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The industrial designer who changed rural lives


Deepa Balakrishnan,CNN-IBN
Dec 21, 2011 at 02:19pm IST

Bangalore: Industrial Designer Neelam Chibber founded Mother Earth with the aim of providing markets for rural craftsmen. Chibber and her efforts to give a facelift to rural craftsmanship have not gone unnoticed.

Twenty-three-year-old R Satish, a member of the self-help group Ashraya, goes to his busy workshop every morning. His job is to put finishing touches to boxes made of river grass.

He says: "This will be useful in future. Now I know all kinds of work associated with making these crafts and items. I can even start this kind of thing on my own."

For Satish and many others like him, this job is just the first step towards success and financial stability.

Another worker at the workshop says: "At first I was earning Rs 4000, now I earn Rs 8000. It gives me a decent life." Lakshmi Bai, a woman worker, says: "Considering I never went to school, I'm glad I found a job that I could train easily on."

Gone are the days when these workers simply wove mats. Now, they dye and stitch their cloth, design the material and enhance its value. That’s when Mother Earth comes into the picture.

Chibber says: "We started our business looking for markets for rural producers… and design has been the biggest enabler… because rural producers don't really know what to make for urban markets as they're completely cut off from the market."

She adds: "Traditionally NGOs have supply driven models… that's the key difference. When we started the business, we were looking at a demand driven model."

While chatting with artisans, she says she started Mother Earth as an experiment to see if rural craft was marketable. Now, it has become a revolution that has spread to 17 self-help groups. In the past 15 years, she and her team have made hundreds of craftspersons around Bangalore self-reliant.

As a case in point, craftsmen who wove simple sleeping mats for bus conductors with the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation (TN STC) were trained in dyeing, which ultimately helped them in raising the value of their products.

"A producer traditionally making a sleeping mat for bus conductors of TNSTC, which is what the cooperatives in the state have been making, sold his produce at Rs 60 a mat. The artiste got around Rs 30-40 in the end. We went to those artisans and told them, 'Look you need to weave finer mats… and you need to dye them.' And after just a few interventions, their incomes tripled. Now they were able to supply a mat at Rs 180, with all the value addition. And it was made in the same time. If it took one day to make that mat, it took one day to make this mat," says Chibber.

Neelam and her team of designers are now training nearly 15,000 artisans to work with natural fibre. The group is also in talks with big retail chains across the world to export rural wares to an ever-increasing international market.

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