An Ashoka Fellow’s Efforts To Support Women Weavers in Assam For 17 Years

September 20, 2016
By Rang De Team

Assamese women hone their weaving skills at a training program conducted by Mulberry

Rakhee Choudhury, a 2002 Ashoka fellow, was the daughter of an Army officer who lived in many places outside Assam but it was not long until her desire to return home overpowered everything else.

Returning to Guwahati in the late 1990s with two children in tow, she decided to promote local handlooms and textile products.

She just wanted to make a living.

However, she soon realised that there were a large number of talented weavers in rural Assam who needed an income more than herself.

As she dug deeper, she came across a very talented group of young tribal women in the villages of Assam. These women possessed skills to weave rich and beautiful fabrics but had minimal exposure to real markets.

They were usually the eldest in the family too. Lacking education or a source of income, they took on a large share of responsibility in the family. On a good day, they would even find labour work at nearby fields but few people cared for their well-being.

For Rakhee, the motivation to start a business changed. She now wanted to start a business not just for herself but also for these gifted weavers. She found that weaving can be used as a tool for empowerment if she could just create a market for these handlooms.

The tradition weaving runs in nearly every Assamese family and their women have a natural affinity for the loom

In 1998, products made by a small group of weavers were showcased at a fashion show sponsored by the Small Industries Development Board of India (SIDBI) and then sold at Haus Khaz village in New Delhi.

SIDBI encouraged Rakhee to reach out to more weavers and set up a not-for-profit organisation — Mulberry, now a Rang De Impact partner.

Mulberry struggled for funds early on. Few people, including those in the government, were willing to support a handloom weavers’ organisation at a time when the handloom and fashion industry was at a nascent stage.

There was also a lack of a formal work culture among the people of Assam, a state still struggling to overcome the insurgency crisis. Winning the trust of communities that suffered bandhs every other day was a long challenge.

To top it all, there was also the problem of geography — most villages were in remote areas and building systems to reach out and engage with weavers was difficult to say the least.

17 years have passed since the inception of Mulberry and all the above challenges have been overcome with a singular vision of making weavers’ livelihoods sustainable.

Mulberry helps weavers with designs, training as well last mile market linkages thus providing end-to-end support

Mulberry still has its share of problems — weavers lack motivation to work with the prevalence of alternative options such as MNREGA and agriculture, they lack skill as government apathy has not led to skill development as promised and the region is seeing an increasing level of use of power looms that make handlooms less financially productive.

The organisation is doing its best to put in place programs and better processes to address these challenges.

Mulberry, though, has already made a tangible difference in the lives of Assamese weavers and they now work with over 455 women weavers who service customers such as Fab India and TRIFED.

We seek your help in supporting Mulberry with a Rs 5 lakh working capital loan so that they can start an Eri silk weaving project that aims to cater to international markets.

Rakhee Choudhary may have taken the long road before returning home to make a difference in the lives of Assamese weavers but through the power of the internet, her organisation can be connected to socially conscious investors like you.

Do support Mulberry even with a small social investment of Rs 100.

Rang De has partnered with Mulberry since April 2016 and we hope that this association continues to benefit the disadvantaged weaving communities of Assam. Thank you for helping us provide microfinance to 1,882 weavers over the past eight years primarily in the Northeast.