The man with a mission to put smiles on Indian weavers' faces by giving them livelihood opportunitiesMarianne Heinisch
“I found that any business problem is a people problem so let us have an entity that works with one single aim – keeping our artisans happy”. That’s how Nand Kishore Chaudhary is drawing smiles on thousands of faces and making a difference in their lives, across 11 states in India’s rural areas.
Chaudhary is the founder of the Jaipur Rugs Foundation (JRF) – a non-profit organization which is a part of the Jaipur Rugs Group (JRG), India’s largest manufacturer and exporter of carpets with revenues of over Rs 106 crore. JRF catalyzes sustainable livelihoods for rural poor to become artisans engaged in the rug value chain and is currently associated with 40,000 artisans.
Mr. Chaudhary started his journey 35 years back in Churu village, Rajastan, willing to do something different and impactful. “I borrowed Rs. 5000 from my father to start working as a carpet contractor, buying two looms, one bicycle, some wool and cotton, and convincing nine weavers to work with me,” he remembers. Choudhary taught himself how to weave and moved in 1990 to a village in Gujarat with his wife and five children.
More than 20 years later, now his children have got involved with the business, leading it to the next generation: the eldest daughter, Asha, heads the American operations, Archana takes control of quality supervision, Kavita, the youngest daughter, heads the design department, and Yogesh handles the operational work.
Creating rugs and smiles
At JRF, the primary focus is ensuring and enabling a platform for the rural poor to earn a dignified livelihood. Currently, the foundation is working in 102 villages, 7 blocks and 5 districts across eleven states in India, which are largely poor in terms of social and economic indicators. 80 per cent of their artisans are illiterate women from the most remote, rural areas in India. Before JRF’s intervention, they were recognized as living below the poverty line.
JRF trains unskilled poor women, engage them with rug manufacturing companies and offer support programs to help them sustain their earnings and make the best out of what they earn. A woman artisan will be able to earn, in a year, up to 8 times more than the amount invested in her training and connection to markets.
For the most part, products made by artisans trained by JRF are marketed and sold by Jaipur Rugs, with a high acceptance and demand in the global market. They also encourage creativity and free use of imagination: a few artisans have weaved their own designs and they have turned-out to be exclusive designer pieces. “We feel that the sweat and love that each weaver puts into a rug makes it divine and it is this dedication that results in high acceptance,” says Choudhary.
Jaipur Rugs’ activities are divided under two segments. The Enterprise Development focuses on skill and grassroots enterprises and sustainable livelihoods, while the Social Development focuses on facilitation and linkages, awareness generation and filed interventions. They also run the following programs: Skill Development, Alternate Education, Health Checkup Camps, Health Insurance, Artisan Card and Employment fairs.
“I personally know thousands of artisans who couldn’t buy clothes nor send their children to school. I can say that getting associated with us has brought about a change. Now all our artisans’ children go to school, have access to healthcare and live a life of dignity and respect. I don’t know how to measure the value of that or put a name to it, social justice would be the closest. The true measure for me, however, is the stories that weavers’ families tell me and the smiling, happy faces I see every time I visit one of the villages we work in,” shares Chaudhary.
Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime
Working with tribal communities as a personal choice in the 70’s, Choudhary struggled in order to socially recognize his labour due to the early years’ strong prejudice that pervaded in the Indian society. At that time, “un-touchability” was still widely practiced and people who broke this social code were not only looked down upon but ostracized for it.
“I could not understand how people could be considered less than others despite their skill and honesty; how the accident of birth could determine how a person is to be treated. I would eat lunch with my ‘untouchable’ weavers, choosing their company and, despite the hostility I faced from my community, I relied on the support of my family and continued doing what felt right”.
Then, he moved back to Jaipur and finally set up Jaipur Rugs – called Jaipur Carpet at that time – in 1999. Jaipur Rugs Foundation was started in 2004 to address the concerns of the company’s growing artisan network and the biggest challenge now is attracting people who understand their business value in creating social impact and smiles. Over time, more partners have come forward from across the world to provide monetary support or lend skill competencies.
“It is very important to have empathy and a desire to make a change in the society to go hand in hand with business values to make true change. I believe, ‘Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime’,” says Chaudhary. The ultimate vision is to create millions of smiles every day, encouraging weavers’ innovations and bringing their creativity to the fore. The end goal however is to connect them to the global markets seamlessly to ensure a transfer of wealth and recognition of their skill.
An advice from a wise man
Chaudhary’s advice to others who aspire to undertake social cause is to learn the importance of empathy – “Some of the things that have kept me on the right path are empathy, honesty, transparency, simplicity, commitment and integrity. To work with the grassroots, one has to feel like one of them and understand the way they think. The second is that, a keen understanding of business is essential to create wealth that can then be distributed. A social enterprise is not an ‘ashram’- it is a venture that a lot of people with very little resources put their faith into.”