Table runners, place mats or window blinds made of Korai or Sambu grass, Talipot CD case or file holders and more. If these eco-friendly options sound unfamiliar to you, it is entirely due to the lack of a credible distribution chain that brings Indian handicrafts from the heartland to the fore. For decades, rural artisans have been impaired by this missing link that would aid them in reaching a much larger audience, be it urban India or even the global markets. Sensing this opportunity to make a difference, Rural Outsourced Production Enterprises (ROPE), a Chennai-based enterprise, commenced operations in March 2007. ROPE outsources or contracts production to artisans in villages while using information technology tools and applications to organise the production. They function with a mission of integrating domestic and international markets with the unorganised sector of rural arts and handicrafts and enable a fair valuation of their produce.
“Our aim is to provide the artisans more work and on a more consistent basis by creating a global demand for the vast variety and skill of Indian handicrafts,” says Patrick Fischer, co-founder and international development head at ROPE. Today, the organisation supplies its products to over 30 clients across domestic and international markets.
For Sreejith NN, chief executive of ROPE, this entrepreneurial experience was a first. When Sreejith and Fischer met, they decided to turn entrepreneurial partners with ROPE. The duo approached the Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI) of IIT (Madras) started by Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala. ROPE’S start-up operations were funded by RTBI. RTBI provided the space and bore the expenditures, including employee salaries during the incubation phase. This association lent it credibility while interacting with prospective clients, apart from attracting other investors. The organisation became self- sufficient within a year of its operations. “Being an incubate of RTBI, their board members and TeNeT advisory board, reviewed our progress on a quarterly basis with inputs from its support team that includes research and technology teams,” adds Fischer.
ROPE’s production centres (RPCs) located in Tamil Nadu districts produce hand woven and knitted products made from natural fibres like banana rope, Sisal fibre and jute. ROPE’s model is customer driven as it functions on the basis of customer’s orders. It also competes with modern manufacturers on price and quality. The model is also vastly scalable as there is a large rural need to showcase craftsmanship and a variety of handicrafts that have global potential. As production centres require low capital and overheads, the model achieves sustainability through cost coverage. Technology is another key component for ROPE’s success. Taking advantage of the recent spread of Internet and mobile phone access in rural areas, an efficient supply chain management for geographically dispersed rural producers has been created by ROPE. “ROPE operates from a central hub in Chennai to oversee the logistics and impose quality check controls on the handicrafts manufactured by rural artisans.” says Fischer. “The production groups at the village level take care of the day-to-day production activity,” adds Fischer.
The income levels of village artisans have almost tripled to an average annualised income of Rs 36,000 after working with ROPE. Rural artisans are now experiencing a higher standard of living in terms of housing, health and education. All this while preserving the traditional handicrafts and other art forms of the region.
Dealing with competition
In leveraging rural India’s skill to a global audience, ROPE has established its proof of concept. However, its competition is from organised players such as large mills, producers from non-government organisations (NGO) who work with artisans from different parts of the country and traditional middlemen who buy products from rural producers and sell to exporters. Yet, ROPE has a strong footing in the market. Factory producers find it hard to compete with ROPE’s pricing as their fixed costs are high and they are unable to customise orders as ROPE does. NGO producers’ issue is cost management and efficient delivery. The middlemen or agents cannot assure quality standards and ethical production processes.
In the future, ROPE plans to take its operations to other under-developed countries which have a thriving rural artisan base. It has given several languishing rural artisans a second lease of life. And ROPE plans to go further than Tamilnadu and impact the other artisans‘ lives as are 27 other states that are in dire need of its presence.