This Kozhikode-based woman entrepreneur is taking coconut shell jewellery to the world
When Sandhya Purani arrived in Kozhikode, North Kerala, from Gujarat 15 years ago, the sight of the numerous coconut trees fascinated her. But as an engineer hailing from a family of doctors, engineers, government servants, and educators, entrepreneurship was the last thing on her mind.
The fascination for the coconut trees, a ubiquitous part of God’s Own Country, and the artistic uses of every element of the trees, also known as kalpavriksha (wish-giving tree), inspired Sandhya to eye nature as she started a venture of her own.
“When I saw a few artisans, a little north of Kozhikode, making products from coconut shells, coir, and other coconut elements, I wanted to make the coconut the centre of my activities. Like most women, I was interested in beauty and fashion, and having worked as an engineer in the electrical machines industry for over a decade, I surprised myself and everyone else when I decided to start a jewellery e-tailing venture, Naturecraft Fashions Private Ltd,” Sandhya recalls.
Simple to start up
Once the idea was in place, Sandhya’s son, then a Class 11 student, developed a website, fully ready for global transactions in just 36 hours.
“I was flabbergasted to find how simple it is, with technology at fingertips, to start up an enterprise today. In another 15 days, I was ready with my web domain, payment gateway, and Google office to take local coconut jewellery to global fashion lovers through my online venture,” she says.
Sandhya explains that coconut shells are organic yet durable and of immense value to artisans. She started eco-jewellery brand CocoMoco, which she says stands for coconut-based fashion for modern, contemporary women.
“Naturecraft is not just an ecommerce startup; it is committed to nature and culture. It presents carefully designed and curated coconut fashion with designs that have universal, contemporary appeal, but made by working closely with artisans using traditional, ethnic craft. It aims to connect local artisans and craftspeople to global fashionistas,” Sandhya says.
Technically, the entrepreneur is the only full-time resource – she’s the founder and CEO of her company at the moment. Her son, who studies at IIT, acts a technology consultant and her friend, a sociology professor of local origin, is a mentor-partner.
Since she sources and develops crafted jewellery directly from local artisans and uses online technology to reach global buyers, her office and retail platform are “in my bag - my mobile phone and a laptop”.
Naturecraft is incubated at Kerala Startup Mission, which has been guiding and mentoring the entrepreneur.
Tapping global markets
Sandhya banked on research to take her global plans forward.
The costume/fashion jewellery market showed 22 percent growth in 2016-17 in the US, while fashion jewellery constituted 82 percent of the total volume. The US showed a decline in fine costume jewellery, but the fashion costume jewellery market was growing fast. Western European markets also showed interest in artisan-crafted fashion jewellery.
True to her intuition, the founder found that buyers from Europe and North America responded well and appreciated the ecowear appeal of her product. Hundred percent of CocoMoco buyers are from outside India; almost all of them from Europe and the US.
“The cost of locally made coconut shell jewellery is negligible, but the real value of CocoMoco is in the stories of nature and culture. Evolved fashion in developed country is about ‘stories’ unlike in India where precious metals and stones are important. The intricate detail of the craft and struggle, create an interest in origin, especially culture. So, in true sense, I am in the business of selling culture and not jewellery,” Sandhya says.
It took her a while to realise that it would be difficult to sell such jewellery in India.
“For Indians, jewellery has to be expensive; if not, it has to at least look expensive. After sending several samples out and getting appreciation from almost all, I was hardly selling. However, the day I took it to global market, I started getting orders. I realised that I needed to reach a small niche in larger geography outside India and provide exotic, ethnic appeal with nature and culture stories,” she says.
Apart from its website, CocoMoco products are listed on several marketplaces like Etsy, DaWanda, Zibbet, and others. The woman entrepreneur feels that paid search advertising and digital content marketing help, but understanding customers and brand positioning are important.
Sandhya is still breaking even, but says the rising number of orders will soon help her cover fixed costs.
Focus on chasing customers
Currently self-funded with her savings, Sandhya is sceptical about finding investors. She is frank, saying she believes in chasing customers rather than chasing investors.
“I believe investors will follow. I am growing organically right now, but If I spend more on online marketing business will significantly grow. Revenues can take care of my expenses with small break-even volumes, owing to limited physical presence. But growth requires investments in new designs, improving quality, and digital marketing,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted orders for businesses with global markets like hers.
"I have a few orders that I couldn’t fulfil owing to lockdowns; shutters are down at the moment. I am working on marketing plans and putting out content and stories to keep the interest and awareness alive,” she says.
Sandhya’s priority is to bring in monthly volumes to make the company net positive. After that, she wants to pitch to impact investors to see how eco-fashion with a cultural twist can make bigger impact on artisan livelihoods and preserve traditional craftsmanship.
The Kerala-based entrepreneur believes people do not take women entrepreneurs seriously.
“More than the entrepreneurial ecosystem, we need development of the social ecosystem. Family members, friends…all of them directly or indirectly imply that a woman in business is a pastime. So long as it doesn’t require much investments or resources, or disturb their lives, they let you feel that they are supportive. When real help is required, not many take women seriously in their entrepreneurial roles,” Sandhya says.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)