Zishta shows how to bring back grandma's kitchen into urban homes riding on WhatsApp

Working with rural artisans, Bengaluru-based cookware and homeware venture Zishta offers authentic products to customers and also educates them on the advantages of making ancient craft forms part of their homes.

In a nondescript village of Valavanur in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district, a community of artisans is making earthen cookware. The artisans follow a traditional technique honed by over 10 generations. The only evident mechanisation is the motorised rotation of the potter’s wheel, everything else is done manually – from mixing the clay to baking it. This group is probably the last generation in the region to follow this craft.

Meanwhile, in an urban Indian home, a vegetable stir-fry is being cooked in similar earthen cookware while an irresistible aroma engulfs the kitchen. 

Connecting the two dots of the spectrum and making it possible is Bengaluru-based venture -- Zishta. Started in July 2016 by Varishta Sampath, Meera Ramakrishnan, and Archish Mathe Madhavan, Zishta offers a number of products such as bronzeware, copperware, earthenware, wooden serving dishes, natural mats, Ajrakh and Solapur home linen and brass lamps.

Zishta is unique because the team not only works directly with artisans who have honed the craft for generations thereby ensure that it is handcrafted traditionally as it always has been but also educate customers why they need to make these ancient craftforms part of their homes. 

The relevance of traditional wisdom in urban homes

As colleagues working in an MNC company, Meera and Archish often found themselves talking at length about how traditional wisdom was no longer part of modern-day households. “Be it the usage of copper vessels, clay pots or mats from reeds, there was a lot of logic and science why they were once an inherent part of Indian homes. But, with modernisation and consumerism, not only did the usage die down but the knowledge and wisdom behind their relevance too began to fade. And, with little or no demands for these ancient crafts, the artisans who practised the craft had no option but to look for other avenues for livelihood,” says Archish. 

Substantiating the statement, Meera adds, “Growing up in Tamilian households, the rasam made at home tasted heavenly. And, only when we grew up we realised that the Eeya Chombu is what added to the taste factor and much later realised that this handcrafted vessel made of tin was used to make rasam not only because it enhances the taste of rasam but is good for blood circulation. Probably our forefathers knew this and made it the go-to vessel for rasam.” 

Similar conversations ensued when cousins Archish and Varishta met. He says, “We often found ourselves asking many questions on what we could do to revive the interest in the ancient crafts, how we could bring traditional wisdom into the foray, how we could provide a sustained income for the artisans so that the crafts could live on.”

The tipping point came during a visit to Meera’s hometown when her father mentioned how traditions and knowledge were getting lost, because they no longer found takers.

This prompted the trio to come together start Zishta with an aim to revive traditional wisdom. Incidentally, Eeya Chombu (Tin vessel) was among the first few products that Zishta launched in 2016. The others being the Sengottai dosa kallu, a traditional iron pan used for making dosas and kal chatti – a soapstone vessel used for making varieties of Indian gravies and curries.

Why revival is a challenge

Today, Zishta works with 21+ such artisan clusters that they have identified across the country. This includes Cast ironware artisans of Tenkasi, clay makers of Cuddalore, soapstone craftsmen in Salem in Tamil Nadu, kansa artisans of Odisha, Reha knife makers of Kutch, brass tambat makers of Maharashtra, neem wood craftsman of West Bengal, Uruli and Vengalam makers of Kerala, hand woven chaddar and home linen from Solapur among others.

But the process of identifying and locating these artisans has been challenging. Meera says, “Earlier, streets surrounding the village of Tenkasi taluk in Tamil Nadu were lined with artisans who handcrafted Iron and cast iron vessels. But when we went for a field visit, there were none. It took us many days to identify the last artisan who knew the craft and is the last remaining from over hundreds. Today, we work with this artisan and hope to revive the craft.”

Meera explains, “Middlemen who say that they work with artisans who follow traditional crafts often know nothing about the craft. What’s worse? They don’t work with artisans either but mostly with machine made products.”

She adds that the challenge is compounded by a number of market players selling machine-made products to tap the market opportunity. “There are very few businesses like Zishta who are working with genuine artisans and sell original handmade products. At Zishta, we not only want to offer consumers original products but also provide a lifeline for artisans and in the process support the survival of the crafts.”

The other challenge that the team often face is a lack of awareness among consumers. Today, even though everyone understands the harmful effects of using Teflon-coated cookware, people ignore these. On the other hand, there is a widespread misconception about the harmful effects of tin or usage of copperware.

