The slam of the beater and the click of the heddles are in complete sync. The shush of the flying shuttle, often fashioned from dogwood, holds the weft thread. The rhythmic sound and the movement of the weaving machine involuntarily direct you to observe how different shades of yarns are interwoven with each other to craft handloom fabric. The lives of the weavers are similarly entwined with different shades of yarn. Yet, it is ironic that these multiple colours, often, fail to add colours in the lives of weavers.
It has been six decades since Murugan’s family started weaving in Kancheepuram district of Tamil Nadu. His father, a man in his late 70s, works dexterously on the intricate designs of the pallu in the red Kancheepuram saree. The family has been thriving on weaving for ages, and this, with much disappointment, will end with Murugan. “I do not want my son to become like me. I would like to see him with a proper job, earning a monthly salary,” he says. The beautiful fabric, in some sense, masks the untold struggles of weavers.
It was one such story during a CSR drive at Accenture that nudged Siva Devireddy to quit his job. It was in 2010, during a field trip in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, Devireddy stumbled upon the fact that there was a steady decline in the number of weavers. The reason: poor realisation for their products. He recalls how a skilled weaver narrated his predicament, “I am a weaver, I can weave. But I am not good at marketing. If the government markets our products, I can earn a fair price.”
Farmers too, face a similar problem of middlemen. “We hear of farmer suicides in India, but the condition of weavers is equally bad. It is only less heard,” he says. The reason why Devireddy chose weaving over agriculture is quite simple. Handloom products are neither perishable nor logistics-intensive, unlike agri produce. Moreover, quite a number of initiatives have already been taken in the agriculture sector either by the government or by start-ups. In the weaving sector, India has 90 lakh artisans and about 45 lakh of them belong to the weaving community. According to Devireddy, India accounts for about 70-75% of the handloom products manufactured across the world. Most of the artisans hail from rural parts of India, which is poorly connected with the rest of the country.
It was this missing link that led to the birth of GoCoop, an online social marketplace for co-operative and community-based handloom producers to list and sell their products, thus enabling wider access to different markets and helping weavers fetch better remuneration.
Building from scratch
With an initial investment of Rs.80 lakh from the savings of Devireddy and his partners from Accenture, Jaganmohan Reddy and Srinivas Babu, GoCoop was set up in 2012 in Bengaluru. It was not an easy task though for Devireddy to convince weavers to join his company as most people in rural India were not even aware of the internet. “It was like rocket science for most people. Some used to stare at my laptop as though they were seeing it for the first time. Many did not know what e-commerce was and thus, declined to register with GoCoop,” he recollects. Devireddy then started a number of buyer-seller meetings in these villages to facilitate and build trust with the weavers and the customers.
The company mainly works with co-operatives to bring weavers and the buyers under a single platform. Most of the weavers work for co-operatives and the co-operatives fix a stipulated wage according to the number of sarees they weave. It usually takes a week for a weaver to weave a saree and if he weaves four in a month, he would be paid a wage of Rs.8,000-Rs.10,000, on average. If a saree has more intricate designs, the wage would be commensurately higher. GoCoop approaches the weaving community through these co-operatives. “Ever since we registered on the website, we are getting more demand for Ilkal sarees from different parts of the country. Earlier our sales were restricted to just stores. Now, we are earning an additional margin of 10-15%,” says Panduranga Lakshman Hoti, secretary, Chamundeshwari Handloom Weavers Co-operative Society in Karnataka.
To associate with co-operatives, GoCoop identifies the clusters first. A cluster is a group of related suppliers of handloom products within a specific geographic location, who help buyers to reduce cost and facilitate sourcing. For instance, weavers in Kancheepuram are known to weave Kanjeevaram silk sarees and in Guntur, weavers weave Mangalagiri sarees. Once these clusters are identified, GoCoop searches for co-operatives which work with that cluster through the help of local governments and try to associate with them after a bit of market study. “Only those clusters which have a professional set-up along with a warehouse and a dyeing unit are considered,” he says. GoCoop not only helps in marketing but also helps in improving the design, quality and efficiency of weaving in the process.
Ankita Vashistha, founder and chief executive officer, Saha Fund, which has invested in GoCoop, believes the company is infusing life into a dying art. Although weaving has been a traditional family profession in many villages, the trend has been diminishing over the past few decades. The children of weavers are opting for other odd jobs. It is the women of the family who carry on the practice. Often, for them, this is the only profession or skill which they can rely on and earn money. Since Saha Fund mainly focuses on women-related enterprises, investing in GoCoop was logical remarks Vashistha. “This is an interesting sector for us because 60% of the weavers are women and majority of the consumers of handloom products are also women,” she points out. Concurring with her view, Devireddy says, “The south and most parts in the North East are seeing a growing trend of women getting involved in weaving.” Women on Wings and Federation of Tibetan Co-operatives in India are some of the organisations that GoCoop works with there.
GoCoop works on a commission basis like most e-commerce companies. It takes a cut of 10-15% on each product, which is built into the price. For its wholesale business, they keep a margin of 15-20%.
It also has two models of engagement for producer organisations. In the case of e-listing services for B2B, an annual subscription fee is charged for setting up the micro-site, creating product catalogue and listing the products. In the case of trade support services, such as trade management, enquiry management, order processing and fulfillment, there is a separate service charge.
Currently, the company has covered Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Orissa, Maharashtra and West Bengal through the help of state government-supported co-operatives and craft organisations. It has collaborated with 40 clusters and 250 co-operatives, collectively representing 60,000 weavers. “We have about 8,000 buyers registered on our platform including B2B buyers like boutiques, designers, home entrepreneurs and non-resident Indian customers. Our aim is to have 100,000 customers, including 1,000 B2B buyers on board over the next three years,” says Devireddy adding that GoCoop aims to empower a million weavers in the next five years. It seems to be on the right track by already collaborating with big players such as Future group, Aditya Birla group and Reliance Retail to sell their fabrics. There have been 3,000 such sourcing requests thus far.
Incidentally, 40% of GoCoop’s turnover comes from exports. Devireddy says, “It is not like there is no demand in India, but people abroad are very curious to know about handloom products.” Since the value for handloom products is much more outside, it is easy to get a higher price for it. Besides reaching out to 100 clusters over the next two years, GoCoop is also planning to launch a mobile app by the first quarter of the next financial year.
As per latest available data, GoCoop earned a revenue of Rs.64 lakh in FY15, but its losses increased to over Rs.1 crore owing to high employee expenses. Devireddy though is not worried and expects the company to double its revenues in the coming year. Nagaraja Prakasam, lead investor, Indian Angel Network, which has also invested in GoCoop, too, sound optimistic. “A diminishing trend in the weaving profession means losing a treasure in the country. GoCoop is enabling weavers with its technology and it has the potential to grow in this Rs.55,000 crore market.”
In fact, to create a buzz around handloom, GoCoop recently kicked off its #ILoveHandloom campaign, inviting people to share their love for handlooms by posting a photo or writing a story around their experience. “This was targeted at the younger generation to create a kind of consumer awareness about handloom,” explains Devireddy. The effort ended up fetching GoCoop the 1st national award from the textile ministry for outstanding contribution in marketing of handloom through e-commerce. The ministry, too, has kicked off a campaign called #IWearHandloom with a similar objective, but Devireddy believes it’s not enough. “A lot more has to be done to uplift the lives of weavers,” he says. But for now, GoCoop is doing its bit to save the art of weaving from dying.