Entrepreneurship
Once poverty-stricken, the women of Paalaguttapalle turned their lives around by making cloth bags, which today have customers all the way in the US, UK and Canada.
All images: Shilpa S Ranipeta

There is no pucca road that leads to Paalaguttapalle, a small Dalit hamlet in Andhra’s Chittoor district. Finding the place isn’t easy either. Several wrong turns and a lot of asking around later, “Oh, the women who make bags? Their hamlet this way,” said a lady pointing this reporter in the right direction. As we approach the hamlet, there is no board to mark Paalaguttapalle’s location – but the cloth bags from this small Dalit hamlet in Andhra’s Chittoor district have reached four different countries.

We enter the village on a chilly Saturday morning, and women are gathered outside Rani’s house collecting bags that she and the others stayed up all night stitching. “We got a sudden order for 100 bags last night and they need to be delivered in the next few days. We had to finish them today for the order to reach on time,” Rani says, as they gather inside their tiny office room to start packing the bags.

Paalaguttapalle has faced the brunt of the drought that hit parts of Rayalaseema in 2010-2015. This small hamlet of just 70 Dalit families, on either sides of a railway track, comprises landless farmer families, who until a few years ago, were fully dependent on agriculture. But with drought hitting the state, land owners began converting their lands into mangroves. As a result, the locals were left with little or no work. Some of them were forced to migrate to nearby towns and cities in search of work.

Roopa, a resident of the hamlet, says that there were days where they didn’t have enough money to serve their families daily meals, unless they were lucky to find some work. “If we managed to find some work for the day, we would earn a maximum of Rs 50. We had to make do with that,” she adds.

At the time, Aparna, a software engineer from Chennai was living in the hamlet. She had moved there around 1995 and was living with the community. At the time of the drought, when livelihood became a challenge, the women of the hamlet and Aparna began looking for ways to earn an income.

“Initially they were making pickles and we were trying to sell it through people we knew. They would also collect gooseberries from the forest, powder them and try to sell that. I saw that the women were extremely capable and began asking people for suggestions. Around three years ago, someone suggested tailoring to us. So, I asked Annapurna (a resident), who had a sewing machine, to make a cloth bag. It turned out well and a friend of mine gave an order for 100 bags for his store in Hyderabad. Annapurna gathered three more women and delivered this order, and that’s how it all started,” Aparna says.

Aparna Krishnan

This was the turning point for the women of Paalaguttapalle. Within days of delivering their first order, several other orders started coming in. The best thing about the bags these women made, Aparna says, was that quality was consistent, because of which word spread.

Soon, Aparna made a Facebook page for them called ‘Paalaguttapalle Bags – Dalitwada’. She would share it on her social media account and bring in orders for the women.

Making of Paalaguttapalle bags

Orders for bags come through the Facebook page or through word of mouth. Aparna, along with Lavanya, another volunteer, takes orders on behalf of the women. They then send the order to the group’s common smartphone. The type of bag, the design, number of bags along with the address and date of delivery are sent to them on WhatsApp.

The women then gather in their office room, where they store the fabric, cut it into required sizes and take them home to stitch. Each woman stitches a certain number of the bags and once done, they gather back in their rooms and check for quality, fix errors and pack them. A few women then travel to the nearest village, Pakala, to parcel it to the given address. For some larger orders, they travel to the nearest town Tirupati and parcel it. And this sometimes takes up an entire day. Roopa says they have to find an autorickshaw or a vehicle willing to take them, and sometimes it involves hours of walking to the nearest town that has public transport.

Soon after word began spreading on social media, suggestions poured in on how the women could improve on their bags to make them more attractive. One such suggestion was that they print logos and designs on the bag. This meant screen printing, which wasn’t an easy feat to set up in a village. But the women didn’t back down. With the help of another volunteer, Vigneswaram, an IT professional that Aparna met on Facebook, three of the women travelled to Chennai, learnt the skill and came back and set up their own process with Vigneswaram’s help. The women make their own screen-printing blocks with wood and have also learnt how to imprint the design onto it using UV light in a dark room.

Arun Kombai, a designer then reached out offering to help the women with designing the logos. Today, customers send in designs they want on a bag, which Arun makes for them and sends it to a printer in Tirupathi. The women then travel to Tirupati, pick up the design and bring it back to be printed onto the bags.

They have now started innovating in terms of type of bags as well. They make tote bags, pouches, car pouches, school bags, carry bags, among others. Their latest innovation is the vegetable bag, which has pouches inside the bag to compartmentalise different vegetables. When this reporter asks them what else they can make, “You just tell us what type of bag you want, give us a picture and we’ll make it for you,” Anitha says.

For every order that they complete, the payment for it comes to Aparna. The women themselves make a note of how many bags each women stitched in their accounts notebook. Aparna then transfers the per bag amount to a joint account she opened for them. One of the women withdraws the money, and gives each one of them their dues. They take turns in to be the accountant of the group.

“We worked out a per bag cost, which they get every month. The remaining I retain to build their own rotating capital, for large payments such as the fabric. They'll need a balance of about Rs 3 lakh in their account,” Aparna says.

Today, the women are earning about Rs 5,000-6,000 each a month, which, they say, helps them lead a decent life, giving them enough to educate their children. And the best thing for them, Roopa says, is to not have to depend on their husbands anymore. The women have also saved and bought themselves a sewing machine. Some of them were even able to obtain loans, which went towards building a house.

After income started flowing in through this small business, Roopa has even managed to send her kids to good residential school in a nearby town.

Roopa holding a bag

With the help of another volunteer Lavanya, they are now building an e-commerce website to be able to reach a larger audience.

With just word of mouth and social media, the women today get orders almost every day and have even catered to clients in the US, UK and Canada. The women have also travelled to Goa and Chennai and set up stalls in exhibitions. In the Goa exhibition, they managed to sell nearly 400 bags in three days.

Even in and around their village, word has been spreading with more women wanting to come join them. They started as four women and are today nine of them. But Aparna says they want to start getting more orders before taking in more women. This will help ensure each of them still earns decently.

“We are only a few volunteers who are supporting them. But the whole work – from getting the material to working into the nights, packing and dispatching it – the women handle. This is an important case study to show that given the chance, people in rural areas can turn their lives around. They are very capable. We weren’t any NGO that stepped in. Just a neighbour who gave them an idea, and they took it forward from there. It goes to show that they can take on any responsibility,” Aparna says.

She further adds that the government needs to take notice of this and it is their responsibility to help them have a good livelihood. Even the money the women of Paalaguttapalle make isn’t good enough, Aparna says. She is hoping for their business to grow enough that they make a minimum of Rs 10,000 every month.

Aparna and the volunteers are now planning to register this small enterprise as a self-help group or open a trust in their name so the savings go there.

“It has all been informal until now. Now we want to make them a registered and recognised entity. Despite being into agriculture, these women embraced new skills, mastered them and are working with full commitment,” she adds.

And ask any of the women how proud they are of what they are doing, they humbly attribute it to the goodwill of their clients.