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Who designs the products? How many items are made in a month?
I did the designing initially. Gradually, when people started giving us bag samples, the ladies started to stitch them on their own. Colour combinations and design matching is done by the ladies. We have also had volunteers come in to teach the women new designs or specific aspects of value-addition for the bags. Nine months into the Sura journey, the mothers are looking forward to taking on bulk orders - beginning to explore the power of economics in transforming the reality for their children's lives.
Different categories are made every month. We are still in a start-up phase and things are very orderdriven. Our highest production was in February-March, when we made 1,300 bags.
The team will break even in a matter of 3-4 months. The investment for materials is made by a local champion as a loan to be repaid over and above a regular income for the ladies every month.
How is the marketing done? Are those available abroad? How long does it take for the products to reach the customers?
Marketing is done through Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, as well as word-of-mouth. Initially, the products were sold among known circles. It has been exciting to watch the customer base grow with word-of-mouth and to have customers return to buy more products. Currently, Shivaranjani and I provide support on the marketing front. We have begun computer literacy and English training programme for the ladies so that they can play a bigger role on the marketing front.
Products are only available online. We haven't set up offline spaces yet. But we do display and sell our products in stalls. We have had people fall in love with our creations and carry them abroad, although we haven't yet been able to deliver abroad through online channels.
If the number of products is less than 30, those are delivered in a week. A bulk order needs a minimum of three weeks, accounting for the designing time and contingencies such as long power cuts, lack of transport to the courier service in case of rains, which are so characteristic of work in rural India.
What are the materials being used? Are there different styles and collections?
With an aim to keep our work meaningful beyond a means to financial sustainability, we have aspired to use cottons predominantly. It also helps people make a switch from plastic to cotton bags. We believe that the colours and patterns add so much value to our creations, and hence use kalamkari and ikat prints. Recently, we have been exploring denims combined with cotton kalamkari for totes.
Within the repertoire of products, some tweaks are made to jazz up creations. For instance, we started with plain bedcovers and kalamkari pillow covers. Over time, we designed a "Yin Yang series" where half the bedcover was kalamkari and the other half plain; combined with a plain pillow cover and a kalamkari pillow cover. Our people loved this series and we sold out all the bedcovers in no time.
Within shopping bags, we have created white bags with kalamkari handles, based on a conversation with a customer. Every bag of ours carries a story in itself. We are very grateful to so many people who have sat through multiple interactions to crack a product. For instance, of late we have been experimenting by creating a line of cushion covers and totes using handloom lungis-a local produce; Kurinjipadi in Cuddalore is famous for its handloom lungis.
There is a lot of competition in handmade products. How different are the Sura products?
We believe in co-existing and learning from people by creating cloth bags in particular. As competition may not take us too far (precisely given the number of units involved in handmade products), Krishnan who runs "Yellow Bags" in Madurai has been a great mentor and a thought partner in setting up Sura. We learn from mistakes, make new ones ourselves, and learn a lot from each other. Only earlier this month, the Sura team went over to Yellow Bags for an exposure visit. That said, we also keep a sharp eye on the quality consistently and are open to innovating, experimenting new styles. These two aspects of our work-we believe-will set us up for long-term success.
How has Sura helped the women financially?
Sura women are able to save ?2,500 every month towards their children's expenses. Earlier, they used to depend on their husband's permission to use money at home. Now, it's not the case anymore. They've become more financially independent.
Tell us about Kurinijipadi.
The Kurinjipadi cluster in Cuddalore has over 5,000 looms contributing to about 25 per cent of the state's annual export earnings. The products were exported to and were in great demand in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Dubai. A walk through Kurinjipadi now makes the shift to powerloom very clear. Most weavers have shifted to powerlooms for better wages and earning prospects.
Cuddalore is a predominantly coastal district, with 22 per cent of the population belonging to the SC community and over 50 per cent population living in rural areas. A disaster-prone region, Cuddalore has been hit by the tsunami in 2004, the Vardha cyclone and the Chennai floods in the past two decades. The project of growing Karungani cotton is to initiate the crop season in Kallupatti in Madurai.
What are the future plans for Sura and ASSEFA?
We want Sura to be a proof point of what is possible for women across communities that ASSEFA works with and beyond. The Sura team itself is on to the path of learning financial methods, computers and the English language to manage different aspects of running an entrepreneurial venture. We want to create an interdependent ecosystem, where teams of women's groups stitch different product lines.
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