When Payal Nath is asked what prompted her to get into the difficult realm of motivating and improving the economic status of artisans skilled in basketry, she has a simple answer: “inspirational upbringing”.
“My father was in the Army Education Corps and taught us to have open minds. It was a family ritual to discuss various topics, from philosophy and politics to food, every evening after dinner. My mother, a sociologist, would set up a school wherever my father was posted. We grew up believing that the world had immense possibilities and that we should make the best of 24 hours. Also, since we moved so often, my sister, brother and I became adaptable and ready for challenges,” says Payal.
In 2006, Payal established the Kadam Foundation, which has trained over 10,000 artisans to make ecofriendly products using grass. Eighty-five per cent of the artisans are women. A sister concern, Kadam Haat is based in Kolkata and was set up in 2009 to help the artisans market their products.
Kadam Haat provides sustainable livelihood to artisans in West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh.
In 2022, post-Covid, the brand was relaunched as Kadam Haat Basketry Barn Private Limited (KHBBPL). This new version of Kadam Haat clocked annual revenues of close to Rs 2 crore in the first year. It is expected to do 2.5 times better (and earn Rs5 crore in revenues) in 2023-24, says Payal.
“Pottery and basketry are two of the oldest craft forms of civilization. Also, in these crafts, the artisans are the poorest,” says Payal, who is building India's first fibrecraft brand which will go global soon.
“I dream of creating a brand in basketry and taking it global so that the world can see the potential of grass as a raw material and source of livelihood,” Payal says.
While they are focusing on domestic consumption and the B2C market at present, they want to be present in the global market – Europe and the US – soon. Her daughter Puravi, who is a brand strategist, is working on that plan.
Payal is among the 75 women honoured as Women Transforming India by the NITI Aayog and as Iconic World Leader by the World Economic Forum.
How it all began
“I studied physics at Delhi University. While I did not use physics further, it wired my brain to be analytical. I was intrigued by the science and creativity in the field of footwear and did a short-term course at the Footwear Design and Development Institute. I worked as a footwear designer for around two years and learnt not just about product design but production processes as well,” narrates Payal.
After marriage, she moved to Kolkata and worked on Export Promotion Council of Handicrafts (EPCH) projects that led her to Kashmir, Mizoram, Manipur and other states where clusters of artisans were working with natural fibres. “That’s when I thought there was a possibility of improving the productivity and economic status of these artisans and Kadam Foundation was born,” explains Payal.
Initially, Payal and her sister set up a boutique store to market the products made by the artisans. Soon they realized that to ensure volumes a larger format was required. This is why Kadam Haat was set up in 2008 which worked largely on an exhibition model.
Kadam Haat does not produce its items in the factory. Artisans make hand-woven products from natural fibres at their homes. “Out of the 12 sub-species of grasses that grow in the world, 10 types grow in India. In fact, 24 per cent of India is covered with grassland,” Payal points out.
Kadam Haat works with nine kinds of grasses that grow in five states of India.
In Bengal, the artisans work with ‘sabai’ grass, ‘shital pati’, bamboo, ‘madhur kathi’, and ‘shola pith’. In Odisha, products are made from golden grass and sabai while in Uttar Pradesh, ‘kansa’ and ‘munj’ grasses are used. The venture works with willow wicker in Kashmir and ‘sikki’ grass in Bihar. All these are traditional crafts which have got a new lease of life through Kadam Haat's work.
These grasses grow wild requiring no fertilizer or watering. But they have become a source of livelihood for many artisans. And, they are used to make products for environmentally conscious consumers who don’t want to use plastic at all.
“We are working with a resilient material and make 100 per cent compostable products using little water,” she says.
Kadam Haat uses ‘green technology’ – hand-held devices that increase the productivity and income of artisans and improve the quality of the products. “We noticed that women get corns on their hands continuously working with fibres to make ropes. We approached IIT, Kharagpur and the institute gave us a simple tool that reduced the drudgery and solved the medical problem. Again, this device requires no power and it increased the productivity ten-fold,” says Payal.
A recent initiative is to have ‘green kharkhanas’ where women can work. These are well-lit and well-ventilated bamboo structures where fans are not required. The venture uses non-toxic and environment-friendly dyes.
