Fibrent was founded in 2019 as the brainchild of Oxfam India and RIGHTS, a Thiruvananthapuram based NGO working among Kerala’s Dalit and Adivasi communities.

A group of women from Kerala bamboo craft enterprise Fibrent sitting around a table at workAll Images: Mrudula Bhavani/Oxfam India
Features Women Empowerment Thursday, January 06, 2022 - 18:46

Sixty-five-year-old Annamma is the eldest among a group of women entrepreneurs in Thiruvalla in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district who began producing handicrafts using bamboo. These products range from lampshades to hangers and pen stands to mazhamooli (a musical instrument). The group of women were brought together to counter the impacts of the 2018 floods that ravaged their lives. When the group began to work with bamboo, they had hardly imagined it would become a brand – Fibrent – and that they would eventually set up an online store in 2020.

Fibrent was founded in 2019 as the brainchild of Oxfam India and RIGHTS, a Thiruvananthapuram based NGO working among Kerala’s Dalit and Adivasi communities. In its initial phase this bamboo crafts production unit received Oxfam India’s support to procure machines for large-scale production. Forty-five women attended the training programmes conducted by the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Fibrent has three units – two in Pathanamthitta and one in Idukki district.

“In the beginning we struggled a lot. We didn’t think much about monetary benefits. In fact, we began earning very late. We were just very interested in the work and very content. Now we’re getting a monthly salary and hope that we’re able to sustain it,” Annamma tells TNM.

She has been working as a craftswoman for 30 years. She worked as crafts trainer at government centres in Palakkad and Ernakulam. “I quit the job to take care of my daughter’s child who was born with a disability. Then I joined a school for children with disabilities. I worked there for 18 years. My granddaughter needed medicines worth Rs 4,000 per month. To make ends meet, I also started taking orders from shops to make bamboo products at home. But once the pandemic hit, the school shut.”

Her life has been quite a roller coaster. As she works on the machine, she recollects with a bright smile, “Oxfam India was the first organisation to help us. They provided us with the machines, they visited us during the training sessions. In fact soon after the floods, their intervention was very helpful, we often talk about that.”

Ramya, who is in her mid-thirties, wasn’t working earlier; today she contributes to her family’s income. She hails from Othara, a village near Eraviperoor where one of the Fibrent units is located. “I thought this was just another training and I would be back to doing household chores in 10 days. But we learnt so much,” she says.

Recalling the initial societal challenges, she says “There were a lot of people who doubted our ability. They would ask, ‘what else are you going to make out of bamboo? Just baskets and containers!’ It was disheartening.”

But a chat with ‘Ajay sir’ (founder and director of RIGHTS, Ajay Kumar) helped. “Now the same people ask, ‘how did you drill through the bamboo?” Ramya recounts.

“We built this roof on our own,” Ramya points to the bamboo roof of the studio. It’s made of kallan mula (literally translates to ‘rock bamboo’, meaning one with a solid core). The women say the rock-solid core wasn’t easy to drill. The studio walls are made of bamboo too.

“We work even when there are only a few of us, we don’t wait for a full attendance,” she says. Full attendance would obviously help since the income depends on how much they can produce.

Sreelekha, who was working at a medical laboratory, found some time to attend the training after her work hours. “I had to discontinue the training as the workload at the hospital increased. When my five-year contract at the hospital ended two months ago, I joined the unit. I didn’t try to get a job in another hospital. Now I’m doing something I’m really interested in,” she says.

Fibrent has women from Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim communities, a majority of them being Adivasi and Dalit.

How it began

Nearly 500 people died in the 2018 Kerala floods, which also left a large number of people from the most vulnerable communities desolate and helpless. Fibrent has one unit in Chengannur, from where over one lakh people were evacuated during the August 2018 floods.

“We were taken by surprise. For two days we were completely cut off, had no means of communication, no phone, no TV. That night we left the house with whatever we could grab. My two children, my mother-in-law and I took refuge in a community hall. My husband was away. There was nothing to feed our children. We stayed in a relief camp for 15 days,” says Sangeetha from the Chengannur unit.

