The Bamboo Craftswomen of Kerala

The Bamboo Craftswomen of Kerala

Sixty-five year old Annamma is the eldest among a group of women entrepreneurs in Pathanamthitta’s Thiruvalla who began producing handicrafts using bamboo. These products range from lampshades to hangers, from 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 they would eventually set up an online store in 2020.

I visited Fibrent’s handcrafting studio on 13 October 2021. With weather warnings on, the blazing sun was a warm element on the day; the past few weeks had been very cloudy and rainy. Landslides too were being reported. It was unexpected therefore that the sky was clear. The work studio and office had just reopened in October after several of its craftswomen infected with Covid had recovered. Five of the 12 members of Fibrent’s Thiruvalla unit were working on finishing the products. Despite a clear day, their conversations invariably veered towards the fear of an imminent flooding in the area since Thiruvalla is situated on the banks of Pamba and Manimala rivers.

‘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 get machines for large scale production. Forty-five women attended the training programmes. They received training from National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Fibrent has three units—two in Pathanamthitta and one in Idukki district. There are 12 women working in the Thiruvalla unit.

“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 are getting a monthly salary and hope that we are able to sustain it,” Annamma says. 

She has been working as a craftswoman for 30 years. She worked as crafts trainer at government centers 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 educating children with disabilities. I worked there for 18 years. The child 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 says with a beaming smile, “I can handle these machines”. She continues, “Oxfam India was the first organization to help us. They provided us with the machines. They visited us during the training session. In fact soon after the floods, their intervention was very helpful, we often talk about that. They were providing assistance to households affected by the flood.” Annamma recollected. 

Ramya, a woman in her mid-thirties vividly remembers the flooding of 2018. Her family had prepared to evacuate in 2019 as well. She is from Othara, a village near Eraviperoor which has one of the units of Fibrent. “I thought this was just another training and I would get back to doing household chores in 10 days. But we learnt so much,” Ramya said.

She lives with her husband, two children and mother. Her daughter is in class eight while the younger son is in fourth grade. Ramya’s 68-year-old mother takes care of her children when she goes to work. “There were a lot of people who doubted our ability. They passed random comments like, ‘what else are you going to make out of bamboo? Just baskets and containers!’It was disheartening,” she recalls.

But a chat with Ajay ‘sir’ helped. “In fact all that rage was channelized to influence our work. Now the same people come and ask, ‘how did you drill through the bamboo?” Ramya recounts the initial societal challenges. She wasn’t working earlier; today she contributes to her family’s income.

“We built this roof on our own.” Ramya points to the bamboo roof of the studio. The studio roof is made of Kallan mula (literally translated as ‘rock bamboo’i.e. one with a solid core). The women say the rock-solid core wasn’t easy to drill. The studio is walled with bamboo too.

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

Sreelekha who was working at a medical laboratory found some time to attend the training after work. “I had to discontinue 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 did not try to get a job in another hospital. Now I am doing something I’m really interested in,” she said. 

Fibrent is also in a way defying the caste model. Annamma explains that it was some tribal communities who were into bamboo crafts. “But once we tried our hands on it, we realised that we could do this too,” Annamma said. Fibrent has women from Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim communities. A majority of them, though are Adivasi and Dalit women. 

How it began

Nearly 500 people had died in the Kerala floods in 2018 and it 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 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. We—my two children, my mother-in-law, and me—took refuge in a community hall. My husband was away. There was nothing to feed our children. We stayed in a relief camp for fifteen days,” says Sangeetha from Chengannur unit.

Annamma’s house was damaged in the 2018 floods and remains so even after three years. She has received only Rs 10000 of the promised Rs 60000 relief from the government.

Meenu chips in, “My home is in Pandanad, in Chengannur. The floor of our house was cracked. It is a sunken land, a low lying land on the banks of Pamba. It faced the worst floods. For two days we sat on a 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 were 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 the most vulnerable communities,” says Oxfam India’s Humanitarian Project Coordinator, Basab Sarkar. 

After most relief work, Oxfam India plans a rehabilitation programme. “With RIGHTS we extended support to women from the most vulnerable communities. 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 the products at different platforms at the national level,” Basab explains.

Making of Climate-Smart ‘Fibrent’

“RIGHTS focus on minority inclusion, not much into rehabilitation. However, when we realised that the flood region along the rivers — Achankovil, Manimalayar, Pamba, Periyar — are rich sources of natural fibre, we wanted to make climate-smart livelihood option possible,” says founder and director of RIGHTS, Ajay Kumar.

The foundation of ‘Fibrent’ has another very important aspect, which is its social and economic base. “Bamboo production exists as a household industry done by kids, men, women and aged members of a household; in the entire process of production and sale, the input of children, women or the elderly are not considered. The basic idea was to have a manufacturing unit separate from the household and a production unit of bamboo products,” Ajay explains. 

He says that this was done to move beyond the realms of caste system which dictates bamboo craft. “We decided to not go for the traditional products such as baskets and sieve that the tribal communities work on. We expanded our scope of work. Even today when the women take these products for exhibition people ask if there are any baskets and sieve,” he smiles.

Oxfam India provided the machinery for large scale production. The sourcing of raw materials, production and marketing is done by the different groups in Fibrent. “This unit stands out mainly because of these aspects—using locally available raw material and the larger context of climate mitigation.”

He explains that instead of sourcing the raw material from the river bed (which prevent flooding, soil erosion and landslides), they use bamboo only from the homestead. They cut the dying bamboo. Aged bamboo doesn’t need too much treating. Fibrent is the only livelihood project that RIGHTS have taken up.

There was a ten-day initial training in December 2019; the women got more training sessions from experts later. On the day the training ended, the women started production. “The Eraviperoor Gram Panchayat immediately placed orders for few office items. That was a huge morale boost,” Ajay recollects.

Once the first orders were received and delivered, there were big plans of an exhibition in Delhi. The products were ready to roll out when the pandemic hit. “The lockdown was announced just when we started receiving orders. They were eventually cancelled,” Sangeetha says. 

“As none of us could go to the workshops, we couldn’t give the care or treatment required to the product. In the lockdown we couldn’t do anything to save our products,” says 26-year-old Aswathi, the youngest member in the Chengannur unit.

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

Credit to 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 at any point of time when the market opens they can pick up sales. Their conviction sustained it.”

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 rearing 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 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 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.

The story appeared in The News Minute first. 

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