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Craftizen: Empowering the Underprivileged

Mayura Balasubramanian, founder and CEO, Craftizen

Mayura Balasubramanian, founder and CEO, Craftizen talks about her initiatives on imparting skill training and providing livelihoods to the socially and economically weaker sections

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Craftizen Foundation, based in Bengaluru has been imparting skill training and providing livelihoods to persons with disability, women rescued from trafficking, women and youth who do not have access to alternate income generating opportunities. Mayura Balasubramanian, founder and CEO, Craftizen talks to Mohd Mustaquim about her initiatives

 
Excerpts:

Please brief us about Craftizen?
Craftizen Foundation was founded in 2014 with a vision to preserve and evolve Indian craft skills so that they remain an integral part of our cultural fabric. We focus on craft based skill development and income enhancement, coupled with strategic interventions and business acumen support to enable sustainable livelihoods for Indian artisans as well as marginalised and unskilled communities. Through our flagship ‘Patron’ programme, we aim at reviving the concept of patronage under which the crafts sector once flourished. The Patron programme is a comprehensive, multi – pronged approach to enable, promote and sustain craft based livelihoods.
 
How the idea of Craftizen came into being?
In 2013, the new companies act was outlined along with the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) clause, which would bring in a lot of funds for the development sector. I felt this was a good opportunity to get corporates involved in donning the mantle of ‘patrons’ and supporting the handicrafts sector. Further, in mid 2013, I also won a business plan competition organised by National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) as part of their rural innovations fund and this provided the support and impetus to get started on the venture.
 
How has been the journey of Craftizen since its inception?
Craftizen has a highly collaborative model, which is not just unique to our business model, but is also one of our key strengths. In the first year we focused on building our portfolio of products and partnerships, and pitched a lot of proposals! I explored different interventions in the crafts sector, met many experts and organisations, learnt from our experiments and finally evolved our model to a level where we can enable large-scale impact.
Today, we are fortunate to have donors such as Accenture India, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (HPCL), Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Deloitte India supporting our Patron programme. We have as many as 15 craft based NGOs as our on-ground implementing partners, across our project locations. We also received a grant from Harvard University’s South Asia Institute and Tata Trusts, which enabled us to come up with the innovative ‘Finishing School for Artisans’, a customised curriculum designed to make artisans market-savvy.


What challenges did you face while initiating the move?
In the early days, it was definitely an uphill battle to convince donors to come on board. They all liked the concept but needed to be convinced of our work. So we focused on building our capability in design and marketing, supporting several traditional craft groups across India. We also curated events which would help us get market and consumer insights. In the development sector it is critical to have an understanding of grassroots level issues and this part of our journey prepared us for when we were able to get started on large scale and long term development projects.

How does your organisation help rural people generate livelihoods and how much villagers are getting livelihoods through your organisation currently?
Till date, our craft based skill development programmes have benefitted over 1,000 beneficiaries including marginalised groups such as persons with disability, women rescued from a life of trafficking, rural women and youth who would not have access to alternate income generating opportunities. Our project locations are centered around Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata and include peri-urban and rural areas around these cities. Our beneficiary split is 40 percent urban and 60 percent rural and peri-urban. We also support nearly 200 traditional artisans spread across the country. Our design interventions have enabled artisans’ access to contemporary designs that are more acceptable to the modern day urban consumer. So far, we have generated income of approximately Rs 50 lakh for the several craft groups we work with. Through our latest initiative, Kalashala, the finishing school for artisans, we aim at empowering both traditional and non-traditional artisans with the knowledge, skills and exposure to become more market ready and consumer savvy.

Getting skilled workforce is a big challenge for handicrafts, how do you tackle it?
Our focus is primarily to use craft based skilling as a means to empower disadvantaged groups with no formal access to education or skills to be able to earn a livelihood. Craftizen customises the skill development based on several factors including profile of beneficiaries, availability of raw material, product appeal in local markets and among urban consumers and large buyers. We also spend considerable time in conducting due diligence to onboard suitable craft based NGOs with proven experience working with communities. All our projects are well structured with defined outcomes and impact parameters and subsequently we have not faced any significant challenges in motivating or retaining this “workforce”. Skills involving handicrafts also offer beneficiaries the flexibility of choosing to be self-employed, wage employed or engaged full time at a production center. This factor has also contributed to the appeal of craft based skilling. In addition to the technical training, we also provide capacity building to both NGO partners as well as beneficiaries through our finishing school curriculum, ensuring well rounded initiatives.

What model do you apply for getting access to the market?
Our focus so far has been to generate bulk orders from companies and institutions for their gifting requirements. Further, we customize marketing support to the craft groups we are partnering with for the patron programme – these include retail, wholesale, e-commerce and exports. The latter includes market research, test marketing, customer surveys and feedback, devising market strategy and buyer connects.

What was the funding model while initiating the business?
Since we are a section 8 company (not for profit), our primary source of funds is grant funding. Our seed grant was from NABARD, subsequently we have been receiving grants from companies as part of their CSR initiatives.
 
Do you also focus on gender equality while employing the people?
In our skill development programmes, we do have a focus on women beneficiaries and over 75 percent of all our beneficiaries have been women. Craft based skills imparted to these groups include hand block printing, screen printing, tailoring, hand embroidery, painting, hand stitching, quilting, fabric based product development and also converting discard materials such as flowers - from temples and events - and non biodegradable flex banners into functional products.
We have a mix of full time and part time staff. The latter includes designers, interns and volunteers.As many as 92 percent of our human resources have been women. To be honest, it’s more a question of self-selection rather than a deliberate attempt at gender equality. Our doors are welcome to anyone with a passion for crafts and livelihoods.

How has been the growth over the period?
Our Patron programme commenced in 2015 and we were able to double the number of projects, beneficiaries and donors in the very next year. We are also on track to ramp this up even further going forward. After conducting successful pilots for our Finishing School for artisans, we are currently evaluating partnerships to disseminate the curriculum widely to benefit beneficiary groups across the country.
 
What are your future plans?
To exponentially grow the scale and impact of our Patron programmes and to ensure that handcrafted skills continue to stay relevant for both the maker and the market. We like to call ourselves Craft Architects since we are building bridges that connect the crafts sector to newer possibilities.

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