A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Channapatna, a small city located 60 km south-west of Bangalore on the Bangalore-Mysore state highway. For someone coming from Delhi, this place “gombegala ooru” meaning toy town was a whole new experience. In Delhi, there is not much for children to do except a few amusement parks here and there. This town, on the other hand, was creativity combined with fulfillment of one’s need to feel like a child again. Years later, when my nephew was born, all I could think of was buying a cart-load of toys for him from Channapatna. Unable to go down South, I began my hunt for Channapatna toys online. To my delight, I found some of it and much more from the traditional artisans of India on www.UnWrapIndia.com – a website dedicated to bringing these products from rural India to the urban consumer. Thus, began my journey to UnWrapIndia as I sought to interview Suhas Kamath, Co-Founder, UnWrapIndia. Here is an extract:
1. How did the idea of UnWrapIndia come about? Tell us about its founding days. Also introduce the other team members and how you all came to work on this idea?
Our CEO bought a Ganesha idol as a gift to someone and he found out that it was made in China. It was a few brainstorming sessions and a few visits to handicraft exhibitions and we were seriously considering launching an e-commerce portal bridging the gap between manufacturers and end consumers. Not many people are even aware that there is so much to India in terms of travel, handicrafts and even food varieties. And that’s how we came up with the name UnWrap – India.
Initial days were filled with challenges specially in convincing rural artisans that we were not going to cheat them and that we are here for the long run. We had to make them down payments before they manufactured products, even now we pay them before we procure products from them. A few of them who have been with us from the beginning, don’t worry about payment terms now. But bringing in every new rural artisan comes with the same challenge as most of them have been conned by people who promised to sell their products, but never returned.
Our CTO, Archit Arya is ex IBM and Via and an IIT Guwahati graduate. The core team comes from different backgrounds including media, travel and retail. But having seen good synergies of working together, we decided to take this plunge.
2. Yours is more of a social enterprise rather than an NGO or NPO. How has this model of social service through business helped you work more efficiently, if in any way?
When you get older, life seems to just sort of happen to you. So we had to try things when we were young. We are all less than 30 years of age, the entire team. I personally love to travel and I knew this will involve a lot of travel. When you meet so many new people, you begin to understand that the world is both a big and small place. You have a new-found respect for the pain and suffering that over half of the world takes for granted. You feel more connected to your family, friends and even acquaintances. You start calling people more often, just to say Hi, a lot of things change about you. Every call from a happy artisan or a happy customer motivates us to do better.
3. What has been the impact of your work in this area? How has it led to a better India? What are some of the potential benefits of this model that you see in the long run?
It is very easy to talk about eliminating middlemen between rural producers and urban markets. It is easier said than done. What are some of the lessons you’ve learnt in your journey that may help social entrepreneurs who want to implement similar ideas?
We are selling products from NGOs supporting destitute women, blind children and rural artisans who have a part time job to support their families as the handicraft business alone cannot generate enough business for them. I am very sure that there is a huge market out there in India as well as abroad. We just need to channelize and streamline the supply chain. Having personally met more than 300 artisans in the past 9 months, I can say that every time you get them a sale, it makes them happy. It’s good to see them calling and telling you that they are happy with this association.
It’s tough to eliminate middle men altogether. It will take time. You have to prove yourself and only when the sales that you get is more than the existing middlemen or other sales channels will these artisans completely stop doing business with the middlemen who squeeze them for every penny they have. It’s a long way to go.
4. How are you marketing UnWrapIndia differently as compared to any other online gift shop?
We are backed by Adjetter Media who markets our product. Adjetter has a huge inventory of online/offline advertising venues where we can advertise. Currently, we are doing social media and a few offline channels. We are also selling through corporate channels. Rest, we will wait for it to happen, there are some interesting ideas to execute.
5. What does the future look like? Do you plan an offline store as well? What are your current merchandise tie-ups and how do you plan to expand these?
We have about 2800 products from 95 different suppliers across India which include rural artisans from places like Manipur and Assam, or NGOs selling just one product and urban entrepreneurs as well. We have a sourcing team actively scouting for talent. We travel a lot and keep getting new artisans on board. We aim to have about 10,000 products by June 2012 and a robust supply chain for these. We might plan an offline store post June 2012.