South Asia’s rural women enter the global marketplace

This page in:
South Asia?s rural women enter the global marketplace
Models walk the runway during regional conclave in New Delhi, India. Photo: World Bank

For centuries, women in the harsh deserts of Rajasthan, India, embroidered richly-colored mirror-work garments for their own use, saving the best for their daughters’ dowries.

Today their painstaking efforts reach homes across the world through retail giants such as IKEA, enabling these impoverished women to turn over more than $715,000 a year .

Across the border, too, women from Pakistan’s Tharparkar region of Sindh - one of the least developed in the country – have begun to sell their distinctive embroideries through Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn .

In India, Mumbai’s spanking new international airport enthralls visitors with folk paintings by poor women artisans from Bihar who, until now, adorned the walls of their simple mud dwellings .

And in Nepal, earthquake-affected communities, displaced from their mountain homes, have tied up with the country's largest industrial house to market pure honey and other natural produce.

But it is Bangladesh, perhaps, that has achieved some of the greatest successes in helping rural women’s enterprises enter mainstream markets .

In just 30 years, the country’s famed Aarong brand has grown from being a simple promoter of handicrafts into one of the country's largest retail chains, recording sales of over $50 million in 2013.

Still, most of South Asia’s rural communities have not been able to make this leap. In village after village, women sit cloistered after a hard day’s work, to sew, embroider, weave, or paint, earning a pittance for their labor. Often, they cultivate natural farm products on chemical-free soils. But, without access to markets, their remarkably uncontaminated produce earns them very little.

Regional Conclave New Delhi, India
Regional Conclave New Delhi, India. Photo: World Bank

Showcasing the dazzling array of women’s crafts and produce

Through decades of effort in these countries, supported by the World Bank’s rural livelihood projects, women across the region have been organized into Self-Help Groups (SHG) .

What these groups now need is an extra push to reach buyers further afield, establish productive alliances with mainstream markets and evolve from simple cottage industries into large-scale enterprises.

With this in mind, the India country office recently brought together dozens of women artisans and producers from the Bank’s South Asia projects at a 3-day regional conclave in New Delhi .

There, in a vibrant bazaar, the women displayed embroideries from Afghanistan, fabrics from Bangladesh, weaves from Bhutan, textiles, lamps, and baskets from India, as well as scarves from Nepal, some intriguingly made from stinging Himalayan nettle. Also on sale were renowned Afghan almonds, herbal teas from Nepal, turmeric, and ginger from India’s fully organic state of Sikkim and a host of other farm produce.

We wanted to bridge the gulf between women producers and the huge urban market to ensure that poor rural women earn a better livelihood ,” explained Vinayak Ghatate, Senior Rural Development Specialist at the World Bank in New Delhi.

South Asia’s women - a force to reckon with

The potential is limitless. Over the past 40 years, SHGs across South Asia have emerged as a social and financial force to reckon with .

In India, 50 million women now form part of the SHG movement, while in Bangladesh, the leading women-led collective, BRAC, has 5 million borrowers. 

Sabah Nepal, a network of home-based artisans and producers, has helped 3 million women with support and trade facilitation.

And in war-torn Afghanistan, SHGs have played a crucial role in developing solidarity and economic networks to support women and families.

No small achievement in these deeply patriarchal societies! Importantly, the women’s groups also have the financial capacity to expand.

In India alone, they have collectively saved almost $1.5 billion and leveraged another $30 million from the market through bank linkages  under the country’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission.

Above all, women’s collectives have stepped up to the forefront during natural disasters, helping communities recover and rebuild - critical for a region that is increasingly vulnerable to climate change.

Regional Conclave New Delhi, India
Photo: World Bank

Seeking new frontiers

To showcase the huge potential that lies embedded within the women’s weaves, prints and embroideries, the conclave held a dazzling fashion show in which fifteen of India’s leading designers created high-fashion garments incorporating their enormous diversity.

Paying tribute to the women’s skills, Rina Dhaka, a leading Indian designer, said, “The artisan is the designer. Thanks to them, so much craft and textile is available to us. Without them, we would not have a history .” Mary Kathryn Hollifield, Practice Manager, South Asia, in the World Bank’s Agriculture Global Practice, agreed. “Artisans should be able to co-create with designers, whether it be in Delhi or Milan or wherever. It should happen, and it’s up to us to make it happen.”

A key feature of the conclave was that it brought together artisans from across South Asia, one of the least integrated regions in the world.

Everybody was in awe of what they saw because where else can you get fabric from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan and all the different clusters within India, together in one place ? It was an amalgamation of different crafts and countries,” explained Sunil Sethi, President of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), and the creative force behind the fashion show.

Helping women’s groups build productive alliances with mainstream markets

The conclave also held “interactive clinics” where women producers directly interacted with senior management of global and domestic companies, such as IKEA, HCL Foundation, Etsy, etc., to understand the systems and steps needed for cultivating sustainable business linkages with big global and domestic brands and large e-commerce platforms.

“There’s a lot more buying power in the South Asian countries now,” pointed out Gayatri Acharya, the Bank’s Lead Rural Development Economist in the region. “My one desire would be to see a special trade agreement between these countries on just artisanal products, so they can flow freely .”

“In the end, what does the World Bank want?” elaborated Sethi. “They want to see that the artisans, and craftsmen and women get a better livelihood and their craft goes to different places within the country and all over the world .”

Summing up, Chime P. Wangdi, Secretary General of Bhutan’s Tarayana Foundation, which works with 40 of the poorest communities in the mountain nation concluded, “We have the skills that can propel us out of poverty. In each and every home, women can contribute .”

Can South Asia’s women producers now take the world by storm?


Vinita Ranade

Communications Consultant

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000