This award-winning start-up is transforming the lives of mothers in coastal Cuddalore by putting them on the path to financial independence

What began as a group of housewives learning to sew and mobilising other women soon grew into a successful start-up with products that range from trendy bags and pouches to classy home decor
The 'suras' of Cuddalore along with the co-founders of Kanavu (Pic: Kanavu)
The 'suras' of Cuddalore along with the co-founders of Kanavu (Pic: Kanavu)

This story dates back to September 2017 when a group of mothers, angry with the rising education costs, wanted to spend their daily 'leisure' time meaningfully to economically contribute to their child’s education. That is when they got in touch with Kanavu, a not-for-profit initiative that works with the schools of NGO ASSEFA (Association of Sarva Seva Farms) along the coastal region of Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu. Shivaranjani Ramasubramaniyan and Nisha Subramaniam, Founders of Kanavu, met these women in a parent-teacher meeting, where the mothers expressed their wish to mobilise other women, organise themselves and learn sewing to become financially free. The duo set up Sura (meaning 'shark' in Tamil) that served as Kanavu's Women's Wing and helped the women get access to micro-credit, which in turn enabled them to buy their own sewing machines and start sewing classes. "Sura was born out of their struggle to pay their children's school fee and in order to pay back the loans they had taken, the mothers also decided to make products and sell them to cover the costs. The women who knew to stitch even mobilised others who wanted to create such an opportunity for themselves," explains Shivaranjani.

Today, Sura has become a profitable venture, employing ten women and generating a revenue of Rs 6 lakh last year. In addition to this, Kanavu also runs a training centre in Kannarapettai where women who want to learn to tailor can enrol for a three-month certificate course. "What started off as a means to pay our children's fees, today has given us bigger dreams for our collective, such as employing other women from the community and being a role model for our children," says Bharathi, the manager of the Periyar Nagar tailoring centre. On-ground production and quality check are completely managed by the women, while Kanavu's founders handle the sales, product design and marketing. Their products range from bags and pouches to home decor.

Bharathi, manager of the tailoring centre in Periyar Nagar

Overcoming social and cultural barriers
To begin with, 'a woman working to earn her bread' was a huge problem, culturally, but wanting to travel out of her village added a whole new dimension to this. The problems they faced ranged from their character being questioned to struggling to manage family expectations. For a woman who has grown up in a village, with no ‘working woman’ as an example to look up to, being the first one is not easy. "Things were made harder by unreliable public transport facilities, poorly connecting roads and expensive autos. Getting to the tailoring centre from their village was a challenge every single day. If there was a purchase to be made, it meant additional shuttling between buses and long waits to reach the town and make the purchase - and all of this has to happen before the children return from school," informs Shivaranjani.

The motivation to sustain all of these efforts was made significantly harder by the ridicule the women faced for the income they were earning - which was initially a meagre amount. Sticking together through all of this resolved their commitment to set up a tailoring centre in their own village. It is with this drive that they learnt to stitch 30 different types of bags, learnt about different kinds of fabric and acquiring the taste of urban markets. In April 2018, they set up the tailoring centre in their own village (name of the village?). "Managing their own tailoring centre demanded that the women acquire a broader skill-set, besides sewing - they had to make collective decisions, plan and execute sewing with a quality check in place, and problem-solve issues with logistics. These skills are no different from what a typical MBA student would have study to manage a business," she avers. The centre in the village is a reminder of what is possible when women choose to challenge stereotypes and the status quo, inspiring other women to learn to stitch and earn an income.

The team at work in Periyar Nagar

Open to customisation and experimentation
In September 2017, they started out with a single product – a drawstring pouch made of simple cotton  – for Navarathri. The creativity of the women, their sheer hard work and a large number of well-wishers pushed the women of Sura to expand their product line to over 30 unique pouches and bags. "Every new product that has been added to the product line has a story behind it. Along with the product line, these women's leadership skills have also grown," explains Shivaranjani. Right from their early days, customer satisfaction was a huge driving force that inspired them to do their best. This is what led them to choose the path of customisation and 'going the extra mile' while creating their products. "For instance, we delivered 1,000 drawstring pouches for a wedding and our women took a lot of pride in ensuring that no two colour combinations were the same, thus ensuring that no two bags looked the same. This variety and eye for detail have evolved to be Sura's unique selling point. We put the power of choices right in the customer's hands, encouraging them to design their products, wherever possible," she adds.

Their products at a glance

In addition to creativity and hard work, it is their laser-sharp focus on 'Operational Excellence' that ensures that when the rubber meets the road, it is a smooth ride. As their custom orders require a systematic approach to inventory and communication, they started using technology wherever possible to avoid miscommunication and optimise resources, especially time and money. Shifting to digital record keeping, using online apps to generate invoices, piloting online inventory systems are some examples. "Working in rural India adds to this complexity as consistent communication is difficult due to erratic power supply, poor phone signal and so on. Challenges such as rains, erratic power, a machine that needs to be repaired - whatever it is, we believe in sharing the issues openly with our clients as we look at them as partners in supporting Sura. This has emerged as a strength, increasing our operations. We now have a steady stream of well-wishers who support us with raw material procurement, transport of goods and so on," Shivaranjani points out.

Sura is now open to experimenting with different market innovation approaches. "As our operations have eased out, we are now stepping into a phase of experimenting with information we have available. While we started off with an 'event-based product design' approach, we are at a place where we can innovate through the year and experiment with the known market. We are also consciously expanding our sales channels, giving us scope to employ more women and, in turn, transform more families," she says with a smile.

Lives that have changed 

While their numbers, like creating 5,000 bags in a month, give everyone involved in the initiative immense joy, what really pushes them through every struggle is the behaviour shifts in the women and the ripple effect it has had on their families. "The women have grown from being unsure about parts needed to stitch every product to planning it in advance and tracking its use – their belief in planning has gone up," says Shivaranjani. Additionally, from being skeptical about sending their wives to a tailoring class far away, the menfolk are now stepping up to collectively balance home and work. The village stakeholders see them as being a productive collective as compared to a time when they ridiculed the women for leaving the village. "When we hear a Bharathi share how her daughter sees her as a role model, this is the story of the impact of Sura. To have women participate in economic activities, earn money, make decisions, balance home and work and deliver excellence is the story of Sura. It is a story of choice - of women choosing to transform their lives, one bag at a time," she concludes with pride.

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