Lantana furniture; the year gone by

Lantana furniture unit at thepakaadu

Lantana furniture unit at thepakaadu

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!