Social Startups

You Think Only Tech Startups Have Great Perks, You’d Be Surprised To See What Rehwa Has To Offer

There is a major shift underway “trade instead of aid”  is the new mantra for helping the poor, everyday new social startups are producing everything from shoes to soccer balls. Today concepts like fair-trade and handmade are driving consumers to products.

Imagine my surprise when I found Rehwa a social venture thats been doing all this and more for over 35 years now. Rehwa makes beautiful fair-trade and hand woven products as a way to create economic opportunity for artisans and their families and has been doing so for over 35 years. Rehwa has also always promoted work-from-home a concept that todays tech startups have been adopting and promoting as a way to increase productivity and happiness among their workforce.

Rehwa was founded in 1978 by the royal family of Indore, the Holkars. A nonprofit with an aim to create income for the struggling weavers by selling their handloomed, exquisite products in India and overseas. The profit generated from the trade to be reinvested in providing housing, healthcare and education to weavers families.

Handloom weaving in Maheshwar has an ancient history dating back to the 5th century. The weavers prospered under the rule of Queen Ahilybai Holkar, from 1765-1795. However after India gained Independence, the weavers found it hard to survive as the royal patronage disappeared. By employing women artisans and finding new markets for their products, Rehwa has helped preserve the century old weaving tradition of the small town of Maheshwar in Central India.

The nonprofit started with 10 looms donated by the close friends of the Holkar heirs and today they are a completely self funded enterprise with 120 looms, supporting over 120 weavers and their families at fair wages and employment throughout the year. From the profits they’ve earned, Rehwa has built a world class school for the weavers children, a weavers housing colony, with a loom in every house so that women could weave from the comfort of their home. With the change in times, Rehwa now sees that women enjoy stepping out of their homes and prefer working from Rehwa weaving centre as it gives them a chance to bond with other fellow weavers.

Rehwa also enjoys a very loyal customer base. People love the richness of their products – scarves, shawls, saris, stoles in cotton and silk. Some of their products take as long as a month to create as they are completely woven by hand. Rehwa primarily depends on exhibitions and trunk shows to sell. They are now looking at social media and the web to help reach more people. If you have suggestions on how they could leverage the web, feel free to share them with Rehwa in the comments section below.

I recently caught up with Rehwa’s designer Sunanda Dawar to learn more about their work. Sunanda has been with Rehwa for 10 years now and heads the design and production part of their work.

Deepa Chaudhary (DC): Tell us about yourself, how did you get involved with Rehwa and your role?

Sunanda Dawar (SD): I studied Textile Design from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT). After graduation I worked with an export house in Bangalore for 5 years where I started to feel stagnant and wanted to try out something new, in crafts and handmade. So I approached my college to see if they knew of any exciting projects. At the same time Richard Holkar of Rehwa had approached NIFT to look for a designer. That’s how we got connected, it was a very informal interview. I thought I was being hired as a designer but when I joined I realized I was responsible for almost everything.

As the Design Head, I look into design strategy, plan the production, as well as help plan sales. I have a team to help me interface and work with the weavers. I also often work directly with the artisans.

 DC: Tell me about Rehwa’s artisans and your products?

SD: Rehwa was started in 1978 by Richard and his ex wife Sally Holkar. Holkars are the royal family of Indore in Central India. With India’s Independence the weavers had lost the royal patronage, and the hand weaving industry was in a slump. The weavers approached Richard and wife to see if they would help. They thought of reviving the old saris and got 8-10 looms donated. They created a small collection and held trunk shows in Mumbai and Delhi which were a huge success. Now we have about 80 looms in house and 30 looms out in the homes of these weavers.

We initially started with saris but now our collection includes saris, scarves, stoles, shawls in cotton and silk. Each loom takes a month to weave 8 saris or 18 dupattas. If the work is intricate it may take a week to weave just one part of the sari. We plan two major collections a year – a summer and festive collection. We also do a special collection for our expat community, of stoles and shawls.

I’ll also like to mention we use eco dyes, no electricity as our looms are run by hand and we treat and reuse our water for dying purposes so that the dye water does not run into Narmada river. The town Maheshwar is situated on the banks of river Narmada.

DC: When you say fair wages, how much do artisans actually earn?

SD: We are far more than fair wages. When we started we supported our weavers by providing housing, training, healthcare and work from home to most of our weavers. Now our artisans are self sufficient and confident.

Any weaver weaves about Rs 300 (approx USD 5)every day. For a stole that sells for Rs 1200 (approx $20) in the market, the weaver gets about Rs150-200 ( approx $3.25) for it’s making. We have to factor in others costs such as yarn, dyes, design, admin, marketing etc in the selling price besides the makers cost.

Rehwa was the first to offer jobs to the weavers in Maheshwar. We now have many other players in the market, employing over 3000 weavers supplying to the whole world. The advantage of working with Rehwa is that besides offering them competitive wages, we also provide employment all throughout the year as unlike other manufacturers which may employ them only for a short duration. In addition, we also provide our weavers the opportunity to grow. For instance if they’ve been previously working on a cotton fabric, we give them in-house training so they could move up to silk and complicated weaves. We also have a small training unit where people who wish to learn weaving are welcome. Once they have learnt weaving according to Rehwa standards, we assure them work.

Rehwa’s profits supports the running of the Ahilya school where the children of artisans study.

DC: So where can one find Rehwa’s products?

SD: You can buy our stuff on NDTV’ Indianroots and Craftisan. In addition we organize our own shows, at least two shows every year in major cities. We are also selling through some retailers like you can find our stuff in Fab India, Basava in Bangalore, Rehwa in Indore. I feel that if Fab India starts having a  label that indicates its from Rehwa, it will help both the organisations.

We are now trying to set-up our own online store and exploring other ways to sell online. I think it’ll really help us scale as well save money and time, participating in exhibitions and shows is quite labor intensive and costly. Currently the best way to know where we are selling when is to stay in touch with us on Facebook.

DC: You’ve been in this space for a long time. What are some of the observations you’ll like to make?

SD: Recently the Govt. of India tried to pass a law that cloth weaved on motor operated looms could also be marked as hand loom. Weavers in India went on a rally to oppose this law as it would affect them and would be a misrepresentation of handloom. I think it’s unnatural, firstly you do not have electricity in most of the areas, so people will end up powering their looms through generators which will lead to increase in production cost. Also the value of weavers will decline, this class is anyways struggling, with the coming of this law many will lose their jobs. In the end you are also fooling the consumers, you will mark a certain product as handloom when it’s not really woven by hand but a mechanized loom.