to broaden the market, SEWA is also tying up with hotels to open outlets within their premises so as to tap the tourist segment as well. "We have made a beginning with the Taj in Ahmedabad; we intend to have many more such outlets functioning out of big hotels. Concomitantly, we are also working on strengthening the SEWA brand name," says Nanavaty.
And in this endeavour, Nanavaty has the support of SEWA's craftswomen and the entire SEWA team. Here is wishing SEWA success.