Woven art: These women entrepreneurs from Assam turn weed into home décor products
From weed to wonder, two enterprising women from Assam have transformed the water hyacinth–a troublesome aquatic weed—into objects of art.
The weed, which grows rapidly in freshwater bodies, often clogs lakes and rivers, making the water unusable.
For the past 10 years, the North East, where the weed is present in abundance, has been innovating with the water hyacinth. Paulmie Gogoi and Dr Tanushree Devi too decided to explore this fascinating conversion by starting, a brand that offers sustainable and eco-friendly products made from water hyacinth.
Paulmie says it all began during the first phase of the lockdown in March 2020.
“Tanushree and I thought of starting a business of home décor and utility products using the handloom handicraft designs of the North East. However, we felt the time was not right. We continued with our research and while connecting with local artisans and craft centres, came to know about water hyacinth.”
In August 2020, their startup idea was selected for the Women Startup Program 3.0 by IIMB-NRSCEL. With the help of the mentors of NSRCEL, the two women entrepreneurs worked on their idea and finally zeroed on using the plant as raw material to make home decor and utility products.
Prior to this, Paulmie worked in the event management space for 14 years while Tanushree is a dentist by profession. Both hail from Guwahati and have been friends since childhood.
Paulmie grew up in a family that has first-hand experience in the ups and downs of business. They had a restaurant in the city and after her father’s death, her mother ran it single-handedly. Bitten by the same bug, she too had opened a restaurant that unfortunately had to shut down because of the pandemic.
Unique and innovative
Choosing the water hyacinth as raw material came out of a need to be innovative, says Paulmie. The northeastern states are well-known for products made from bamboo and cane, and entering an already-crowded market did not seem like a feasible idea.
Moreover, the government’s keen interest in the new raw material would mean support in the long run. Also, these products were eco-friendly and sustainable, which appeal to a large customer base across the country and abroad.
The entrepreneurs reached out to two women-dominated artisan clusters in Nagaon, a town 120 km away from Guwahati.
“There is an abundant source of water hyacinth in this area. Also, we were looking at new products apart from the usual baskets made from it. We also wanted to support these first-generation artisans apart from what they were already receiving from the government,” Paulmie says.
Each cluster has around 60 women artists trained in working with water hyacinth. The raw material is collected, and only the stem is dried and used.
“The artisans wanted help with new designs, similar to those from Vietnam and Thailand that were popular abroad. We got our in-house designer to make new designs, and started prototyping the products,” she adds.
Initially, the founders thought of focusing on direct retail and started an Instagram page but when the second wave of COVID-19 struck, business took a hit. Paulmie points out that people will also take some time to warm up to the idea of unique raw materials like water hyacinth.
The friends decided to try the business-to-business (B2B) model of reaching out to clients, especially corporate organisations, using LinkedIn. Soon, they began receiving bulk orders for gift hampers and that’s where most of the business comes from. The brand has also partnered with the Jar of Hearts, a home décor and furnishing house in Bengaluru, to buy their products in bulk and sell them.
Sustainable and handcrafted
Talks are also on with an export house in Panipat to help market their products abroad.
“We are sure the idea will catch on. Our products are 100 percent sustainable and handcrafted with no use of machinery,” she says.
Apart from the usual baskets, Woven Tales of North East also offers handbooks and notebooks where the paper is recycled and the covers are crafted from water hyacinth. Other products include gift boxes and tissue boxes.
So far, only the stem is used, but the artisans are also experimenting with the leaf and roots to make different products. The items are priced from Rs 1,500 onwards and are available on Woven Tales of North East’s Instagram and Facebook pages, and will soon be available on its own website.
Tanushree and Paulmie have invested Rs 1.5 lakh from their own savings into this venture, and NRSCEL offered them a grant of Rs 75,000. Paulmie claims the business is growing at 30-40% month-on-month largely due to corporate orders.
“Our mentors at NRSCEL helped shape the business to what it is today. Initially, we were very cluttered in our thoughts. After joining the session, they helped us streamline our ideas, formulating a plan and discovering a market for the products. We received a lot of support from our peers too,” she says.
The two entrepreneurs are now looking at being incubated in other centres and receiving more funding to scale the business.
The biggest challenge, Paulmie points out, is the supply chain. “We are mostly using India Post for delivery but they do not have pick-up facilities or COD (cash-on-delivery). If we look at a private player, unfortunately, when it comes to the North East, everything becomes expensive, may be due to the terrain.”
Tanushree takes care of design and innovation, focussing on Bohemian styles, and is also into research and innovation. Paulmie works directly with the artisans and is in charge of marketing the products.
“Our plan is to place India on the global map for water hyacinth products, which is currently dominated by Thailand and Vietnam. We are also trying to work with the government to provide more training support to the artisans,” she signs off.
Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta