Up until seven years ago, Anju Devi was struggling to make ends meet, living in Gaya, Bihar. The mother of two could not find work anywhere, and her unemployed husband could not help them financially.
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But, things changed for her when she heard a few women speaking about a crochet workshop that was being conducted in her hometown for free! Anju immediately signed up for it.
Now, seven years later, Anju is a craftswomen with exceptional skills in crocheting. She works with threads to make beautiful crochet laces for earrings, hair clips, necklaces, and embellishments, after receiving training that spanned a few weeks.
“I work about four to five hours in a day and can also take care of my children. The best part is I feel secure because I am employed now,” smiles 32-year-old Anju.
The force behind this change is Samoolam, a social enterprise based in Gaya, which empowers women by skilling them in crocheting.
Samoolam was officially started in early 2012 by Usha Prajapati, 39, in her hometown in Gaya. “I always wanted to give back to my community by starting a skill-building and livelihood-based activity for rural women in Bihar that is also my birth place,” says Usha who has worked as a designer, a consultant for crafts-and-design-based livelihood with various organisations in India and South-east Asia.
So far, Samoolam has enabled over 100 women earn a livelihood via skill-development.
How Samoolam Came to be Founded
After finishing her studies in Gaya, Usha went on to pursue her degree in design at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad when she was just 19. After that she worked in the corporate sector for an export company. She soon realised that her heart was in social work and went on to contribute in a livelihood Project in Uttarakhand.
Throughout her career, Usha has worked with famous organisations like Dastakari Haat Samiti and the Asian Heritage foundation that worked exclusively with handicrafts. Through her work, she got the opportunity to travel to countries like Nepal, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, among others, to develop on various livelihood projects.
After working for a few years, Usha went on to pursue her Masters in International Development and Social Change through the Ford Fellowship Programme.
The germ of Samoolam’s idea was sown in 2009, when, on a visit from the US, Usha had been sitting beside her mother who had been crocheting at the time.
“I looked at Maa and told her that the crochet work she does is so perfect and beautiful that she could do something big with that. She told me what is the point in that. Had she also studied like me and my siblings, she could have also done something with her life by working,” says Usha.
This point really pinched Usha and she wondered why her mother had said that. In the following days, she had ventured out in the streets to run some errands when she started noticing things around her.
“In Gaya, there is a big agarbatti (incense stick) industry. You could see women working and making agarbattis. I was intrigued and asked them how much money do they get in a day. What they said shocked me!” says Usha.
She found out that these women were making about one kg of agarbattis in a day for just Rs 4!
“I had just come from the US at the time after my higher studies, where a cup of coffee was about Rs. 200. It just hit me that this is what these women make in a month!” says Usha.
She realised that she needed to do something to change the situation. She spoke to her parents and this is what led to the inception of Samoolam.
“My family was so supportive. I asked my mother if she would help by training these women in crocheting and she agreed at once. My father, on the other hand, let us set up the workshop in his garage where these women would come and receive the training,” shares Usha.
She was working on a livelihood project in Uttarakhand in 2010 when the training workshops for these women started. Since Delhi was not too far away from her work site, she would buy threads, beads and other raw materials and send it to Gaya.
Operations, Challenges and Impact
Madhulika Chaudhary, 52, has been running a brand called Anjori in Mumbai since the past 16 years. Despite coming from an IT background, she was very interested in the arts and through Anjori, she worked with artisans who create items like sarees and dupattas.
About four years ago, she was looking for crochet laces and accessories that she could use to embellish the embroidered dupattas.
“The quality of the crochet laces I had come across were not good. One day, I was browsing through the internet when I came across Samoolam’s products,” recalls Madhulika. She was immediately impressed at what she saw online and ordered a small batch of crochet flowers and applique work.
“The quality of the products took my breath away. The designs were so neat. I could see that good raw material was used because of the quality of the laces,” says Madhulika.
Now, Madhulika and her brand has a running association with Samoolam. “Whatever requirements we have, we communicate it to them and they deliver so well. Also, I love the fact that this initiative is empowering women. I can truly see that the products are made with love.”
“I was very sure that for the first two years, the women would only train so that they can learn the skill properly. And slowly and steadily, they started making small hair clips, earrings and small laces and even started taking small orders,” says Usha.
Usha further explains that she did not want to burden the artisans with large orders like making bedsheets in the early days. This would not only put pressure on the workers, but also require more time, she says.
After receiving training from Usha’s mother and having made a few products, Usha felt that these products were ready to be sold. “We took products worth Rs. 30,000 to set up a stall in Delhi at the Dastakari Haat Samiti. All our products were sold out!” says Usha. Since then, there has been no looking back for Samoolam.
However, Samoolam had its own share of challenges. Usha explains that marketing is something they need to constantly focus on as the women’s livelihood depends on more orders.
“Running the organisation with semi-skilled workforce become challenging at times because teaching them requires patience and time. Also, hiring trained staff can be very expensive for self-reliant social enterprises because we run with limited resources,” she says.
Despite that, over the course of eight years, Samoolam has sold over 1.5 lakh pieces of their products and has come up with 1,500 designs for these.
Looking back, Usha says that Samoolam wouldn’t have been possible without help from her parents, siblings, her husband and her staff who she’s worked with over the years.
Usha is confident that Samoolam will be able to sustain itself and will introduce more products in the future. “I was very clear that I wouldn’t want any kind of funding. We price our products in a way that we make a profit margin. We don’t want free money, we want to be self reliant,” she shares.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)