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2 Sisters and A Hundred Hands

December 12, 2017 08:15 IST

The Dhawan sisters have founded an NGO to help makers of local products and produce -- who, to this day, live in the shadows -- achieve better margins and reach a wider audience.

Anjuli Bhargava reports.

Mala and Sonia Dhawan A Hundred Hands

Mala and Sonia Dhawan, the founders of A Hundred Hands.
Photograph: Courtesy @AHHBangalore/Facebook.

 

When Mala Dhawan was growing up as an Indian Air Force kid, she couldn't help but notice how everything had to be done with one's own hands.

When needed, her father, a fighter pilot who retired as wing commander, did the carpentry work, her mother embroidered and sewed, and everyone around her knitted, cooked, baked or did the gardening.

The locals, no matter which part of the country her father was posted in, produced all kinds of marvellous stuff -- again, made by hand.

It's only when she grew up did she realise how little value people placed on handmade goods. "So much of what they did was simply taken for granted," says Dhawan.

This always rankled her.

 

As an advertising professional who had worked with agencies like Ogilvy and Lintas for most of her career, Dhawan had seen for herself what branding and packaging could do to the value of a product.

In 2008-09, Dhawan settled in Bengaluru, and over two years, she and her sister helped organise a few bazaars mostly in their garden at home. The idea was to try and help out artisans and producers of local handmade goods, farmer groups and handicraftsmen who didn't know how to reach urban markets.

The aim was to package better, brand better and sell better. But the final goal was to help these artisans earn a "fair and sustainable livelihood" from their work, while thriving on the deep sense of satisfaction that one derives from working with one's own hands.

After two years of "fun and games", they decided to inject an element of seriousness into their project.

And that's when "A Hundred Hands" was born.

In 2010, it was registered as a non-profit organisation with two main objectives.

One, to help the creator or producer reach the client directly -- cutting out middlemen, traders and designers who doubled up as middlemen and who could often charge margins as high as 500 per cent, leaving very little in the hands of the person who worked to produce the goods.

And two, to allow the customer -- who is becoming both more aware and more curious -- to reach out directly to the producer.

"At bazaars, we found customers far less passive than they used to be, and far more interested and inquisitive about what they had bought or consumed," says Dhawan. "They wanted to know how it was made, how long it took, what went into it. We wanted to encourage that as well. For city dwellers, what these local artisans and producers could do with their hands was clearly an eye opener."

After the society was established, the ad-hoc bazaar was soon converted into an annual collective -- held every November in Bengaluru.

A few successful collectives in Bengaluru encouraged the team to explore new territories. Now, the society has started similar events in Mumbai, Coimbatore and at Fort Kochi. 

As it has strengthened its network, the society formalised the running further by introducing a membership programme for its artisans. This allows them to work with the society throughout the year.

Although there are only 102 members so far, 7,000 to 8,000 artisans and producers benefit since they work through NGOs or in clusters and self-help groups.

A Hundred Hands currently has a waiting list of close to 200-odd artisans seeking membership. 

The scope of what they do with their members has grown substantially.

"The idea now is not only about having a platform to sell better but also to work on product design, packaging and branding, and even help them negotiate better with bulk buyers like, say, Fabindia," Dhawan explains.

Recently, they launched a programme called 'Me To We' that encourages two artisans to work together and think more like 'designers'. The fact that two people are at it together helps them gain more confidence, become bolder with innovation and try something new, while respecting each other's ideas and differences.

This has helped increase their earnings in many cases.

Although A Hundred Hands has received donations from financiers and funds from as far as Australia, raising resources to continue and grow their work remains the single biggest hurdle. But, as Dhawan says, where there is a will, there is always a way.

Every successful collective paves the path for the next one.

Anjuli Bhargava in New Delhi
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