Finding brand new hope for tribals

The initiative is expected to make a huge impact

Finding brand new hope for tribals
This monsoon, as predictions of good rains ring in cheer for Kerala after a long, harsh summer, over 60 tribal women in Attappady in Palakkad district are also looking skyward with rekindled hope and a renewed sense of purpose.

Members of a women’s collective, they are into their second year of manufacturing their own brand of umbrellas, Karthumbi. The collective was formed as a part of a social empowerment initiative by Thampu, an organisation engaged in community projects with tribals, and Peace Collective, an online community with members from different parts of the world. As the rains start to pick pace across the state, promoters of the Karthumbi brand are planning to extend its presence beyond the months of monsoon.

The tribal belts of Attappady have for long been identified with poverty and infant deaths due to malnutrition. Even as successive governments follow up on existing welfare schemes and launch new ones, activists working with tribals in the region have explored possibilities of projects that could empower these communities.

Thampu President Rajendra Prasad says Karthumbi was conceived based on the realisation that despite continuing efforts to enhance the physical infrastructure of the region, the change was not palpable at the grassroots level – the results of these initiatives were not visible in people’s lives.

“Their livelihood was still a major concern. As a group which has spent many years working with them in the region, we thought a project like this could be a substantial contribution to make,” he says.

Prasad says Thampu’s role in the project is that of a “mediator”.  Members of Peace Collective came forward with an offer to raise capital for the project. The coordinators trained about 40 tribal women in the first batch in 2016.

The collective was able to deliver about 1,000 umbrellas in the first year and more than cover the capital expenses of about Rs two lakh. The numbers have since grown bigger. This year, the collective has already taken up orders of 15,000 umbrellas and is set to deliver 12,000 of them soon.

It also had to let pass a couple of bulk orders this year, Prasad said pointing to initial, practical difficulties in finding more resources and enhancing the group’s sales and marketing potential.
About 60 trained tribal women, working in five units, are now engaged in the manufacturing of four varieties of Karthumbi umbrellas. The project workforce of about 100 also includes men who are involved in packing and marketing of the umbrellas.

Karthumbi umbrellas come in black, colours (Red Cardinal, Midnight Blue and other branding spins) and prints; they are priced between Rs 350 and Rs 390. The women in the group are paid Rs 50 per umbrella; there are women who make 10 to 15 umbrellas a day.

Salaries offered at private companies are in the range of Rs 15 to 20 per umbrella, coordinators of the collective point out.

The project now provides sustainable income to about 30 families; it’s a model of empowerment proposed in line with what the project website (www.karthumbi.com ) rather ambitiously sums up – “a bold new way in tackling poverty that’s about dignity, not dependence, and choice, not charity”.

The project coordinators are now exploring a more streamlined branding and sales model for the umbrellas. The collective already has an online purchase model incorporated in its website.

“So far, we’ve managed to deliver the orders on schedule but we are now looking at more bulk orders and scheduling the work accordingly to ensure that the project continues to provide income for these women even after the monsoon,” says Prasad.

For Thampu and Peace Collective, the project carries potential to be replicated in tribal groups in other parts of the country and transformed into a grass-roots “movement” toward a tangible, sustainable socio-economic change.

In Thiruvananthapuram, Karthumbi has already found a customer base in techies employed in companies in Technopark. About 1,300 orders for the umbrellas were placed by employees in the IT park this year, says Rajeev Krishnan, secretary of Prathidhwani, a socio-cultural organisation of Technopark employees.

“Pre-sale coupons priced Rs 100 each were sold across the campus and orders were placed. Almost all the umbrellas have been delivered; we intend to continue this association which has also led to similar bulk orders from other organisations,” he says.

Universities, Infopark in Kochi and the Kochi Metro Rail Corporation are among clients of the Karthumbi collective. With the State Scheduled Tribes Development Department also associating with the project, the coordinators are set for brand diversification.

“Karthumbi was originally planned as a brand and as we move forward, we hope to market indigenous products from the tribal settlements and ensure a steady income for everyone who is involved in the project,” says Prasad.

The Karthumbi team is pitching for production of over 50,000 umbrellas and units in two more villages  by 2018. The idea is to facilitate more tribal units that could use the channels of material procurement and product distribution.

“Ultimately, this is about helping these tribal women find the confidence to deal with life. Having them learn new things, like banking, is all part of the process,” says Prasad. On June 8, the death of another tribal infant, a two-day-old girl, was reported from an Attappady hamlet.

The news could double as a stark wind-up for any story of hope. The drive, perhaps, is in finding a model of social empowerment which factors in realities of the present and still mines possibilities for the future.

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