Annamma’s house was damaged in the 2018 floods and remains so even after three years. She has received only Rs 10,000 of the promised Rs 60,000 relief from the government.

Vividly recalling the flooding of 2018, Meenu adds, “My home is in Chengannur’s Pandanad. It is a sunken, low-lying land on the banks of the Pamba. We faced the worst of the floods. The floor of our house cracked. For two days we sat on someone’s terrace, on the third day we were rescued in a boat. We had never faced such floods before.” She adds that the intervention by RIGHTS and Oxfam India was timely. Meenu was a homemaker who trained to become a craftswoman.

“Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha districts were severely affected. We saw severe discrimination and segregation within the society, especially in getting access to and providing for the most vulnerable communities. Oxfam India decided to support them,” says Oxfam India’s Humanitarian Project Coordinator Basab Sarkar.

After most relief work, Oxfam India plans a rehabilitation programme. “We extended support to women from the most vulnerable communities with RIGHTS. Bamboo craft-making is a climate smart activity that also empowers women – this is how the journey of Fibrent began. We provided training and machinery, RIGHTS is leading and supporting them to develop a business model. They are now selling their products on different platforms at the national level,” Basab explains.

Making of a climate-smart enterprise

“RIGHTS focuses on minority inclusion, not so much on rehabilitation. But when we realised that the flood regions along the rivers – Achankovil, Manimalayar, Pamba, Periyar – are rich sources of natural fibre, we wanted to make a climate-smart livelihood option possible,” says Ajay.

The foundation of Fibrent consists of another important aspect – its social and economic base. “Bamboo craft production exists as a household industry with participation from kids, men, women and aged members of a family. In the entire process of production and sale, the contribution of children, women or the elderly is not considered. Our basic idea was to have a manufacturing unit separate from the household,” Ajay explains.

Oxfam India provided the machinery for large-scale production. The sourcing of raw materials, production and marketing is done by different groups in Fibrent. “This unit stands out mainly because of these aspects – using locally available raw materials and the larger context of climate mitigation. We also decided not to make traditional products such as baskets and sieves.”

He explains that instead of sourcing raw materials from the river bed (which are helpful in preventing flooding, soil erosion and landslides), they use bamboo only from the homestead. They cut aged and dying bamboo, which doesn’t need too much treatment.

Fibrent is the only livelihood project that RIGHTS has taken up. A 10-day initial training was conducted in December 2019; the women received more training from experts later. On the day the training ended, the women started production. “The Eraviperoor gram panchayat immediately placed an order for a few office items. That was a huge morale boost,” Ajay recollects.

Once the first orders were delivered, there were big plans for an exhibition in Delhi. The products were ready to roll out and they had started receiving orders when the pandemic hit and lockdown was announced. The orders had to be cancelled eventually.

“We couldn’t do anything to save our products,” says 26-year-old Aswathi, the youngest member of the Chengannur unit.

“During the pandemic we weren’t able to do any sort of marketing. So we made use of that time to upgrade skills and tried to get support for additional training and product design with the help of various agencies,” Ajay says.

He credits the women for believing in the project and continuing to work even when a steady income wasn’t guaranteed. “They are courageous women. They were convinced that whenever the market opened the sales would pick up. Their conviction sustained the project.”

They were still working as self-help groups when they entered the market but realised they had to take the next step. They federated and registered as a company – Fibrent – during the lockdown.

Just when they were raring to ramp up production, the next lockdown was imposed. But by that time they had streamlined production; at least two to three women were always working even during the lockdown. This helped – when the market opened they had enough products. They are now empanelled with TRIFED, the commercial wing of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. They have a tribal women’s unit in Idukki’s Chinnappara.

Fibrent has moved ahead and grown in the middle of the pandemic and natural disasters. It isn’t just climate-resilient, it is pandemic-resilient too.

Mrudula Bhavani is a freelance journalist based in Kerala. She reports on state policies with a focus on gender spectrum, law, public health, caste, and environment. This story was written as part of an assignment for Oxfam India in Kerala.

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