It has been one year since I have been closely involved with the lantana furniture project of The Shola Trust. This past year TST continued to engage with the lantana furniture unit in Moyar and also helped the community set up a lantana furniture unit in thepakaadu village. Looking back at the year gone by, these were the key patterns that emerged from our engagement with this project.
1) Good response to the products- The positives that emerged was that there was a really robust demand to lantana furniture products locally. This last year further reinforced our understanding that there is a huge market for such natural looking, eco-friendly and durable furniture. The order inflow could largely be categorized into eco-friendly resorts operating in the nilgiris, small ticket purchases by tourists visiting the district, local residents and then alternate channels like NGO’s and governments who buy to support such initiatives by the community. There continues to be a constant flow of enquiries for these furniture products. On ground sales activities and word of mouth from existing customers/repeat orders etc have been adequate as of now to reach out to potential customers. Me and Kannan (both of us working at TST) have been largely able to manage the entire sales activities for the units. Not to discount, the occasional customer walk-ins that happen at the unit. This past year saw around two and a half Lakhs worth of lantana furniture being sold from the units.
2) Regular Delivery delays – It has always been a challenge on part of the artisans and the shola trust to reasonably estimate the time required for each order. There are numerous unplanned breaks due to unavoidable personal work. Temple festivals, pujas, personal errands for certificates, deaths in the village, family functions, household work etc. are some of the reasons why artisans choose to be absent from work. This routinely results in delivery delays and frustrated customers.
3) Frustrated customers- The fundamental for any business enterprise is customer satisfaction. And this past year has been replete with stories of frustrated customers largely due to delivery delays. Delivery delays have been anywhere from 2-3 days to as much as 15-20 days for larger orders. Sometimes even after numerous requests from customers, painful reminder calls they have not been able to get their furniture on time. And on a couple of occasions it has resulted in serious fallout and a bitter ending. A small consolation though has been that customers have been largely happy with the quality of finishing and this has prompted some of them to place repeat orders despite the uncertainty.
4) In-fighting within the artisan group on revenue sharing- Both in moyar and thepakaadu (and also in the case of other ngo’s working on lantana furniture) there is a quiet resentment among individuals that the money is not being shared in a just manner. And the worst part has been that there has been hardly any discussion on this topic. Some people silently choose to leave the unit while some others continue to stay-on with that bitterness. This “elephant” in the room which is seldom addressed openly has resulted in low morale of the group and also in turnover of good artisans.
5) Some new designs tried- Another strong positive that emerged this year was the fact there were quite a few new designs that were tried, tested and sold by the artisans. It was heartening to see the artisans think about requirements stated by customers, discuss on design and actually try out some new product designs. Dressing tables, vegetable crate holders, swing chairs shoe-shelves etc were completely new designs that were tried and sold by the artisans. It was good to see the interest of the artisans in trying out new designs.
A strong demand and an uncertain supply has been the flavor of the season this year. This New Year has not started on a good note, with both the units choosing to stay away from this work temporarily due to various reasons. Some things to ponder upon for this year and hopefully some of these aspects can be addressed in the coming year. As far as this year is concerned the learning has been that good orders and high economic profitability alone cannot guarantee sustainability of such micro-enterprises and that one has to go beyond that too!Learn More
My name is Ramesh. I work in The Shola Trust as a wildlife conservationist. In this blog, I am writing about my conversation with my grandfather, Bomman thatha (grandfather) about the bonding between adivasi people and the forest.
Bomman thatha is from the Bettakurumba tribe. He lives in the village, Kanjikolly, along the edge of Mudmalai and of course has a great knowledge about forest and honey collection, fishing, collecting tubers and medicinal plants.
