Design transforms livelihoods

Last year, Dr Graham Hamilton of Yorks St John University led a team visiting the NAESEY Project in Tamil Nadu – a training initiative for the rural unemployed. This year they repeated the trip which featured a design initiative led by James Fathers – also of York St John. Here are some notes built from discussions with the team leaders and, observations from  Nottingham University student Ben Hagyard, the winner of an Archomai Studentship to Naesey and an excellent exponent of the spirit of enquiry!

Adding value building livelihoods through design

Gandhi once said that “the soul of India lies in her villages” and the work of NAESEY is very much geared towards making sure that employment opportunities and access to skills can generate a livelihood in rural areas. This is a massive task best understood by experiencing reality at village level and, on this trip James Fathers explored the potential for design to play a role in increasing the value of their produce. The team worked with local potters on design and, the role of sharing market information to open their eyes on price and market access.

James Fathers is an extraordinary advocate of design beyond the developed world. Paul Polak, writer of  Out of Poverty, once lamented that 90 per cent of designers work for 10 per cent of the population – which builds an obsession with the ever more huge television or any number of lifestyle gadgets as opposed to keeping a focus on real needs and simplicity. James has spent a long time working with traditional village craftsmen in India to encourage them to develop designs using their traditional skills.

Many of these highly skilled potters, leather workers, carpenters are illiterate and so, James has adapted mind map or highly visual techniques to open up the dialogue and track ideas as they emerge. He has harnessed the rangoli tradition to give this a local emphasis. Rangoli are highly decorative designs made on floors of courtyards and living rooms as a welcoming for Hindu deities. Drawn in chalk or stone powder, the technique is to build interconnecting dots with flowers and a whole range of materials that can add colour and form to the design. Over time, James has added a number of interview techniques including cards written in the local language that are designed to open up discussion with notes being made and shared in a rangoli form. Educare in latin means “to bring out” and these educational techniques are “bringing out” and developing the design skills of these traditional craftsmen and women.

This brief summary of James Fathers innovative design workshops does not do justice to the transformative impact of these methods and T L looks forward to seeing them reach a huge audience in a number of emerging and developing markets. Further, we see real scope to add to what James Fathers has done on product design with a parallel push on end-to-end process. See the Post on Rushikonda. Equally, there is considerable scope to explore mobile technology as a means to aggregate capacity; build knowledge on market access and price and, improve vital cash flows. Back to transformational logistics and inclusive value networks …

As far as the potters were concerned they were fabulously skilled but were sceptical as to the need or benefit of using design to increase the value of their produce. This comes from a lack of knowledge as to the extent that India is changing around them. Naturally products such as Tandoor ovens and marriage pots are anchored in tradition and the authenticity that the traditional production technique supplies is one of their selling points. However the potters also made a lot of pots for horticultural centres such as hanging plant pots with three (rather than two) extensions to thread through the coloured rope – providing enhanced stability. Encouraging the craftsmen to experiment and change their work patterns is a challenge in itself. Hence the need for techniques that address behavioural issues as well as pure design.

There is real scope to incorporate these techniques into NAESEY and other such projects. For example, T L  has used these examples with representatives of the Kurdistan Carpet Industry and there are plans to explore the possibility of building a training programnme around these ideas as a means to combat the incursions of cheaper chinese copies that have started to flood what is a more than $3 billion global market. This is an excellent example of where traditional quality products can maintain their markets but where greater attention has to be taken to ensure that traditional skills are protected and enhanced. Watch this Blog for more information.

NAESEY train people from scratch, and although some of the training is in more traditional skills like embroidery, much of it is geared towards the demands of 21st century India. For example, cell phone repair and basic computer skills – which were deployed in designing embroidery patterns.

NAESEY makes a significant contribution to rural livelihoods and family life itself. Many of the NAESEY trainees are women and care is taken to build workshops around childcare. Firstly training sessions may have to be at times when children are at school or children may come with their mothers to training sessions and the skills which the women are being trained in are ones they can take advantage of whilst still looking after their families. For example many women who had completed embroidery training praised it because it allowed them to work from home, making clothes to sell in local shops.

Naesey addressed two core issues:

1) The skills deficit; whereby those in rural areas do not have skills to survive in modern India.

2) The information deficit; whereby a lack of knowledge of the rapid change happening inIndiaholds back those in the proverbial information “black hole”

The aim of the NAESEY training programme is very much to give people the skills so that they can be self-employed. Talking to the men, and they were all men, taking the cell phone repair class, they all saw themselves as entrepreneurs. Their ambition, without exception, was to open their own repair shop.

By extension, NAESEY engages with various self help groups (SHGs); for example, those producing shoes to organic skin products. NAESEY offers support in starting up these groups and is invaluable in helping them to acquire bank loans. When NAESEY are involved banks are much more likely to approve loans, and at better rates. This can give businesses the vital start up capital they need to utilise the skills they have.

More than this the groups offer support, both practical and moral. Ben noted the positive impact it has on the confidence of the people who are trained by them. One woman, her name was Salavari from Arcot, put her confidence to start her own small business solely down to NAESEY. In her own words she described herself as a family girl with no great formal education. However she took training in embroidery and tailoring with NAESEY and after this she started a small business with her husband and with the help of NAESEY. After this she formed her own SHG and helped others to form their own, as well as offering free training through her business. Now she works for NAESEY and this must be taken as tribute to the positive influence the work of NAESEY has on people.

Sustainable growth on a national level depends as much on rural stability as opportunity in the ever expanding cities and NAESEY is a model of the sort of project that could be deployed beyond Tamil Nadu and India itself. The TL team are exploring other such initiatives to train the rural poor in other geographies. Any ideas?

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