“It isn’t Aatmiya that creates the skillful women makers, rather it is the other way around. Our knitters and crocheters are the most valuable assets of Aatmiya and they are the foundation of our enterprise”, says the dynamic Seitu Hada, Program Lead at Aatmiya’s Economic Development Center for Women.
Couple of weeks back we had an insightful as well as fun conversation with her, where she not only shared about Aatmiya Women but also talked about the artistic skills that Nepali women have, which sadly are often overlooked.
Read our conversation to know more about this social enterprise that has been actively financially empowering more than 75 women with the plans of increasing their outreach in the near future.
Can you please introduce yourself?
I am Seitu Hada currently leading Aatmiya’s Economic development sector for women based in Patan and Bhaktapur. I have been working in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem since 2011, starting my journey from Sabah Nepal and then later at Hamri Bahini: social enterprise. Working on these platforms made me realize the significant impact of social entrepreneurship and specifically those based on women economic development in a society like ours, which later became my area of passion and interest. Since then there has been no turning back for me.
How did the concept of Aatmiya come about?
Aatmiya women is a program run under CITTA Foundation, a non-profit organization based in New York. Back in 2005, our founder MichaeI Daube visited Nepal and was mesmerized by the tremendous potential and skill of hand knitting and crocheting that women artisans in Bhaktapur had. So, he decided to commercialize this skill to support single women in Bhaktapur. He then kick started this project by auctioning the cashmere scarves made by the didis from Bhaktapur in New York. All the money that was generated was the seed capital for Aatmiya. That is how this social enterprise was established in 2006 in the artisanal district of Bhaktapur.
Is Aatmiya still located in Bhaktapur?
We started our journey from Bhaktpaur. In 2016 we re-established ourselves in Patan to expand our reach to more women artisans. Lalitpur has always been a central hub for handcrafted goods and makers, hence it proved to be a place where many women home based knitters and crocheters could reach out to us with more ease. Also, many designers who wanted to work with the knitters directly and closely found Patan more accessible. But, even though we centralize our main unit to Patan, we are still connected to Bhaktapur through our knitters.
As of now, is Aatmiya catering only the international market or is it also catering the domestic market?
As of now, our clients are mainly based in the US, UK and some other parts of Europe. Around 80% of our work goes out to the US. We are an export based social enterprise and we are working as a contract manufacturing hub so we connect with a lot of international designers, boutiques and brands. They give us their designs and we make products for them. So, in the present time we are more focused on the international market to self-sustain the enterprise and also mainly to continuously bring in and provide more work to more women throughout the year.
What are the different products Aatmiya is offering as of now?
Rather than being a product specific enterprise, I would like to say we offer the skills of hand knitting and crocheting to our clients because all our clients want unique products and designs that represent their own brand. Respecting the confidentiality agreement with our clients, we mainly work anonymously for some of the largest retail chains in the US. However we feel pride in mentioning the fact that, in the past our artisans have made for some of the biggest and respected international brands like Anthropologie, JCrew, KateSpade etc. Apart from these, we also love working with small independent designers across the UK and US who reach out to us to manufacture products that are unique to their brands and boutiques as our knitters always love a new Challenge!
How many makers are associated with Aatmiya?
Till date we have worked with more than 200 women artisans. Solely in 2020 we were actively working with 75 women knitters and crocheters. They are mainly a pool of our home based workers who work from their home at their own leisure and time. We provide all the necessary materials, training, tools and techniques when required and they go back to their homes and make the products. They earn as per the work they do which means per piece basis. After finishing up their daily household chores, they knit and earn for themselves. For many of these women this earning is the only source of personal income.
How do these knitters get associated with Aatmiya?
We have communities in different areas and locations and each community has team leaders who come to us and get work from us. They then go back and delegate the work to the knitters around their areas. We have been fortunate enough to have had a good pool of team leaders with a super talented team of artisans. In addition we also have a lot of individual artisans who directly come to us from word of mouth or referral basis.
That is how we have been growing our network organically which allows each knitter to earn more, eliminates the presence of middle men and also allows us to provide direct training to our makers as well as makes it easy for them to reach out to us in the time of need.
