We are standing at a crossroads both economically and ecologically speaking. As we stand at this juncture it’s clear as day that we can no longer go on with business as usual. Now, more than ever, we need to come together to collaborate, to divulge power from few countries and a few businesses to larger sections of the society and co-create with the most vulnerable sections especially the women who have been twice removed from the rest of the urbanized society for far too long.
In India, 93% of the workforce are in the informal sector, undocumented, unacknowledged, lacking the assurance and security that the formal sector provides. As a result of the country-wide COVID-19 lockdown over the last few months, millions of these workers have found themselves unemployed as MSMEs terminated their jobs, leaving them without essential safety nets, including social security and health insurance. These workers are extremely vulnerable without their livelihoods; the threats of starvation and death are substantial.
Following the pandemic, the way that businesses are conducted will be and should be forever changed. This changed model can easily increase the presence of distributed manufacturing, bringing formal work to rural areas with aggregated value chains that can mitigate the risk facing long, global supply chains that are easily disrupted. It should also focus on an increase of creative enterprises with producer ownership or cooperative models to provide vital stable income, health insurance and social security to the producers.
We have already seen this work in dairy. The White Revolution, which was initiated by Mr Kurien over 60 years ago has a rock-solid foundation to date and women in far-flung parts of India are at the very heart of running it and ensuring its success. Today, as the economy has slumped into negative double digits, it’s time to reflect and learn from our own successes rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. What we have done with Amul and the dairy sector is what we need to do with creative manufacturing, conventionally known as handloom. And in fact, can be extended to other sectors as well.
For a country, which boasts the highest population in the world, and a young one at that, we need to create jobs for people constantly. We can make the most of the co-operative system, which has stood the test of time. Yet, India is lagging behind in the co-operative economy space compared with a number of countries including the United States or New Zealand.
Moreover, we are uniquely positioned in that we don’t have to invest time or resources in skilling people. We have an estimated 200 million artisans with a unique set of skills that stand no competition from anywhere in the world and skills that have been handed down through generations by way of oral transmission. Creative manufacturing has the potential to employ millions of artisans from across the country. India can and should become the creative manufacturing hub of the world like China did 10-15 years ago but without compromising on our people or the environment and therefore our climate and biodiversity goals. This is the only way in which we can revive our economy and become resilient to future shocks such as natural disasters, pandemics and possible economic fallouts become the order of the day.
And this is exactly what we have been working on for the last two decades at Industree Foundation. Today, while the rest of the world is spiralling out of control, we have managed to create a support system for the profitable women-run businesses we have incubated. For many women whose husbands have either lost their jobs recently in the current crisis or for a range of reasons are having to support their families out of the lack of choice or from their volition, these companies are coming to their aid. The primary reason for this is the fact that Industree has come up with a holistic approach that enables incubation of the producer enterprises through the 6Cs. This includes mobilization and aggregation (Construct), building Capacity of producers on skills including entrepreneurial, technical, leadership, providing support with access to Capital, helping build a Channel to buyers, helping Create new products and designs and provides digital Connect to the ecosystem at scale with the help of professional management services.
Industree Foundation’s “Producer-Owned Women Enterprises” (POWER) Project, supported by USAID creates inclusive and transparent integrated value chains, with an increased degree of supply chain traceability, bringing gainful livelihoods all the way down to the source – the farming communities, thereby enabling them to opt-out of existing exploitative systems and become part of a more equitable and ethical supply chain. Over the last one year since the project has taken off, we have been working with rural women producers in Tamil Nadu, the Kui tribe in Odisha, and the Medhar artisan community in Karnataka, to design and produce Natural Fibre and Non-Timber Forest Products while building sustainable and equitable business models around them. We are hopeful that what we are doing through the POWER project will become the order of the day and change business, manufacturing as we know it. After all, the lessons from 2020 should not go in vain.
The author Neju George Abraham, Heads Rural Livelihoods and Agri Value Chain projects at Industree Foundation. He has worked as a global consultant for the Commonwealth Secretariat UK in the past, helping set up the Global Natural Fibre Forum encompassing 52 commonwealth countries. He holds a Post Graduate degree in Political Science, a PG Diploma in Developmental Studies and an undergraduate degree in Commerce.
Views of the author are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views.