Kamala Giri (left) and Sushila Bhuju making papercrafts at their workshop in Chamasingh, Bhaktpaur
--By Shrijana Tha Shrestha
Developing a career when one has crossed their forties could look like an impossible task. The case becomes even more acute when you have been jobless at this age and can’t find anyone who will hire you. Under such conditions, even being a professional with expertise doesn’t seem to help you. These conditions are more acute and suffocating, if the individual is a woman and member of a patriarchal society like ours. Against these odds, five women in Bhaktapur successfully got their professional lives back on track.
Kamala Giri, Sunita Bhuju and Sulochana Dulalare are paper craft artisans formerly associated with a once burgeoning and now defunct paper industry, Bhaktpaur Craft Paper Industries. These women worked for around two decades in this industry- during which they received training from national and international paper craft artisans, some of which were funded by international development organisations like UNICEF. Life was going easy for them until the day the industry decided to close down around 2013. Along with their colleagues, these women were left jobless in their late forties. Though they were skilled in making paper crafts, they could not find an employer who would could bring their skills into use and give them a job.
In their desperation, some of them started working for a former colleague on a commission basis. However, things were not going as they expected initially- the colleague was depriving them of their percentages by faking the sales value, ultimately forcing them to quit the informal partnership they were in. Some months later, while all of them were wondering how they could make a living, Bimal Gosai, a Nepali resident living in Germany, came on the scene. A Civil Engineer by profession, he was interested in their stories and realised that these women could start all over again. Thus began a round of discussions among these women and their families. Three months later, with the support of the families, they established the Bhaktapur Women Craft Paper Pvt. Ltd. The struggles were immense but the path began to come clear very soon. Now they are owners of a promising and thriving paper craft industry – which is their own.
Their case is interesting – considering the fact they were women in their late forties, modestly educated, members of the lower middle class which is characterised by women centred socio-cultural taboos, lack of investment capital and above all by a lack of knowledge in running a business. So, this article tries to explore the ways and methods through which they overcame these hurdles and regained their lost professional dignity.
Business is basically about demand and supply. With over three decades of experience in the industry, these women had all the expertise required to ensure the production of quality paper crafts but they lacked access to production resources together and marketing skills to sell the product. This is where they adopted the modern trend and got onboard with a tech savvy manager – Bimal Gosai. Gosai, though a civil engineer by profession, says that he was instantly interested in the proposal when Sulochana approached him about the business.
“Despite having life long experience in making paper crafts, we were not proficient in marketing skills,” Giri, one of the eight partners, said adding that when she first met and shared how they had become jobless, Sulochana said they could have their own paper craft business. “After multiple rounds of discussions, we ultimately brought together paper craft and marketing professionals. Our traditional production methods and information technology oriented marketing methods, helped us in setting foot in the industry.” The business has been extensively using online marketing tools – including social media and advertising, to reach out to new clients.
Authentic Business Aspects
Even in this plastic age, authentic products have their own charm. While mass production caters to the utilitarian needs of mass consumerism, handmade products are still a choice for those who can afford to pay and above all who share the passion for authenticity. Bhaktapur Women Craft Paper products cater to the aspirations of the latter. It has limited itself to a select few authentic Nepali products that are produced from home grown raw materials.
Ranging from Lokta paper, peach shells, bamboos to ink dyes made using indigenous methods and raw materials, the products render a Nepali feel. In first world nations, where consumers stress more on organic and authentic products, these products have been received very well. Though their customer base in these countries is still small compared to such other Nepali industries, it nevertheless has been gradually gaining a foothold in the highly competitive market by ensuring authenticity of its products.
Socially Responsible and Locally Embedded
An important aspect of business that relies on evoking human compassion for selling products is being socially responsible and locally embedded. These aspects add value to the authenticity of the products. Every consumer feels good to spend an extra buck on a product, if they realise that some portion of the prize would be given to humanitarian causes. Along with that, such aspects assist in uplifting the status of the business towards a social development entity - that stresses more on earning a just living rather than making profit.
As part of its social responsibility, Bhaktapur Women Craft Paper organises paper craft trainings for local women, especially for widows, and the destitute. “Sharing your knowledge and enabling them to earn a living for themselves is an important humanitarian effort. I know its value because whatever I am today is because someone did that for me,” Sunita Bhuju, another of the partners, said adding that by organising such trainings they wanted to enable more women in the locality to live a dignified life. Along with that, branding it using the name of the city, she feels, helps the business in localising its roots. “It is this city that basically is common to us and the business. We grew up here and this is where our business is growing,” Sulochana Dulal, another partner in the business, said while elaborating on the underlying argument of their branding strategy.
A market is very crucial for growing a business and in the paper craft industry, having international customers is an important aspect. This organisation has its major customer base in the US besides other European countries. Its clients have been assisting their growth by linking them with craft buyers and dealers and by providing them with investment to grow their business and improve the quality of their products. Thus, even though they are a local industry, their reach and well wishers are expanding globally. And this is possible only if entrepreneurs have a global thinking.
“Our customers live on other side of the planet. And though they have a different way of life and doing business, they too share with us the underlying principles of humanity,” Bimal Gosai, the marketing manager at the firm said while elaborating on the customer relationship strategy. “We share our success and our shortcomings with our clients. This makes them feel that they are dealing with humans who like them are doing business to earn a honest living,” he said, adding that one of their clients helped them in expanding their business and helped to reopen their damaged office which was destroyed by the earthquake.
Open Minded Team
One of the great assets in partnership businesses is having like minded and understanding team members who stress on a common good. This has been a crucial factor in Bhaktapur Women Craft Paper’s success. Having worked together for over two decades, these partners know each other well and some even have family ties. This underlying understanding has helped them work together for the growth of the business.
“We have our differences but we have always resolved them through understanding and open minded discussions,” Giri said. As part of their efforts to keep the team strong, they all work on a salary basis and have a dedicated accounts manager to look after the accounts. “We all have gone through the worst professional crisis in our life. This is our only chance to continue living a dignified life so we all make sure that we resolve our personal differences through open discussions and continue contributing to the growth of the business.”
Though established nearly a year ago with an initial investment of Rs 300,000, Bhaktapur Women Craft Paper has done business worth Rs two million this year alone. Though its partners are glad about the success, they have bigger plans up their sleeves. Buoyed by the success they are presently investing their earnings in the business and striving hard to establish themselves as a fair trade business. Their spirit is a reminder to all women and men, who try to point to age or lack of resources, as an excuse for not starting their own business. These seasoned women prove the point that it is never too late to start something new, something meaningful, and something dignified – if one is committed to the cause.
The writer is a social researcher and development enthusiast. She is presently associated with Social Welfare and Support Organization Nepal (SWASON) – a Kailali based non-profit group as its vice president and can be reached at shrijana.shrestha12@ gmail.com