Handcrafting at home through hard times

Rural India was severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of the artisans at Women on Wings’ partner Rangsutra Crafts worried about losing their income during the lockdown. Global retailer IKEA buys from the social enterprise and it recently talked to Rangsutra’s artisan Sita and founder Sumita Ghose about how they managed to find new ways to continue operations and the work with IKEA’s handmade cushion covers.

Rural women create for global retailer
Sita lives in the Bikaner district of Rajasthan, in the northwest of India. She is one of Rangsutra Craft’s (Rangsutra) artisans currently working with IKEA’s line of handmade cushion covers. When India’s nationwide lockdown was imposed in March to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Sita worried that she would lose her income. She and her husband had taken a personal loan to renovate their house, and without her job as a seamstress at one of Rangsutra’s production centers, they would fall behind on the payments.

Reassuring partnership
For the woman artisans, the lockdown has had grave implications. Not only did they lose economic independence, many male members of their families who worked in other cities also lost their jobs and returned home. In some cases, entire families had lost their livelihood. Says Sumita Ghose, founder Rangsutra: “Our first action was to reach out to all the artisans to check on how were they doing physically and mentally. The artisans were assured that Rangsutra was with them in this difficult time and would continue as a partner. Initially, we were not sure about the status of IKEA orders but soon it became clear that we would continue with the production of pillowcases.”

Retaining economic independence
While the lockdown has ended, the pandemic and preventive restrictions remain. Rangsutra has had to find new ways to continue its operations. “As the lockdown slowly lifted, Rangsutra and IKEA planned for a model where artisans could work from their home. What was in our favor was that our products are handmade which only needs the artisans’ fabric, thread and needle which could be easily taken to their homes. Our artisans have already participated in trainings, and no large-scale factory set up was needed. Initially they were very concerned about the loss of livelihood, but working from home has given them confidence and stability again. They are happy to retain their economic independence,” continues Sumita.

IKEA’s support pays wages
Knowing that social entrepreneurs like Rangsutra are acting as frontline responders during the pandemic, it was important for IKEA to confirm the planned orders early. IKEA Social Entrepreneurship BV, established in 2018 in the Netherlands, was also able to turn grants designed to accelerate social businesses into emergency relief grants. This way, Rangsutra could continue to pay the artisans’ wages during the lock-down, providing livelihoods and services to some of the most vulnerable populations.

Securing physical distance
Sumita concludes: “With the HALLVI and HERVOR pillowcases, while coronavirus is still around, we plan to work partially from home and partially from our centers. To maintain physical distance, the number of artisans who will work from there will be reduced. Some artisans will come to the centers to work, while those who can work comfortably from home, will work from home.” These HERVOR and HALLVI pillowcases will be available in selected IKEA stores from April 2021.

Women on Wings and Rangsutra
Rangsutra is a social enterprise with over 2,000 rural artisans in their network, where most of them are also shareholders in the company. Rangsutra acts as a bridge between the artisans and global consumers in order to develop sustainable livelihoods and has been an IKEA partner for more than eight years. Together with IKEA, affordable, handcrafted products are created, merging IKEA design and local techniques. More than 800 artisans create handmade IKEA products. Women on Wings and Rangsutra have been collaborating since 2008 on their joint effort to ensure sustainable livelihoods for artisans and farmers during which time the two social enterprises have been steadily working on building the NGO it once was into a sustainable and successful social enterprise.

Note: this article is largely taken from a story about Rangsutra at IKEA Today, a website where the global retailer shares inspiring stories from behind the scenes at IKEA’s product development. Read the entire story which also includes quotes from IKEA’s team.

Image @IKEA: artisans making HERVOR or HALLVI pillowcases