How social entrepreneur Neelam Chhiber is empowering artisans from remote areas of India

Neelam Chhiber’s Industree Foundation, founded in 2000, is directly impacting 200,000 artisans working across fashion and lifestyle products -- from apparels to biodegradable sal leaf plates -- across India.
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Neelam Chhiber pursued studies in industrial design from National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, because it promised a path to problem solving. Her years as a student brought her close to a yawning gap between design and the role it played in the society. “It was very elitist,” she tells HerStory. 

Although craft manufacturing is the second largest source of income in rural India after agriculture, she noted that the sector's importance is not formally realised and says giving its due recognition will positively impact promotion of livelihoods and gender empowerment.

For more than three decades now, Neelam has been working towards empowering the producer community in rural India comprising artisans and craftspersons by providing them direct access to market through Mother Earth and Industree Foundation

Neelam Chhiber with a group of women artisans

The journey

Working on her thesis on the lost wax craft between 1984 and 1986 took Neelam to Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. There, she lived in remote tribal areas, worked with metal casting artisans, and understood how the sector operates and the entire ethos behind craft manufacturing in India. 

Neelam then explored artisan and crafts communities across India before founding Mother Earth, a private limited company that works with artisans on various lifestyle and home accessories products sporting inherently Indian designs, along with Gita Ram in 1994.

After learning about commerce, brand, retail market, and the issues regarding supply chain, the duo founded a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Industree Foundation in 2000.

Today, the foundation has built an ecosystem that is directly impacting 200,000 artisans developing fashion and lifestyle products -- from apparels to biodegradable sal leaf plates -- across India by providing direct access to the market. 

It has several producer collectives such as Ekta, which produces apparel, embroidery, and textiles under the foundation with nearly 500 active members; and GreenKraft, which is for sustainable home. Through these platforms, artisans supply to global companies like Ikea. 

Flourish.shop is a 100 percent producer-owned ecommerce site where they sell directly to global customers and the foundation looks after the platform's marketing and administration-related work. The foundation plans to take it global soon, beginning with Flourish US to empower artisans around the world. 

However, Neelam maintains that gaining the trust of a community has been a long journey. So far, Industree Foundation has collaborated and co-created with 84 organisations working on the ground. 

Navigating the market

Money and social entrepreneurship always shared a tricky equation, but today, more organisations and individuals are realising the fact that social enterprises can be generating money. 

Neelam says finance has been a persistent challenge in the initial stage. "A Mother Earth product is competing with Fabindia , Westside or a Jaypore product . They are investing in market building at the consumer end and not at training and building collectives and producer ownership at the first mile -- the way a social enterprise like ours do.

Since 2013, the NGO has been working on introducing blended finance.

"Industree Foundation raises philanthropic capital to capacity build producers so they can move up the value chain whilst consumers only pay for the creation of the market building front that reaches them," she explains.

As a brand focused on bringing Indian design and handicraft centric products in lifestyle and home decor, it is competing with commercial brands like FabIndia, Westside, and Anokhi, among others.

Neelam says the foundation is set to be a systems-driven organisation and not an entrepreneurial-driven one, and is enabling the next level of leadership at the moment. She adds that age and gender stereotypes exist to some extent but her mantra has been to focus on the work at hand.


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Edited by Megha Reddy