A city girl quitting her corporate job to help people in rural India is a story we have heard time-to-time from various parts of this country. However, it takes more than just a helping hand to transform someone's life. One needs to walk the extra mile to empower someone truly.
A similar story is of Pratibha Krishnaiah, who has changed the lives of several women in a remote mountain village in Uttarakhand. This feature story encompasses her journey and the lives of the women who are empowered and independent.
In 2006, Bengaluru-based Pratibha completed graduation in computer engineering and worked in a multi-national company (MNC) for eight years. Although nothing deterred her from continuing her work, she felt something missing in her life. Born and raised in one of the busiest cities in the country, Pratibha wanted to have the experience of rural life and live there. In 2014, she applied for the State Bank of India's Youth for India Fellowship (SBI-YFI), a 13-month long fellowship programme that enables the country's youth to work on rural development projects in partnership with experienced NGOs. This is how her journey from Bengaluru to the hilly state of Uttarakhand began.
An Opportunity To Turn Their Hobbies Into A Source Of Income
The fellowship team placed her in the village of Khetikhan, Champawat district. The difference in culture, weather and socio-economics was quite vast. In the first few months, she observed how the rural community functions. She observed women knit sweaters, shawls and winter wear to prepare themselves for the harsh cold weather.
"I knew bits of knitting and crochet myself. I thought it is better to up-skill their existing capabilities rather than teaching them something new," said Pratibha. She started visiting these women to convince them that their hobby of knitting could turn into an alternative source of income for their families.
But a girl from Karnataka, Pratibha, was not fluent in Hindi and had to learn the language of hills. With a group of 10 women, Pratibha started what we now know as Himalayan Blooms. Himalayan Blooms sells knitted and crochet items in both online and offline markets. However, her work is not just to upskill the women or teach them new designs.
Himalayan Blooms aims to promote social entrepreneurship so that the business is run by them and for them in the future. "What we aspire for all the artisans is to see their own community members running an enterprise by themselves. Taking all the small and big decisions, handling all aspects of the business, right from contacting customers through emails and Whatsapp, sending them photographs, making bills, managing the finance, to shipping," Pratibha told The Logical Indian.
At present, a network of more than 200 women artisans from within a radius of 15km work at the Himayalan Blooms.
A New Life, Newer Achievements and Challenges
The Himalayan Blooms has transformed the lives of hundreds of women in this remote part of Uttarakhand, who couldn't think of any other profession besides farming and agriculture. Meena Bhat, 28, joined the Himalayan Blooms in 2019 and started working as an artisan.
Today, Meena, who studied till Class X, handles billing and accounting. "I had no prior knowledge of computers, but since joining here (Himalayan Blooms), I have learnt everything at work. I couldn't talk to people, but today I run the daily operations here with ease," Meena said. A mother of two, Meena said she doesn't have to rely on her husband financially anymore. Their initial resistance to computers and English is also long gone. They no longer want to maintain the accounts in a book, instead, they do it on a computer.
Rekha Joshi, 32, runs the Lohaghat branch all by herself. A woman of introverted nature, Rekha now has 60 artisans working under her supervision. "I joined this venture in 2019, and besides providing me with the financial stability, it has boosted my self-confidence," Rekha told The Logical Indian.
But women are not known to run businesses, and they had to face resistance from all quarters. "When there was a heavy day at work when the women were late for an hour or so, their families were always questioning them. However, with time some families have changed their mind," Pratibha told The Logical Indian while talking about her venture. Some of their family members are glad to see their wives happy and confident and share the financial burden of the husbands.
Pratibha recalled a conversation with the husband of one of the artisans named Rita Bairagi. He said, "I never knew my wife is so talented." Now, Rita and her husband run their own enterprise, staging exhibitions of her products, and the Himalayan Blooms assists her in every possible way.
Pratibha Decides To Stick Around
But all of this could have stopped way back in 2015 when Pratibha's fellowship programme ended and she returned to Bangalore. "I was happy with how the fellowship had shaped, and I wanted to hand over the group of trained women to a reliable and experienced NGO. I approached the NGO I was working for and a couple of other NGOs," Pratibha shared with The Logical Indian.
She met with disappointment there when no NGO was ready to continue the excellent work Pratibha had started. "The NGOs said they do not have the resources and expertise." Pratibha even promised to conduct fundraising to help the NGOs, but they did not budge.
Back in Bengaluru, worrying about the future of the Himalayan Blooms, she recalled a particular conversation she had with the village women in Uttarakhand. "During my time at the hills, the women used to say I was enjoying the pretty hills, and after a year, I would go back home with a lovely experience. They thought I was not enjoying their company and not loving the work I was doing," Pratibha added. They had the idea that NGOs come, stay for a year or two and leave, and nothing changes.
"That is the reality. Most people come and teach them a skill or two and leave. They do not tell how to market the product and make a living out of it. I wanted to change. I wanted to see what happens if you stick around and put them ahead in what they aspire. I am so glad I did," Pratibha says while speaking with The Logical Indian.
Although a pilot programme was carried out during Pratibha's 13-month extended fellowship, the full-time business was jumpstarted in February 2016. A good Samaritan named Joginder Kundra contacted her from the US after reading an article about her work so far in the villages. He planned a visit to meet the women and understand the mission of Himalayan Blooms. Impressed, he decided to gather other NRIs in the US and fund the enterprise till it sustains on its own.
Kundra and his group of volunteers identify and forge partnerships with stores and e-commerce websites abroad to generate sales for products made by the women of Himalayan Blooms. "Out of all the people who have come to the village to teach the communities a skill or two, I was motivated by Kundra uncle to stay back and continue the good work," she said.
A Self-Sustainable Model
"In the last 6 years, we have mapped women in different groups. We have 200 plus artisans who regularly take up knitting and crochet consignments. We pay them extra wages than the market standards to keep up their motivation," informed Pratibha.
Along with the artisans, Himalayan Blooms also has a team of local women managing the admin, quality checks and accounts for the trust. A team of three are often seen keeping a check on the inventory, raw material available, consignments sanctioned, quality of finished products submitted by the artisans, accounts, and so on.
"Initially we did most of the work using books but now our women have learned using laptops and software applications to move everything online," she said. Women who had hardly completed their education are now trained to use accounting software, emails, managing website orders, and communicating with clients.
Although marketing is still a challenge, Himalayan Blooms is running a good show since 2016. The women have generated high demand for winter products including shawls, sweaters, crochet tops and so on. Rakhi season has also been one of the most profitable ones for the organization. Pratibha's vision behind running Himalayan Blooms is to empower women and make their businesses self-sustainable.
"We want to become a platform where a lot more micro-enterprises come in. The women who get involved in it will have a safe space to come with unique business ideas and put their entrepreneurial skills to the test," Pratibha concludes.
Pratibha is looking for handing over the social enterprise to be independently run the women. However, she promised to stick around the NGO to support more women, who are looking for an opportunity to break their glass ceiling and become truly independent.