How has the current COVID situation affected the operation of Aatmiya women?
Due to the global lockdown and speculation of a global recession, we were mostly worried if we will still be able to keep our international orders and provide work to the knitters to whom this work is the only source of income. But fortunately enough work came in to keep all our knitters busy and to sustain our enterprise throughout the year.
However getting the work done here was logistically very challenging due to complete shut down. As most of our work is done by home based workers in different parts of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, logistically supplying raw material to the home based knitters, getting the finished products back from them, managing the quality checking team and making the products ready for export was the biggest challenge we faced till date.
Apart from that, the increased international freight charges with no subsidy from the government was a big financial strain to us and also to our clients, something we were not prepared for.
How did you overcome the challenges?
During the lockdown I reached out to a friend/mentor from a similar line of work. He stated that in such challenging times we have two options- either to Quit or choose to stand strong and plan things out accordingly to keep things moving. And for Aatmiya quitting wasn’t an option because the livelihood of the knitters depended on us. So, rather than focusing on profit or loss, we decided to keep moving. We proactively contacted our clients, asked for a longer lead time. Honestly, consistent communication was the key for us, we very frankly communicated our circumstances and kept them informed about every single progress. And since, COVID was a global pandemic they understood where we were coming from which allowed us to tackle the problems and deliver the goods we had promised to.
Similarly internally we kept an open communication channel with the internal staff and all our home based knitters. Keeping them safe was our main priority and getting the work done correctly even without direct supervision was our other priority. So we asked them to directly reach out to any one of us for any obstacle during the production process.
What about the day to day operational challenges?
Working with more than 75 women home based workers, that too for handcrafted products for the international market is a challenging task in itself. So we need to ensure their morale to work with us is high, which is possible through consistent work and fair pay. Also while working as a manufacturer in an import based nation for international clients who want their goods to be consistent, they have specific requirements in terms of quality, quantity and availability. But they often remain unaware about the challenges that we have, so communicating those internal social, cultural circumstances to them is also a constant challenge.
What are the future plans for Aatmiya women?
Ideally we would want to widen the spectrum of running the enterprise by building more markets, bringing in more work and reaching out to more communities. 2020 was about safely surviving the enterprise and to keep providing work to the existing group of makers as much as we can. But, this year we will be focusing on growth by creating our own product line as well to reach out and cater the domestic market as well.
In addition, currently we are limited to knitters based on Lalitpur and Bhaktapur only. So, in future we are planning to have an outreach team to scale up our work and create even larger impact through more work creation and vocational training.
What do you think are the strengths/USPs of Aatmiya women?
Above all, I am really proud to be associated with this pool of skilled women artisans who are our true strengths. It is they who we work with and who we work for, that fuels the enterprise.
Apart from this, in a world dominated by fast fashion and mass production, Aatmiya is serving a niche market and is offering goods that are unique and handcrafted, which for us is another major strength of ours.
Similarly, when we talk about hand knitted and crocheted products people tend to automatically think about traditional knitwear products. But Aatmiya has been able to go beyond this. We have been able to provide varieties of products, for example hand knitted products in the line of home décor, toys, accessories to name a few for some of the biggest retail chains of the UK and US and create our own niche in this line which is another strength.
How has your journey as the program lead of Aatmiya been so far?
The journey has been amazing not just professionally but personally too. Yes, I have had my own set of challenges but I would say they made me stronger, wiser and helped me reach where I am today. Also, being able to connect to these women artisans and their individual stories and make an impact is a gratifying experience.
My Grandmother once shared me, some 35 years ago while she was raising a big joint family, after finishing her daily chores she used to knit sheep wool sweaters at night to earn some extra money to support her personal finances and my mom helped her finish those sweaters. Today when I provide similar work to these home based knitters who are just like what my grandmother used to be, I feel deeply connected and satisfied with what I do and the impact this work has created. As an outsider it may seem like I am empowering these women, but the fact is, these women have been Empowering me at so many levels.
Interviewed and Article by Trishna Shakya