BHOPAL: Weeks before the lockdown, Nengneithem Hengna had been experiencing a drop in sales. Around 37 women work with her, she says, and they are the sole breadearners for many families. Once they realised the lockdown was not going to be lifted anytime soon, it was time to revamp their business strategy to sustain the project they had started with so much love.

Hengna’s brand, Runway Store, was established in 2011 with the aim of marketing the culture of Nagaland through various products. She recalls, “Even though people were supportive, there is a cultural notion among society that doesn’t let them take women entrepreneurs seriously. For them our business is just for timepass or a mere hobby.”

They shifted from working with traditional accessories to products made from banana fibres, which were slightly easier to procure.

Even though the team is hopeful, finances have been hard to tackle. According to Hengna, “We are facing problems in operations and loan repayments. If the government helps us with loans then it will be very helpful, and we can even create more employment opportunities.

“This step can help retain many jobs and generate more employment. Especially people like us who are trying to sustain local economies and create jobs for our community, it’s important to receive financial security.”

The Runway Nagaland Team (Nengneithem Hengna)

Men dominate the labouring force and the very small proportion of enterprises owned or run by women shows how important it is to help them survive. Women own only 20% of micro enterprises, 5% of small enterprises, and less than 3% of medium enterprises in India. Covid-19 and the lockdown have severely impacted their business in ways that are important to highlight as we think for their revival.

The lockdown impacted the handloom sector by hitting its spine. Prerana Anjali Choudhury, who runs House of Noorie, a handloom venture working with Assam’s indigenous communities, recalls how it hit them right after the weavers sent them their first mini-collection:

“We had to pause all marketing and eventual plans of collabs, and a few exhibitions got cancelled. Even though digital mediums have enabled newbies like us to study this unexpected pause as an opportunity of sorts, on the ground though, in the villages where we work, the pandemic has affected different cultural clusters differently.

“In Assam, where we work with home-based weavers, life is going on as commanded by natural forces, seasonal cycles and the demands of agriculture. The weavers are primarily farmers, so loomwork even normally pauses during the monsoons. So we haven't been hit very much in terms of the weaving schedule we had planned with them,” Choudhury told The Citizen.

But the weavers from Rajasthan and Gujarat depend entirely on weaving for livelihood. They immediately began to face a dire situation from March onwards, with orders cancelled, payments delayed and yarn shops closing down.

Choudhury said the weavers with whom she works decided to carve out a slow schedule, focusing their time on creating newer designs, using the remaining stock of yarn to weave out a collection slowly. With yarn shops opening now there is some hope, but she thinks the overall market will take time to resume its earlier speed.

Padma Devi, a weaver from Rajasthan (Prerana Anjali Choudhury)

Women cannot merely be instruments of state action; state policies must enhance their agency and ability to take control over their circumstances. Even before the pandemic women entrepreneurs faced challenges in terms of funding which lays larger stress on providing training rather than capital support.

During Covid-19 and the lockdown, they have experienced tremendous mental pressure due to a sense of responsibility towards their employees’ families.

While many Indian women have entrepreneurial ambitions, it is often difficult for them to succeed. Umang Shridhar, founder of Khadigi, has been busy taking the business to online platforms in the hope of covering up for losses that the artisans associated with her might have to bear during lockdown.

“Since lockdown was imposed, there has been no production and hardly any sales. We were all stocked up for the season, since during March there is high demand from retailers and shop owners, and Chanderi and Maheshwari weavers had already stocked up fabric. Clients were buying fabrics and we had started converting orders in large numbers. But most of these couldn’t be delivered,” said Shridhar.

“We can sell again when the market opens, but the bigger problem is about the artisans we work with. Master weavers are stuck with a lot of stock which we were supposed to sell, and for which they have to pay their artisans. They have taken money from local moneylenders at high interest rates – some of our master weavers are stuck with loans upto 20 lakhs which need to be repaid soon.

“The last whole week we tried to understand the challenges faced by artisans. A blend of social media and creative ways to sustain is what’s keeping us motivated,” Shridhar told The Citizen.

Recently UN Women developed target responses to evaluate the impact of Covid-19 on women, in which they suggest support for assessments and policy advocacy to drive accurate policy responses, support to women-owned enterprises, private-sector engagement and gender-responsive procurement to help assess the gender impact of Covid-19 on the livelihoods of women-owned small businesses and women employees.

The report suggests that informal women-led businesses should be included in supply chain databases, with socioeconomic rescue initiatives to preserve their livelihoods and maximise their recovery potential after the pandemic.

For Saman Khan, owner of Rivayat, a brand she started in an attempt to rehabilitate traditional artists of zari zardosi in Bhopal, focusing on Bhopali batuas and the city’s traditional handicrafts, her small dedicated team of 8-10 women employees had exciting projects planned this year until the lockdown hit hard.

“There are families of weavers who have been surviving because of this art. For zari work all materials have to be procured early and it costs good money. When there is no work, these raw materials if kept unused for too long start losing their lustre, affecting the overall quality of the final product.

“Post lockdown we haven’t been getting a lot of clients because people are not very keen on buying handicrafts. Shipments have also suffered. All interstate and international shipments have been delayed, causing customers to lose the emotional touch with the product. We are hoping for better times ahead,” she said.

The pandemic has massively disrupted supply chains, or the transport of goods and materials by workers. As consumers meanwhile, people are focused more on saving than spending.

Against this backdrop, anecdotal evidence among weavers’ families suggests they are facing severe problems, ranging from increased alcoholism among males to exposure to violence at home for females, with many children dropping out of school.

It is important for individuals and businesses to consciously decide to procure from locally sourced enterprises which could help them survive. It’s not enough any more to appreciate the contribution of small entrepreneurs in creating jobs. We must support them monetarily.

Aishwarya Shrivastav is a journalist based out of Bhopal reporting on gender, mental health, culture and social issues