Empowering women in Northeast

Empowering women in Northeast

NGO provides platform to market skills

Empowering women in Northeast
Products combine modern trends with local designs

Sikha Pamegam is 28 years old and a mother of three. She lives in the flood-ravaged Dhemaji district of Assam. Her village, Panbari,  on the northern bank of Brahmaputra, is prone to floods and villagers lose their huts, crops and patches of land almost every year.

They lose their livelihood and survival becomes very difficult. Often young women and their vulnerable children get caught in the web of human trafficking. Even Sikha was once pushed to the brink but she found a new livelihood option, thanks to a social enterprise initiative by a non-governmental organisation.

Besides downtrodden people from Assam, many from the Northeast are part of this interesting social enterprise experiment which connects around 30,000 artisans and their products to distributors and buyers across the globe. It facilitates these connections by using the internet marketplace and placing the products under one brand—Empower.

The social enterprise business initiative has not only given livelihood to many but also turned out to be a profitable venture. Brand Empower uses their traditional skill of weaving to produce value-added products.

“Earlier, I used to weave only for household purpose. I never thought of selling my products until I joined Impulse Social Enterprises Private Limited (ISE). It felt great to see my products being taken and appreciated in Delhi. I want to now train many women in my community,” Sikha said. She now uses her traditional weaving skills to weave scarves, blankets, etc., and earn for herself and family.

In 2010, that Hasina Kharbhih, founder of Impulse NGO Network, started a sister concern, ISE, to promote fabrics and designs of eight Northeastern states. The business model was conceptualised to unlock doors for an equitable society.  The enterprise works with women rural artisans to develop and innovate market-driven products. The ISE applies practical, innovative and sustainable measures to maximise social returns.

The thrust is on to work with the community and develop the spirit of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency by capitalising the traditional art of weaving, bamboo making, and traditional pattern preservation. The products have become popular because they combine modern fashion with local tribal patterns and designs.

The business started with an initial investment of about Rs 10 lakh. However, its seeds were planted more than 23 years back by Kharbhih and her team when they started the NGO.

The initiative was launched to curb unsafe migration and prevent human trafficking, which was alarming in the region.

“The ISE is presently working with the Assamese, Karbi and Mishing tribes in Assam. It is focusing on providing training, raw materials, designs, packaging, branding, marketing and financial support.  Products that come out of this association are multi-purpose scarves, dining mats and stoles, conference bags, cushion covers, laptop sleeve covers,” Kharbhih told Deccan Herald.

Operations were scaled up to cover states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Mizoram. The products have traditional patterns of Idu and Mishmi tribes. The market poses a challenge for an enterprise like the ISE, which produces niche goods.

“To cope with the changing needs of the market, the research and marketing team at the ISE integrates fashion designers and local artisans to produce value-added products. The strength of the enterprise has been a blend of modern day fashion with ethnic patterns suiting the tastes of consumers,” Kharbhih added.

She won first CNBC Awaaz Masterpreneur India Award for the idea of Brand Empower.
The brand speaks volumes about empowerment of women. “To enhance the brand and market visibility, the ISE has taken to social media and advertisement to reach out to the people,” Kharbhih explained.

The ISE is collaborating with hotels, cultural centres, museums and stores in airports to reach customers. It is also collaborating with various organisations. A few corporates have taken products as gifts.

The ISE has tied up with established designer houses in the country and set up the North-East Project (NEP). The NEP has roped in Safomasi,  Bhane, 1701, Fizzy Goblet and NorBlack NorWhite in this endeavour.

The products that come out of this venture range from bag tags, DOP kits, travel wallets, fusion juttis to table mats. The products, which feature different tribal patterns, come in different ranges to suit the needs of the people. Some of the products find a place in stores in 5-star hotels. They also adorn dining tables of many houses of the  well-heeled.
“The ISE is a business that drives transformational change. The aim is not only to maximise financial returns for those involved but also to grow the social venture and reach more people. Wealth accumulation is not a priority and profits are ploughed back to fund expansion programme,” Kharbhih said.

It has kept pace with the changing scenario and has launched a website for sale of products directly to the people. It has also tied up with some of the players in e-tail to deliver its products.

It has achieved an annual turn over of Rs 7 lakh and is on the verge of breaking even. It has been effectively utilising social media to advertise products and designs and patterns are shared on Twitter and Facebook. The company is planning to take advantage of interest in tribal crafts in the UK and the US.  “The weaving will be done here but the tote bags --priced at $ 60 -- being made for these markets will be stitched in Kolkata to comply with international specifications,” she said.

  Talks are on with Amazon to hold and ship the stock from Kolkata for a small facilitation fee. In the local market, the ISE has tied up with a Bengaluru-based company Tvaksati to create a range of Empower sarees with tribal motifs on the borders for the Indian market. In Dubai market, the distinctive five-in-one scarf as a hijab is a hit,” Kharbhih added.

Across Northeast, families have lost their bread earners due to conflicts, insurgency or natural calamities. In such a situation, women have to work to keep the home fires burning.  Now, their traditional skills in weaving and crafts and Brand Empower market linkage have started the process of changing lives in the Northeast.