Women weavers as entrepreneurs

The concept of producer companies is to enable artisans to pursue their existing livelihood.

Woven fabrics, created by weavers, have always been a hallmark of India. Weavers are the third largest segment among the poor in the country. Official estimates put the number of weavers in India at about 65 lakh, unofficial numbers peg it closer to two crore.

Typically, all members of a household are involved in weaving. Hundreds of looms are used by women, men and children to weave cotton, silk, and other natural fibres. Weavers produce fabric that depicts India’s own precious heritage. But it is not all nostalgia nor as simple as it appears.

Buying threads, developing designs, dyeing the threads as needed, weaving as per the design, checking it for quality, and then marketing it or generating orders for supplies to earn some reasonable return is a complicated process that may be daunting for any weaver. These complexities were at the centre of my conversations with women weavers at the Godavari Women Weavers’ Services Producer Company (GWWSPC) at Mandapeta, near Rajahmundry, when I visited them in December, 2016. Weaving is these rural women’s livelihood. They are entrepreneurs doing business.

The GWWSPC, registered as a producer company (PC) in 2013, now has about 247 women members. Each member holds a share of Rs 1,000 in the PC. The basic concept of PCs such as GWWSPC is to improve the lives of artisans by enabling them to pursue their existing livelihood or consider alternative livelihoods, whichever choice the artisan makes. The concept of the PC was introduced through the Producer Company Act 2002 in India. A PC is a hybrid between a private limited company and a cooperative society.

In order to survive in the long-run, PCs aim to provide business-oriented services and tangible benefits to their members. Covering the operational costs from the business income and engaging in collective marketing activities require producers to work closely with employees they hire to ensure that the PC sustains itself over a period of time. Farmers have  formed PCs in many states but not all of them have been successful. Most PCs are formed through the assistance of non-governmental organisations (NGO).

A major activity preceding the formation of a PC such as the GWWSPC is mobilising producers; a challenging task because producers such as weavers do not always readily recognise the benefits of working collectively. Initial interest amongst a few weavers led to a larger house-to-house drive to share information about forming the GWWSPC. About 500 to 600 households were contacted in the hope of ultimately having at least 300 participants.

But that was a test. “It was not easy,” said two of the women weavers I met. But then slowly as interest grew, women from more households were convinced. “Why did you join the GWWSPC?” I asked Chandrakanta Kumari, the current elected president of the GWWSPC.

“The agent used to pay us about Rs 1,200 per warp (about 43 metres of woven cloth) and now, we earn approximately Rs 1,700 per warp,” she said. The returns are attractive for the weavers who also determine the production plan, generate orders, and fix the prices at which to sell the woven fabric. Other major benefits include ownership of the brand, exposure to market demands, and a share in the profits that accrue from sales.

Employment for youth

It also generates some local employment for youth. For instance, this PC employs seven people for monitoring purchases and dyeing of raw material, maintaining accounts, and checking quality of the woven fabric. In 2015-16, GWWSPC had a turnover of Rs 67 lakh and this is expected to rise to Rs 1 crore.

What can we learn from PCs like that of the women weavers in Mandapeta? First is that even poor women who have little education can learn and utilise their livelihood skills to become entrepreneurs ‘doing business.’ This was enabled in the early stages when Chitrika, an NGO implementing the project, organised ‘exposure’ visits for about 50 weavers – 40 women and 10 men.

These weavers had the opportunity to see production and marketing activities through the work of other artisans as well as fabric/dress retail outlets. Second, PCs of women entrepreneurs in semi-urban areas who are often dismissed in derogatory terms can prove that their skills extend to learning to manage businesses through collective ownership. Third, women’s involvement in PCs can facilitate changes in gender relations in the community and household.

Research for unravelling the complex dynamics of the effects of such entrepreneurship on gender relations within the household by social science scholars is much needed. Ithe National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) supports the formation of institutions of the poor who will work together to leverage resources and connect with markets. But there is little systematic and rigorous research of initiatives such as the PCs to assess their impacts beyond the economic tangible measures of profits to consider social change.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Purdue University, West Lafayette, USA)

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