To minimize waste, the grass waste and bamboo shavings are used as fuel for boiling dyes with the grasses. Also, the company is innovating by making ‘sikki mache’ from the waste of the sikki grass and has applied for a patent.
No plastics are used in packaging. Instead, green bubble paper and cardboard made out of recycled paper are used to package the products, some of which are fragile.
Eight SDGs supported
The enterprise supports eight of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – poverty alleviation, gender equality, providing decent work and economic growth, reducing inequalities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, industry, innovation and infrastructure, and collaborations, the woman entrepreneur says.
It takes around three years to work out the supply chain in a cluster including research, training and marketing. “In the unorganized, handmade sector regularizing operations is not easy at all. We have to have a good rapport with the artisans and ensure we deal with their emotions sensitively,” says Mrinal Jain, founding team member of KHBBPL and head of operations and strategy.
“Sometimes, we have to reject bulk orders which are too large to handle for the handmade sector. However, 80 percent of the business is from the B2C segment. Cluster coordinators are responsible for ensuring the output is delivered on time to the warehouses in Kolkata. We are planning to expand operations to Tripura and Tamil Nadu soon,” adds Mrinal.
Kadam Haat’s products on offer are roti boxes, jewellery boxes, bowls, trays, laptop sleeves, bread and fruit baskets, mats, storage organisers, laundry baskets, wall art and planters. The venture also sells serveware and home decor products.
But its flagship product is bags, which account for 45 percent of the revenue and are available in many vibrant colours.
The business head of the company, who is based in Mumbai, Ankit Ruparel, says: “Just like most e-commerce brands, our primary traffic comes from Delhi-NCR, Mumbai and Bengaluru. The average price of a bag is Rs 1,100. We sold around 10,000 handmade bags in indigo colour last year. Our target customers are in the age group of 25-44 years. Our primary customer is the new-age woman who is looking for ecofriendly products and a bohemian look.”
There is a plan to launch some products for men like lunch bags and wallets. For corporate gifting, laptop sleeves, roti/jewellery boxes, bamboo trays that serve as storage organisers and mesh bags are popular. Sales shot up during Diwali and Secret Santa last year. Kadam Haat is coming out with a range in coconut fibre soon, adds Ankit.
A regular customer, Sanjukta Datta based in Gurgaon, is a trained interior designer. “I love Kadam Haat bags. They are attractive, colourful, sturdy, eco-friendly and good value for money. I have gifted these bags to several people. They make a good office bag as they are large and strong enough to accommodate a laptop and tiffin box. Among Kadam Haat’s range of products, the roti basket is another of my favourites. I buy more during the festival season – Diwali and Durga Puja,” says Sanjukta.
Kadam Haat products are available on Amazon, Okhai and Pepperfry, apart from their own website. Myntra and Nykaa will be added to this list soon. A small collection is sold through Purple Turtle in Bengaluru. Also, the venture participates regularly in exhibitions.
“The industry is so human-centric. We have to keep the artisans motivated, working as a team, and urge them to increase their productivity and develop a sense of ownership. Our ability to do these has been our ‘secret sauce’,” says Payal with a smile.
The artisans earn between Rs 2,000 to 25,000 a month depending on the number of hours they work. Nirupama Jena, 39, an artisan from a village in Odisha was struggling to make ends meet before she started working for Kadam Haat.
“My husband does not live with us. I am the sole breadwinner supporting my mother, two daughters and myself. I learnt the craft of weaving sabai grass from my parents. I am able to educate my daughters now,” she says.
“I earn Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 from weaving work and spend around eight hours training and coordinating the work of groups of artisans. From that work I earn Rs 7,000-10,000, depending on the order,” says Nirupama.
“Our vision has been to be an online venture for conscious consumers offering pocket-friendly products to make their houses and lives sustainable. Our tagline is ‘weaving goodness’. This applies not just to the tangible products but also to weaving goodness in the lives of the artisans and customers,” asserts Payal.
(Aruna Raghuram is a freelance journalist based in Ahmedabad. She writes on women’s issues, environment, DEI issues, and social/development enterprises.)