Bomman thatha told me that our gods live in stones, big rocks and trees. We won’t cut aal maram (Ficus religiosa) because gods will be in that tree. Even the water in the area around the tree should be used neatly and not destroyed. In our community our god Ajji (grandmother) lives in Ellamalai mountain. She is also called Thrithri Eributham. While going there we should not wear slippers and men should wear mundu above the knees. Women should also wear sari little bit below the knees. We should not spit or cut the cane there. There is a lot of vethalai (betel leaf) which we can eat but before eating we should wash our legs and hands and pray to god. Once we went to cut bamboo there and a small boy ate a leaf before praying to god. After that it became a big problem. So we had to come back and in Kodamoola village we did some pooja. After two days it was ok.
When we have to cut trees, we won’t cut all the trees; we will cut only what we need. There are a lot of dangerous trees also. There is one tree with very big leaves. If we touch that leaf, it feels like burning.
Bomman thatha also told me that some years before most of the birds, especially sparrows had gone somewhere else. But now they are back and he can hear a lot of birds singing. I asked him why the birds had disappeared. He said that it happened because of radiation from mobile towers. Birds cannot survive around such radiation. The mobile companies have now adjusted the radiation and the birds have come back and he sees them in town eating rice and waste outside shops.
He said that the birds are very useful. They eat fruits in our land and spit the seeds in someone else’s land. The seeds grow into plants there and the birds spit the seeds again in our land. He has small kandhari chillies on his land that he has not planted. The birds brought the seeds and now lots have grown. This chilly gets a good rate if you sell it in the market.
Bomman thatha shows the kandhari chilli
Bomman thatha also told me about the small honey bees that make combs on lantana sticks. The honey will be 100gm or 200 gram only. It is good quality honey and also the best medicine for cold.
I asked him about the way in which they collect tubers and fish. While collecting tubers, we take only what we need and we will cover the rest with mud again. Usually the main root is not taken because we need it for next year. When we go fishing, we have one leaf and root. If you grind these and add it to water, the fish will get mayakam (dizziness). This mixture does not go under the water and stays only on the surface. So only the fish on the surface get mayakam and we catch them. This way, the fish that is under water will not be disturbed and lay eggs for next year. There will be lots of fish next year also.
Illustration (Kannan, The Shola Trust) : Fish collection in adivasi community
Before fishing or taking tubers, we will pray to god and only then we will take it. If we do not pray to god we won’t get anything. We don’t have boundaries for collecting tubers or fish but if people from one village are going to another village to collect anything from the forest, they will inform their relatives in that village and go only with them.
I also asked him what the problem in the forest was according to him. There is no food for animals in the forest. There is a lot of lantana and so local grass that animals eat is not growing. Deer and elephants are coming to our homes from the forest because of two things – one, they are afraid of tigers and leopards and second, there is no food for them in the forest. So we have to remove lantana and then burn it. After six months we should see how nicely the grass will grow.
Ramesh is from the Bettakurumba tribe. He works with The Shola Trust on Human-Elephant conflict.
Handicrafts have always been an integral part of Indian culture. The craft or the handicraft sector is the largest decentralized and unorganized sector of the Indian economy. Craftspeople form the second largest employment sector in India next only to agriculture. Mostly it uses existing skills and locally available materials.
Given the sheer number of craftsmen in India, the traditional knowledge and skills of the community, the easily available local materials it is amazing how design can be a potent development tool. Infusing contemporary design can truly transform the ordinary into classy products. The handicap the rural artisans face is lack of exposure/awareness to customers and trends. Contemporary design coupled with solid marketing strategies has the potential to give a huge facelift to rural crafts and help local livelihoods.
Any material presents infinite design possibilities. And design schools and designers could play a crucial in exploring these possibilities. Take for instance a weed like lantana. An experiment that started with baskets, with some design inputs has been transformed into beautiful natural looking furniture. But that is just the tip of the iceberg and it remains to be seen how the design limits can be stretched with this material.
A group of irula tribals in nilgiris have been working on lantana for the last three years and have in their own small ways experimented with furniture designs with this material. But their design sensibilities are limited by their little exposure to the market trends and customers. And with limited design interventions the furniture has largely been sold as low cost alternate to cane furniture.
It will be really interesting to see the magic that can unfold when professional designers join hands with them to explore the infinite possibilities of lantana.