RAKHEE CHOUDHURY

India,

Rakhee Choudhury is teaching Assamese women the skills they need to revitalize weaving–a vital part of their cultural heritage–and to convert traditional skills into forward-looking, income-earning activities.

This profile below was prepared when Rakhee Choudhury was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.

INTRODUCTION

Rakhee Choudhury is teaching Assamese women the skills they need to revitalize weaving–a vital part of their cultural heritage–and to convert traditional skills into forward-looking, income-earning activities.




THE NEW IDEA

Rakhee helps Assamese women gain economic independence, retain their cultural identity, and build confidence through weaving, the second largest activity after agriculture in the region. She organizes the women into cooperatives that connect them directly to the market, allowing them to earn a living by advancing an industry that has great cultural significance for them. Rakhee trains the women through intensive, hands-on workshops that cover topics relating not only to technicalities of weaving but also to marketing and business management. She encourages women to think of themselves in a new light–as entrepreneurs and professionals–delivering a quality product to the market and sustaining themselves and their families in the process.

Rakhee's emphasis on starting with the development of individual entrepreneurs is a huge shift from the beaten path of using weaving merely as an income-generating activity for microcredit groups. She believes that once Assamese women are motivated and equipped with the right attitudes and skills, they will be driven to work at building their own weaver groups and making their enterprises successful. Focusing first on women who are established in their communities and who have perhaps the most available time–older, unmarried women–Rakhee is converting traditional weaving skills of tribal and rural communities into viable, lucrative activities and thus giving communities an opportunity to protect and promote their unique traditions. Even as she establishes systems to stabilize the easier-to-reach weaver entrepreneurs near the city center, she identifies and involves groups that are much harder to reach. She helps them build the styles, designs, colors, and motifs particular to these groups and takes them to a stage where they are ready to take off on their own. The weaver entrepreneurs she has trained then train others, transferring the skills they have learned to weaver groups from other areas.




THE PROBLEM

While weaving has been part of village life for centuries in Assam and in many rural areas of India, only a handful of weavers today have been able to convert their weaving tradition into a paid, sustainable activity. For most communities–especially tribal communities in remote regions–weaving remains a marginal activity that brings no income to the villages, many of which are poor and lack basic resources. Disorganised, undeveloped, and unexposed, the handloom sector in India's Northeast is far from realizing its potential. This is especially a shame in Assam, as the region produces well-known silks that could provide–if properly produced and marketed–a decent livelihood not only for weavers but also for cocoon-rearers, spinners, and people working in industries related to silk production.

Unlike weaving communities in other parts of India, where weaving is usually a male activity carried out by specific weaver castes in weaver villages, weaving among communities in Assam and other parts of the Northeast is performed by women in their homes. In these areas almost every woman is a weaver. They all have woven for their own needs but hardly ever for the market.

When Assamese weavers do sell their products, instead of going directly to the market they sell to the government at very low rates. With the government coffers empty and most money going into the salaries of its own employees, the marketing and development support for weavers has come to a halt. The sad state of affairs is most visible in the empty, decaying work sheds of the government-run Weavers Service Centers all over the state.

Citizen organizations are promoting weaving, but mostly as an income-generating activity for microcredit groups. With multiple agendas, no market focus, and little expertise, most citizen groups are project driven and lack the singular dedication and discipline to turn weaving into a sustainable and growing industry. Thus, most citizen-based weaving programs either stagnate after a period of initial enthusiasm or flounder after the project money runs out.




THE STRATEGY

Rakhee strongly believes that given training, young weavers can develop their industry to be entrepreneurial and effective. Thus, Rakhee identifies, trains, and motivates weavers to take up weaving as an enterprise. She takes groups of women through "doable" steps, training them to think as entrepreneurs and converting their unpaid acts into marketable skills. She works with these fledgling entrepreneurs to come up with a set of good practices and tools that help them achieve independence, providing support when needed. From developing discipline and professional attitudes, to giving systematic inputs in colors and range of products, to educating the women through demos and direct exposures to markets, Rakhee makes entrepreneurs at local levels.

Rakhee's strategy departs significantly from other widely used strategies on one point–her insistence on developing the capacity of individual weaver entrepreneurs. Rakhee believes that a single, skilled, motivated entrepreneur can be most effective in reaching out to both other weavers and entrepreneurs, because an individual can best understand the potential of the enterprise and is a natural, and often enthusiastic, agent for spreading the ideas to others. Five Rakhee-trained weaver entrepreneurs have launched their own production groups. Now attracting a steady stream of orders, these weaving groups are managing with minimal interference from outside. This success would not have been possible with traditional microcredit groups as it would require much more time and energy to be able to drive an entire group towards entrepreneurship. Through individual attention and training, the women who work with Rakhee gain confidence and self-respect, allowing them to assume community responsibilities that are unrelated to weaving.

Rakhee is also reaching out to weavers in areas outside Assam. She is moving from the weaver entrepreneurs near the city centers to more isolated groups. Recently, she got in touch with a group of weavers belonging to the Karbi tribe from a remote part of Assam and is working to build on the styles, designs, colors, and motifs particular to this group. Having identified leaders from this group, she is training them in organization, design, and marketing and getting them ready to take off on their own.

Rakhee expects her trainees to become a team competent to reach out and transfer the skills they have learned to weaver groups from other areas. Already, these weaver entrepreneurs have taken the main responsibilities in conducting training programs for government and other agencies.




THE PERSON

Owing in part to a disciplined, strict upbringing inspired by her father's army background, Rakhee developed a strong will and sense of independence. Years later, after leaving an unhappy marriage, she recaptured these values and returned to her home state of Assam where she raised two children as a single mother. With support from her parents, Rakhee began working to promote the handloom sector of the Northeast, a field in which she had long been interested. Having no previous experience with development organizations, Rakhee took out loans to launch her programs. With her production base now in place, and the weaver entrepreneurs shaping up well, Rakhee is now ready to link up with other organizations and areas.

She lives in Guwahati and supports herself and her two children by teaching design and weaving for the government-run State Institute of Rural Development.