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Growing up in the verdant landscape of Kerala, Rekha Rajagopal and her sister-in-law, Maya Ajay were no strangers to the natural bounties of the region. A graduate in English Literature and an MBA respectively, Rekha and Maya worked full-time jobs until 2011, when they decided to turn their long-time appreciation of natural, ethnic products into a business. With a simple vision – to understand how natural materials can be used to replace conventional ones – the duo began their exploration of plant-based fibres. ‘When we stumbled upon banana fibre fabric, we were intrigued by its versatility, by how easily it lends itself to different products and designs,” says Rekha, adding, “We were familiar with the uses of the other parts of the banana tree, but discovering the potential of the fibre was a revelation to us.”
The duo toured the country meeting artisan groups making banana fibre products but found that the cottage industry was held back by a limited product range and outdated designs.
They started Earthy Hues in 2011 as an online store for accessories, stationery, and home decor items made of banana fibre. Extracted from the stem of the banana plant, the fibre is cleaned, spun into yarn, and handloomed into fabric before it is crocheted into different products by rural women artisans.
“The entire manufacturing process and the final product are almost carbon neutral” Rekha informs. After harvesting the fruits, the banana stem is rejected as agri-waste. The fibre is biodegradable. Unlike jute, a material it is often mistaken for, banana fibre is hand-woven into fabric and the energy consumed during its manufacture is minimal. Each Earthy Hues product is the result of days of painstaking effort by an artisan, ensuring that no two pieces are ever the same.
The partners always have their eyes peeled for new designs that satisfy the contemporary aesthetic but this has not diluted their commitment to natural products. The banana fibre fabric is dyed with chemical-free dyes and paired with other traditional, handloomed fabric such as kalamkari and ikat often sourced directly from weavers.
“We have a website for Earthy Hues, but being small entrepreneurs, we could not afford a payment gateway. In this time of netbanking and online shopping, not being able to offer clients a good experience on the online store was a handicap,” says Rekha. Most of their sales were initiated through Facebook but in the absence of a real-time inventory, clients were never certain about product availability. The day she read about the conveniences offered by Sellfie to SMEs like herself, Rekha got her business onto the platform.
“We are impressed with Sellfie. Their customer service is excellent and the response time to queries, prompt.”
She says the app is very user-friendly and makes sharing product and transaction details with customers quick and hassle-free. We introduce new designs every quarter and with Sellfie, we are able to update our online product range instantly, with one click. It also gives us the added benefit of selling on multiple social networking platforms and for a small business, this can really help expand our reach. “Ever since we got onto the Sellfie platform, we have been receiving positive feedback from our customers about the ease of shopping with us,” beams Rekha.
They have been steadily expanding the scope of the business, collaborating with some of Bangalore’s well-known interior designers to incorporate natural fibre into home furnishings and fixtures. Their focus is also on creating awareness about banana fibre as an adaptable, environment-friendly material and put these products within the reach of more consumers. As it grows to become a recognised name, Earthy Hues is committed to having a positive impact on the artisan communities it works with. “They are a part of our growth story and empowering them financially and with capacity-building is our responsibility,” say the duo.
Urban consumers today are seeing value in eco-friendly products and are ready to invest in them. “We are seeing that customers are eager to interact with us and contribute to the look of the final product and nothing excites us more than to create new designs for our growing clientele,” smiles Rekha.