AVANI means the ‘earth’. For the team, this word epitomises their core values. All that they do is in the service of the earth and her people. Avani was established as the Kumaon chapter of the Barefoot College Tilonia, Rajasthan in 1996. It was registered as a separate organisation in 1999 and Avani continued the work started by SWRC (as the Barefoot College was known at that time), Kumaon. The genesis was the founder and the team’s deep desire to change our lifestyle from urban to simple – to live and contribute to the beautiful Himalayas that we love. That paved the way for Avani and its incredible journey.
The first step for the brand was to shift to the Himalayas from Delhi and then zero in on the area where they would like to work. “We always felt that we would work in remote areas that were underserved both by the Government and the NGOs. Work was needed in areas that had limited or no access to livelihoods and services like electricity, education, etc. This is how we came to live in a small village, Tripuradevi where we established the head office of the organisation. This is a five acre campus that serves as the hub of activities that are coordinated from five field centres. We work in 108 villages with activities that focus on livelihood generation through revival of traditional crafts, appropriate technology and farm-based activities. The core of all activities is women’s empowerment, natural resource management and respect for traditional knowledge,” mentioned Rashmi Bharti, Co-founder and Director Programs, Avani Society I Founder and Chairperson, Kumaon Earthcraft Self Reliant Cooperative.
Journey so far
Rashmi said that the journey so far has been very enriching on all fronts. As an urban person, she felt that she learnt a lot from rural communities about resilience, cooperation, collaboration and tolerance. The message of grace under pressure is what you see in village life every day. People go about their lives despite overcoming extreme challenges and odds to living a happy fulfilling life.
“Our first project was to install solar lights in un-electrified villages. This service was paid and we realised that people did not have the paying capacity of Rs. 30 per month back in 1997. So we took the responsibility of increasing the incomes of the people of this region. That is how the textile, craft work was initiated. We began our work with the revival of the traditional craft with the Shauka tribe who were originally traders with Tibet but with closure of borders had converted to wool craft completely. From 20 families, this enterprise has now reached 2,200 families in 64 villages. The families are engaged in the entire supply chain from farm to fabric,” stated Rashmi.
She then narrated, “All the steps of production from spinning, weaving, natural dyeing and tailoring are undertaken in the villages thereby generating almost 28 lakhs per year in wages alone. The women who work with this enterprise have had a stable income for the past 20 years. They are taking home cash income every month since 1998. The empowerment and self-reliance of the socially vulnerable women that has happened through this economic activity has also led to social change. In 2005, as the enterprise became successful, it was separated from Avani and established as an artisan-owned Self Reliant Cooperative. It was called Kumaon EARTHCRAFT Self Reliant Cooperative. Earthcraft now produces and markets high-quality hand woven textiles in silk, wool and linen that are dyed in natural dyes only.”
The initial products were all made using hand spun Tibetan wool – hand knotted carpets, tweed fabrics, shawls and traditional blankets. Today, the team works with farmers to grow the natural dyes and market them as dye powders, extracts and pigments. They also make wood stains, water colours, block and screen printing paste with natural dyes. Another important range of products is DIY kits (Tie Dye and colouring kits) and art supplies. They also manufacture 100 per cent beeswax crayons and water colours. Both use natural dyes as colorants and are all manufactured at AVANI. We also work with organic detergent that is hypoallergenic and bio degradable.
Initially, they were selling only in India but slowly Avani’s export market grew and they managed to create a brand presence for Avani both in the domestic and international market in the sustainable, slow clothing space. Today the brand is known as an eco-friendly entity that produces low carbon footprint products that are sustainable.
Avani’s domestic market segment has increased in the last few years. Today they sell through retail stores in cities in India and export about 20 per cent of their total production. They export to Japan, USA, Canada, Europe, UK and China. They are still promoting the brand through exhibitions, retails stores and through giving lectures, presentations in India and abroad. Currently they are retailing at the following stores in India: L’Affaire, Delhi; Grasshopper, Bengaluru; Prakash Handicrafts, Mussoorie and Bai Lou, Kolkata. Avani also has two outlets of its own in Sitla, near Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand and its Studio office in Shapur Jat, Delhi.
Avani – Earthcraft is a producer owned enterprise. It does not belong to any individual. It is a collaborative effort where each individual performs their own roles. The entire managerial team of Earthcraft is from nearby villages. They have all learnt on the job and are now taking care of core functions of the cooperative. They are stakeholders in the business and hence have contributed to the longevity and stability of the organisation. Most of the team have been with Earthcraft for about 20 years.
Avani’s working model is integrated with forest regeneration, wasteland reclamation, use of clean energy in the production systems, wastewater recycling whilst making exquisite textiles. “Sustainability was a choice we all made 24 years ago when this word was not fashionable. The kind of capacity building and regeneration that has happened is quite wonderful. Our products are handcrafted, use only natural fibres and natural dyes whilst addressing the entire supply chain. Often a business is handling only one part of the supply chain. We work from farm to fabric/finished garment with all value addition happening in the village. The product is fair, sustainable and has an elegance that lasts beyond fashion. We cater to a market that wants quality and longevity in the products that you can pass on to your daughters. This sets us apart from the rest,” Rashmi pointed out.
Tapping the right consumer
According to Rashmi, “We have noticed during the pandemic that our work became suddenly very relevant. Something we have been doing for the past 25 years is now important, relevant and replicable. We are getting enquiries from people for setting up natural dyeing units or to use or sell the dye powders but there are still many gaps to fill. For example, the natural dye supply chain is an unorganised sector. This means if I buy natural dye from the wholesale market, I cannot know what the farmer has received. In all probability it is a pittance that the farmer has received for growing or harvesting this precious natural dye.”
She then went on to add, “We are advocating a fair and transparent supply chain where the farmer is the centre and earns a fair price for his product. The issue is that if a fair price is paid to the farmer, then the dye powder does not come cheap. Mostly from large industry or even medium size enterprise, they want natural, sustainable and cheap, at the same price as chemical that is synthesised in a factory, they want to compare the natural dyes to synthetically produced dyes. This is not possible. A major shift in paradigm has to happen in the industry if we truly want to make the change. The whole movement has to be farmer and forest-driven and not industry (consumer) driven.”
Avani plans to increase its business at least 100 per cent in the next two years so that it can support more families in the villages. It is also looking to become a research and training institution that would enable other groups to make their business sustainable. It plans to offer a consultancy service for processes for sustainability, conversion to natural dyeing, technical and managerial training for a rural enterprise and disseminating the principles and learnings of its work through conferences, publications, documentaries. On the retail front, Avani is planning to set up 2-3 flagship retail stores this year.