While the Zishta team does educate them on health benefits, they also test the products in the lab and get them accredited for use. The other challenge arises in terms of lack of awareness of how to use the products. “Because they have not been part of Indian households for a generation or two now, people think that these traditional artisanal products are hard to maintain,” shares Archish.

It is here that social communication channels have been of great help. “We share customer-generated videos that showcase how they use the products and what has been their experience. We also share videos and photographs of our field trips, artisans working on the products, information on how they are made, how to use them, health benefits and popular misconceptions, among others.” 

WhatsApp: From a communication channel to a business driver

While Facebook was a primary channel for Zishta, in the last one year WhatsApp has become a key engagement channel. “It was not a conscious decision to leverage WhatsApp but today it has become a key business enabler,” points out Archish. 

“It began with customers reaching out to us on our personal WhatsApp numbers for enquiries or information. But with the number of customers increasing, it became difficult to keep track. We then decided to use a single WhatsApp number and today we have a database of about 5,000 customers predominantly driven by WhatsApp.”

The 5000 customers are among some of the most loyal customers of Zishta’s 35,000+. Strong customer. “When we began to leverage WhatsApp, we added some of the repeat customers to this database. And, since we began actively promoting the WhatsApp number in the promotions on social media, we see at least 30-50 new customers reaching out to us on WhatsApp on a daily basis” says Archish. “Because, the interest is in-bound and because we are able to quickly address their queries on WhatsApp, the sale conversion is commendable.”

Today Zishta uses WhatsApp not just to respond to customer enquiries and customer education, but also drive business growth.

“We extend special offers, a preview of the new products prior to launch and promotions to our customers on our WhatsApp number. And we often see a good response. The promotions, offers, and educative content cumulatively have helped increase sales by about 20 percent.” 

Archish explains that Zishta sends informative and educative content to its customer base enlisted on the WhatsApp number once a week. “Because, it is of interest and relevance to them, the educative content is appreciated. This could be something as simple as an image that explains the health benefits of using clayware or a video that showcases how to season the ironware or a text explaining how Madur mats are made.”

“People no longer want lengthy emails. They like content that is crisp and relevant. And, they want an immediate response from businesses. Nobody wants to wait a day or two when they send a query. And, this is why WhatsApp doubles up as a great channel for communication and reaching out to customers,” says Archish.

Why the business need is unlike any other

Zishta also has an experience centre in Bengaluru which also doubles up as their office and warehouse. Varishta says, “We began by retailing online to test the market. We saw a good market. But we also saw a lot of consumers who wanted to share their experience and what they knew about traditions from their family and friends. That’s when the idea of setting up an experiential centre took root. We set up the centre in 2017. Today, we see walk-in customers spending 30 to 40 minutes engaging with us here. In fact, these conversations have helped us bring out products like the brass coffee filter, which not many know about.”

The six-member team has now built their own e-commerce site and also undertakes international shipping. “We are seeing a lot of interest from customers in USA, Singapore, Malaysia and UAE. What we have realised is that the artisanal cookware and homeware is a means of staying close to their traditions and their homes back in India. But while business growth is important, the ‘motive’ is to bring traditional wisdom back into modern homes,” reiterates Varishta.

That’s why Zishta consciously engages with their customers even after they have sold a product. “We handhold them in terms of usage and education. That is just one half of our story. The other, is documenting the traditional wisdom and enabling the artisans who are the rightful owners to continue their craftsmanship and thereby pass it on to generations to come,” explains Varishta.

Towards a bigger goal

Since the launch of Zishta is 2016, the business has been profitable without any external funding. “But, as we expand further in terms of reach and access, we are looking to explore strategic funding opportunities,” says Meera.

The team believes their journey has just started and have miles to go. Meera shares, “There are over 1000+ artisan clusters that are at the verge of dying across our country. We want to bring many of them to fore. At the same time, we see that there is a parallel need to continuously create credible content to educate consumers and provide easy access to knowledge.”

It is here in this journey that Zishta believes the relationship they have built with their customers will help. “Many of our customers are not just buyers. Many advise us and provide us the support and help we need to grow. We are in this journey together and in doing so, we are not just reviving traditional crafts but also giving artisans the respect and recognition they rightfully deserve,” signs off Archish.