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Dark Roast Double Shot: Is Business of Artisans Bad Business?
For me, it left me wondering if the ends of business could only be achieved to the exclusion of everything else, or was it just the obsession of the generation of leaders who veered so sharply to the lure of lucre that other avenues to them were always a cul-de-sac.
Photo Credit : Santhosh Varghese/Shutterstock
The days had started to get longer so it was not surprising to see sunlight sprawled out on the sofa in the living room as I walked in with two steaming cups of Dark Roast Double Shot. It was 4PM and a friend’s daughter had just walked in to discuss possibilities for her new venture. I was looking forward to the conversation as I was really intrigued with the choices that she had made. A qualified doctor she had chanced to work with self-employed rural women workers from India’s informal economy. Deeply touched by their conditions and their competence she decided that her true calling was to build an entrepreneurial venture that would help better their conditions while laying the foundation of a sustainable business for herself. She saw that as a viable route to a lifetime of commitment for a cause that was inexorably weaning her away from her first love of ameliorating human suffering through practice of medical science.
Over the next hour I was impressed to learn of her deep understanding of traditional handicrafts and the life of women artisans in rural India. She had already started working with them and was selling their products, committed to ensuring better remuneration and livelihoods for them. In her efforts to build a sustainable and successful business she had reached out to some family friends for advice. Some of them captains of Indian industry with impressive track records. Their advice had left her deeply disturbed. Quintessentially, their argument was that she needed to make a decision between doing charity (as they saw it) and making a life for herself. Increased cost of production with higher labour pay-out was not savvy business. Ideas from traditional craft were easier to develop at much lower cost with imitations from machine-made production. Some even suggested that it would be better to first make money through less arduous means and then perhaps go and support the women artisanal community. For a person fired with passion and purpose it felt defeatist and retrogressive. For me, it left me wondering if the ends of business could only be achieved to the exclusion of everything else, or was it just the obsession of the generation of leaders who veered so sharply to the lure of lucre that other avenues to them were always a cul-de-sac.
As it happens, artisans are the backbone of India’s rural economy. The handicrafts industry is the second-largest employment generator for villages after agriculture. While official estimates peg the number of artisans at 7 million; unofficial figures state a figure of 20 million. According to the United Nations the last 3 decades has seen the number of Indian artisans decrease by 30%. Small wonder that India has a trifling 2% share in a $400 billion global handicrafts market and a workforce that lives in penury. All this against the backdrop of a treasure trove of rich and diverse heritage of the most exquisite and beautiful craftsmanship that has been passed down generations and has been lauded by the cognoscenti for ages.
Why then would we not use our combined knowledge, expertise, influence and energy to make this great tradition and specialism thrive? Can’t lost value be restored by bringing into focus the misguided indulgences of past neglect? What will it take for those who tread this path to succeed and bring respectability and fair price for talent that it so richly deserves? Here are a few pointers.
An immersive first-hand experience and knowledge of products, processes and people involved in the complex process of creation of handicrafts is absolutely essential. The arts and crafts are diverse and geo-specific, often with very few practitioners. Grass root level knowledge is the only way to understand the levers for success. From knowing the anthropological antecedents of the creations to real-life issues of the creators one must know it all. For most it is a nightmare but for the passionate it is a land of untold treasures.
Identifying your potential buyer is critical for building a sustainable business. The most important thing to keep in mind is that this buyer can’t be defined or identified by demographic parameters. It is not about the amount of money they have but about the life aesthetic that they value. To most, beauty is in what they see but there are those who look beyond. Where and how it was created matters to them. They like things around them that talk to them, inspire them and are a celebration of the human race. Often you don’t find them, they find you.
You are not alone. Your fellow travellers in a journey such as this are increasing by the day. But they may not be in your immediate proximity. In a world shrunk by the internet and amplified by social media reaching out to them and enlisting their support is possible with sustained effort and sharing of information & possibilities.
Bringing legacy to life needs creativity and innovation in shaping the business model. Experts can help to contextualise the craft to contemporary markets. Technology too can be a great enabler as long as it does not intrude on the turf of the creator. Authenticity of the real craft has to be protected and not replicated by technology. Scalability and massification is not the only route to sustainability.
The brand or person who represents these offerings to the market should be lively, vibrant and highly energetic. It has to be a celebration of human endeavour and beauty. The creators play an inalienable role in the narrative of the brand. The joy of getting back things that could have been lost for ever should be palpable.
Generations in their march to progress have often unwittingly trampled on things of greater value for the generations to come. The young today exhibit both the temerity and the grace to turn the tide on some such infractions. Our standards of success are not necessarily theirs. Profit with social goals are more sustainable than businesses built on the edifice of profits alone. The time for the social entrepreneur is here. And the business of artisans may not be bad business after all.
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(Nitish Mukherjee is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his personal opinion.)