[Startup Bharat] Ikea's sustainable range gets a South Indian touch in collaboration with Industree in Madurai

Ikea may have chosen Hyderabad to start its retail operations, but it has been working with Indian artisans for nearly four decades. And for its recent limited product range, Hantverk, the Swedish furniture company has tied up with Industree in Madurai.

Sridevi M begins her day at seven in morning. She travels a few kilometres for work to Industree’s central production hub in Thiruparankundram, on the outskirts of Madurai. Her monthly income of close to Rs 8,000 helps her run her household as well as send her seven-year old son to school. 

Holding a piece of yarn that she expertly weaves, Sridevi says she is grateful for her job. “Working here has not only ensured a livelihood for me, it also helps me maintain a family of five.” Like Sridevi, there are a few hundred women working at the 10,000sqft hub, engaged in various activities, including weaving, making bowls, baskets, and vases, all using natural and sustainable materials. 

They are all working to build Hantverk, Swedish furniture brand Ikea’s limited edition product range, comprising cushion covers, throws, baskets, bowls, vases, and more, made using banana fibre, handmade paper, ceramic, and cotton.

Sridevi M working on the yarn

Working from Madurai 

Historically, Madurai, a district in Tamil Nadu, is known for its ancient temples. But it has also been a hub for textiles and cotton. It is now one of Ikea’s main hubs, where it collaborates with local artisans. 

While Industree has its headquarters in Bengaluru, in 2018, the firm moved its product hub to Madurai. Founded by Neelam Chhiber, one of Industree Foundation’s famous brands is Mother Earth. And the company has been associated with Ikea since 2008. 

One of the reasons Industree moved its production hub to Madurai is because banana fibre is hard to handle in a humid place like Bengaluru. The fibre would go to waste unless it is upcycled. Madurai is also closely located to banana farms, thus easing up logistics for the firm. 

Neelam Chhiber, Founder of Industree, with Ikea's Hantverk range

Ikea’s tryst with India

While Ikea opened its India retail operations in Hyderabad in 2017, the furniture brand has been working for awhile with local artisans to create limited edition product ranges.

Speaking of this, Mia Olsson, Communications and Interiors Manager at Ikea India, tells YourStory,

Ikea has been sourcing from India for more than 39 years for its stores around the world. Over these years, Ikea has worked with many innumerable Indian artisans for producing many collections that have a flavour of Indian design sensibilities married perfectly well with Nordic designs. Apart from sourcing raw materials, India also contributes to finished products that get sold at all global stores. They include carpets, rugs, textiles, furniture and other home furnishing accessories. In the recent past, there have been several collections that Ikea has worked with Indian artisans such as Ursprungling, Innehallsrik, and Anglatara, which have distinct Indian design detailing.” 

For Hantverk, the tieup with Industree entailed an 18-month process of finalising designs, coming up with prototypes, and the final production. 

“Industree first sent us the prototypes and after the prototypes were finalised, they started manufacturing the products, which is available at stores now,” Mia explains. The company is also working with artisans in Thailand, Jordan, and Romania for this range.  

Madurai artisans working on Ikea's Hantverk range

For Industree, working with a brand like Ikea has ensured it could empower more women and provide them with good livelihood options. 

“In the nineties, when I finished my course in industrial design, I wanted to understand more about Indian designs. So, I went to the remotest villages in the country to learn about traditional crafts, and I found it to be a dying industry. The primary reason was that these artisans had customers only within the community, which no longer existed, and there was hardly any connectivity to a sales channel. This inspired me to start Industree,” Neelam, says.

Access to a larger market 

With time, the Industree Founder also realised that the B2C market did not give the volume and scale needed to make available viable employment options or afford the economics that ensured artisans made money.

“Working with Ikea ensured a steady inflow of work and income. Apart from that, the partnership brings in a certain process that holds most small enterprises accountable. We provide minimum wages of Rs 6,000-Rs 8,000, social welfare, weekly offs, gratuity, and other benefits to all the women employees,” Neelam explains. 

A team from Ikea works closely with the women to train them on production and testing of products. Neelam explains one of the main advantages with Industree is that the women just have to focus on making the products, while the management and shipping are all taken care of by the company. The products are available in all Ikea stores worldwide and on the brand’s website as well.

Ikea follows a co-design model for the Hantverk range. Mia explains that the primary designs for Hantverk are made by Ikea designer Iina Vuorivirta. The idea is to marry modern Scandinavian design aesthetics with local Indian manufacturing sensibilities. The designer has closely worked with the social entrepreneurs to come up with these unique products, referred to as “co-created products”. 

“The social entrepreneurs shared the prototypes to the designer for finalisation. They go through quality checks and the products are made and shipped to the stores. In the case of Industree, banana fibre baskets have been identified, and every step—from determining the patterns, to selection of the material and weaving—are done expertly by the women artisans in Southern India . We really want to appreciate the artisans and their skills for creating something beautiful and give it an entirely new value,” Mia says.  

At present Industree creates jobs for around 1,050 co-workers, 620 being women basket weavers – a number that’s likely to grow, says Neelam. 

This would mean more opportunities for local artisans, especially the women working out of Thiruparankundram, Madurai. 

(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)


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