How this NGO-turned-ecommerce business grew from 2,300 to 24,000 artisans during the pandemic

Okhai Centre for Empowerment was launched by Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development in 2008. Kirti Poonia, a participant of TAS, realised that the products made by Okhai deserved the attention of the world. She converted the NGO into a full blown ecommerce business in 2015.
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Kirti Poonia always believed that travelling can teach a person much more than any college degree or educational institute. This prompted her to enrol herself for Jagriti Yatra in 2010, a 15 to 18-day train journey undertaken by like-minded youth and change-makers looking at making an impact in the world. Kirti got to travel the length and breadth of the country - from Bombay to Kanyakumari to Delhi, covering many corners of the country.

When the odyssey was near its end, the last stopover was Mithapur, a small district in Gujarat where Kirti encountered a bunch of women artisans making handicraft clothes and accessories. Kirti reminisces that at the time, she was young and naive, and did not really appreciate that experience fully. “I was more interested in going to the beach at that time.” 

But, lady luck smiled, and decided to give Kirti an opportunity that would change her life. 

Kirti had been working with the Tata Group since 2007. She later got selected for the company’s leadership programme- Tata Administrative Services or TAS. As part of the programme, in a serendipity of sorts, Kirti was once again pulled towards Mithapur, which happened to be the birthplace of Tata Chemicals. The Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development (TCSRD) had launched the Okhai Centre for Empowerment in 2008 to support rural women artisans. 

When Kirti came across the artisan women again, she underwent a moment of epiphany, “These women were amazingly talented. I realised that their products were so exotic that the world had to see them.” 

Moreover, Kirti emphasises that the women were immensely proud of their craft, so much that she knew something more had to be done. She decided to take on the responsibility of Okhai full time and joined Okhai as its Head. The timing was perfect as the ecommerce wave had recently hit the country, which was fast transitioning into an internet economy. 

Kirti launched the Okhai website in 2015. Gradually, the products started getting listed on Tata Cliq, Amazon, Nykaa and several others platforms.

There has been no looking back since. The company has continued to grow and scale even during the pandemic year of 2020, although not without unexpected dilemmas and predicaments for the company and the sector at large. But, Okhai came through 2020, and how!

The power of collaboration

When coronavirus brought the entire world to a standstill with lockdowns and general fear and anxiety, it obviously affected the handicraft industry. “Sales went down to zero, a lot of orders were cancelled. I knew of several artisans who had about 400 bed covers in stock but no food to put on the table,” narrates Kirti.

There were also several media reports of artisans committing suicide, unable to cope from the pressures of the lockdown. 

Kirti says this is when a lot of organisations like Okhai working in the same sector, came together to think of solutions that would benefit the artisans and the industry. Okhai collaborated with 10 such organisations including Jaypore, itokri, GoCoop, and Zwende among others.

Where there are problems, there are solutions 

The first solution they came up with was to digitally catalogue inventory available with the artisans. 

For this, the artisans were taught how to take photographs, make excel sheets of their stock and in some cases, even upload their stocks online. “All this was being taught to them on video calls. It was like a crash course in online sales,” says Kirti.

What made this endeavour even more exciting and interesting according to Kirti was the willingness of the artisans to learn even though technology was far removed from their daily lives. The women were also helped by the younger members in their families, many of whom were more tech-savvy.

Kirti adds, “Initially, the women would send us their inventory and stocks with details written on a piece of paper, and it would be a nightmare for us to manage that and collate data.” From paper to now being fully digital, the women of Okhai have come a long way in just one year. 

In a show of solidarity, Okhai introduced smaller organisations like apparel brand Rangsutra Crafts India Ltd. on its platform during the pandemic to help Rangasutra’s artisans sell through their platform, leveraging Okhai’s reach. “We didn’t want to rebrand them, we wanted to let them have their identity and use our platform.” It was a win-win for everyone involved.

A year after the first lockdown was announced, Okhai claims to be supporting 24,000 artisans from all over the country,  all selling through Okhai’s platform. Okhai has an office in Mumbai, but the sales office, design studio and warehouse are located in Ahmedabad. A total of about 50 people are employed by Okhai on a full time basis.

From an NGO to a standalone business

Okhai started out as an NGO. Today, it is a standalone business that is not just supporting its own people but also lending support to various organisations operating in similar space. It is not raising funds through charities or donations, rather it has empowered women themselves to become self-sufficient. 

How has it been able to do so?

“We have always endeavored to raise funds through sales. This intention pushed us to become operationally very strong.”

Kirti, who does not originally hail from the development sector but has shown phenomenal results with her social impact enterprise, says that this sector needs “people who think business and deploy marketing strategies.” That is how the sector will benefit and get uplifted.

Okhai women work in different ways. Some are engaged full time, some part time, and then there are those who work on an hourly basis. A woman who works full time (eight hours a day) earns between Rs 12,000- Rs 25,000 a month. 

What also may have worked for Okhai is their brand identity. The organisation made rural women the face of the brand. “When we started out in 2015, we put pictures of women on social media. This helped connect with real people.”

There was also increasing support for smaller brands, and locally and sustainably made clothes, which contributed to the brand’s journey, says Kirti.  

The business saw its turnover increase by 67 percent in FY21 from FY20. Kirti, however, doesn’t wish to reveal the exact numbers publicly. Okhai largely runs independently. It sometimes takes help from the mothership, TCSRD, for growth-driven funds. 

What’s next?

Just when India was getting comfortable with the battle against COVID-19, the second wave struck, the impact of which is turning out to be deadlier.

Commenting on how Okhai is coping with the current situation, Kirti says, “We are trying to figure out what products rural artisans can sell that can generate significant sales. This also includes deciding their price, colour, design, etc.”

The brand also launched a store in Kalaghoda, Mumbai in October. Going forward, it plans to launch stores in collaboration with brands that share the same ethos.

Okhai is also trying to expand its outreach to reach 60,000 artisans by the end of FY22, and 1 lakh mark by FY23. 

The numbers seem humongous and aspirational but the company plans to achieve this by increasing their online visibility, and also entering the international markets. 

Edited by Anju Narayanan

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