I spent most of the last weekend at a workshop organized by this not-for-profit called Khamir somewhere near Bhuj in Kutch. It was a rather small-scale festival they had organized called the Desert Art and Music Festival (though the fees were anything but small scale, setting each participant back by seven and a half kilorupees). The art on display were crafts local to the Kutch region, and we were given hands-on training in various crafts by artisans that worked with Khamir. The music, sadly, wasn’t Kutchi, as two rather large bands had been imported from Rajasthan (from Bikaner and Jaisalmer) and local musicians only played the opening acts.
I’m not entirely convinced by Khamir’s business model. Ok that may not be an accurate statement since strictly speaking Khamir isn’t a business, but to put it in another way, I’m not convinced that Khamir’s contribution to the ecosystem of handicraft artisans in Kutch is entirely positive. It may not be possible to make a convincing economic argument right now, but my sense is that they are distorting the market for handicrafts.
Actually it may not even be their fault. In a rare conversation on economics with one of the artisans, I found that it is actually easier to start a not-for-profit than a for-profit. This artisan wanted to train youth in his village and surrounding areas, and had found that there was considerable demand abroad for what he made. When I asked him why he didn’t set up a for-profit company instead, the answer was that it was next to impossible for him to get a bank loan for one such venture. But he had found some means by which he had tied up a rather large no-questions-asked donation from the Government of Gujarat.
Coming back to Khamir, they are in the business (ok it’s impossible for me to think in a non-business sense) of promoting the crafts of Kutch. They have a number of “studios” where local artisans, who have been given raw material, work and they sell the products in their own local shop and also in the US and Canada. Apart from this, they procure stuff from other local artisans and sell it on. In that sense, they are just like any other middlemen – except that they are not for profit.
If you ask why this is a problem, I point you to the Indian airline industry. When one player in the market doesn’t have a strict profit motive (like Air India), they can work on wafer thin (or even negative) margins, a level at which their for-profit competitors cannot really compete. Sooner or later, the for-profit competitors get driven out of business (like Kingfisher Airlines, for example), and soon the market itself has disappeared!
While Khamir itself might be too small (their campus suggests they are rather well funded, but their scale of operations doesn’t seem commensurate), the fact that it is easier to get funding for not-for-profit than to start a for-profit business in this space (as the artisan alluded) raises the sceptre that there could soon be more such not-for-profit middlemen in this business, which might make a real dent in the business of Kutchi crafts.
The story of intermediation in this market is also interesting and deserves to be sold. Both the artisans we spoke to said they don’t prefer to do business with large for-profit middlemen such as FabIndia or Mother Earth since the latter demand a high degree of standardization, which is tough to achieve in a hand-craft environment. Rather than face high rejection rates at such middlemen, the artisans instead find it more profitable to peddle their wares at sundry craft exhibitions all over India, where they are more likely to sell their stuff, though with a higher risk in terms of profits and considerable hardship in terms of travel and sales.
The thing with handicrafts is that the market is rather fragmented and it is only really large-scale players such as FabIndia or Mother Earth who have cracked the model in terms of effective intermediation (the large scale is necessary given the fragmentation of the market). The “illiquidity” in the market means that inventory costs can get rather high, and thus a considerable retail margin needs to be allowed for to enable effective intermediation. In the face of this, organizations such as Khamir who “work to give as much money as possible to artisans” can get rather distortionary.
Two minutes was watching a weaver work at the Khamir facility drove me nuts (it was such a laborious process I wasn’t able to take it any longer). So there is this wooden piece that has to be tossed from one side of the loom to the other each time a thread is passed (and the thread has to be practically hammered in to the rest of the cloth) so even a full day of work by a skilled artisan can only produce a few meters of cloth. Watching the hand loom weavers work even made me wonder if promotion of such arts only serves to keep people poor.
So the problem is that handloom weaving is a rather laborious process, and extremely inefficient economically. The same kind of cloth when produced by a machine results in significantly lower cost, and by that logic, handloom weaving being an ineffective process should probably go extinct. While premium branding for handloom in certain circles has ensured higher prices that could possibly compensate the weavers, it is not unfathomable that machines will be soon able to make (if not already) cloth in a texture similar to what is produced by hand looms.
For someone with a short attention span and ADHD and for someone who is a computer programmer, it was unfathomable that people do a rather laborious task repeatedly through the course of the day, and over several days, to earn their living. We asked an artisan why he continued to make cloth by hand, and he replied that the handloom tag helped him earn a better margin. When I suggested to him that greater volumes would make up for the lesser margins that powered looms would offer, he talked about certain intricate designs that according to him only hand loom could create. I could only think of one thing at that moment – the CNC Lathe.
I find the entire ecosystem disturbing. That it is easier to find funding for a not-for-profit venture than for for-profit. That these funds are being used to keep alive trades that have no business to do business (given their inefficiencies). That these efforts put the artisans into a false lull that there actually exists demand for their produce, and at a level that can compensate for their inefficient processes. Which prevents creative destruction, and holds back innovation. And leads to the not-for-profits painting a rather romanticized picture of poverty and traditional rural crafts to get more funding. The cycle continues.
Given that the festival did not have sponsors, I would assume that a significant portion of the fee I paid would have gone into paying the musicians. For that level of fee, I expected a rather small and intimate concert. Instead what I got was two public concerts (where the general public got to watch for free) where there were more speeches than there was music, and one of which started so late into the night that I drifted off.
In the world of not-for-profits, I suspect that “value for money” is perhaps a dirty phrase.