Reviving Handicrafts | Daily News

Reviving Handicrafts

How the NCC is using modern methods to sustain cottage industries:

The National Craft Council (NCC) in the last two years has strived to not only upgrade the national crafts industry, but also make it relevant to modern times. NCC Chairperson Heshani Sathis Bogollagama in an interview with the Daily News spoke of the importance of building the capacity of our long neglected craftsmen and women and of the need to bring in the younger generation, if our traditions are to survive.

Excerpts follow:

Q. What are the main programmes the NCC has been working on?

A. I want to speak on two programmes: one is the craft village development programme started in 2016 by the NCC under the Industry and Commerce Ministry and the other is the Shilpa Saviya programme launched in 2017.

In 2016, three craft villages were created for 125 beneficiaries with a grant of Rs. 7.5 million. The success of that project led us to expand it in 2017, with Rs. 23.3 million for six villages and 249 beneficiaries.

In 2018, we requested that it be expanded to nine villages. We got that too. This year, 286 beneficiaries will have Rs. 32.1 million spent on them to complete the craft village development programme.

If you look at the industries which yield the highest income earnings in the country – foreign employment, garments and tea – they are dominated by a female-led labour force. At the same time, these three sectors have several social issues.

But as women, we cannot just sit at home with the needs of a modern society and financial obligations. Women need to contribute to the economy. So these craft villages help the women to work and earn an income from home. Through these village development programmes, infrastructure in their area also develops. And through organisations like the National Enterprise Development Authority (NEDA), they are further trained – in accounts, marketing and sales – to help them carry out their business activities independently. With the aid of the National Design Centre, we also help get them new designs for their crafts.

Many of them live in difficult areas and not many have access to the internet, so they are not aware of the latest designs. One of the biggest issues the craftsmen complain of is that demand for their designs is low, and this is mainly because the designs are not attractive enough or up to date with the times. So through these programmes we give them new designs. Thereafter, they need new equipment to make these new designs and to improve their efficiency, and craft villages provide for that. We also help set up and improve sales centres at the place of production.

Shilpa Saviya is for winners of the National Shilpa Abhimani (Presidential Awards for National Crafts). They are trained to become entrepreneurs in this programme. If you look at the last 15 years, only a few leading brand names have been created in the national handicrafts industry. You take Barefoot, Kelani Fabrics or Seylyn. These brand names are over 25–30 years old. So in recent times we have not had new brands launched. Through this programme, we hope to create new entrepreneurs so they would be able to sell their own products. Here too they are supported by entrepreneurial development programmes, new designs, and so on. They are taken to existing brands and taught how their production methods work and they are able to talk to existing entrepreneurs and gain through their experience. Thereafter, their final exhibition will be in January in Galle, with the Galle Literary Fest.

At the same time, during Christmas, we see many people shopping, but few are interested in national crafts. So we hope to have an exhibition for national crafts at the Colombo Dutch Hospital from December 19–21.

Q. What incentives are available for people who want to get into the industry?

A. All new craftsmen need to register with us. We currently have 26,000 craftsmen and women registered with us. We conduct various programmes for them. Not all of them can be entrepreneurs. Some are just good at design, or some just production. But Shilpa Saviya is mainly for entrepreneurs. We arrange access to various other government institutions, give them training, and also grant some financial assistance for their business plans. We may not support the whole business plan, but help start it. Up to Rs. 100,000 is given as a grant depending on the business plan. Further, we also help them connect with government banks to get the loans they require. We take those who are successful to any foreign exhibition together with the EDB.

Q. It has been quite difficult to maintain quality, uniformity and standards for many of the crafts. How do you tackle that?

A. When it comes to standardising, it is a handicraft and we don’t stress on that hundred percent, because then it is not handicraft, it is an industrial product. But quality has to be maintained. We have competitions to set some sort of benchmark in the industry. When you come to our national exhibition and competition, we felicitate craftsmen who have excelled and maintained a level of quality and that is a benchmark for other craftsmen. And that also goes to the market.

Sometimes yes, the products you get in the market are not of high quality and that is due to the information they have, availability of raw materials, and technology. So working with the NDC and Moratuwa University, especially for Shilpa Saviya, we hope to overcome this. In 2019 for example, we hope to work with the University in the palmyrah industry where products are very popular, but there is an issue with fungus. It is a product where fungus can easily develop and unfortunately, we don’t have a solution for it yet. So we are working with the Palmyrah Development Board and NDC for it. In 2019, when we select a palmyrah-based village, we hope to introduce new technology to overcome the fungus issue as well.

Q. Has the growing of raw materials been a problem for the industry?

A. Yes, this is a problem. The NCC has initiated programmes where we have made craftsmen aware of it and we established craft societies. We felicitate craft societies that undertake raw material plantation. This year, we have programmes in Yatiyantota, Ratnapura, Moneragala and Kandy. We have launched three programmes where replanting of raw materials has begun and we are making craftsmen more aware of the best way of using raw materials and also finding ways to produce them as well. In 2019, we hope to register raw material producers as well, so that it becomes a more balanced industry.

Q. Many suppliers also complain of not having a reliable supply chain when it comes to national crafts, don’t they?

A. This is a linking problem. The craftsmen maintain these products as a handicraft, so sometimes they may not have the capacity to maintain production on their own. As mentioned, we have 26,000 registered craftsmen with us across the island. This is a huge number and this is just the number registered with us. One of those craftsmen may have three others working under them. But they don’t have the channel to meet buyers in Colombo or in the main markets. So we do many programmes to bridge this gap.

For example we did the programme Thun Path Rata for the dying craft of the weaving mat.

We have a couple of traditional villages that produce this product as their main livelihood, but they have no place to sell their product. If we take any Sri Lankan house, we have at least one mat in the house, but now we have gone into plastic mats. People who can afford the weaving mats are in Colombo. We had an exhibition and reintroduced the mat in different ways – as a carpet, wall hanging or table mat, so people will value it more.

So linking the market is needed. If you take Laksala, the main marketing and sales arm, they have a database of about 6,000 producers and at present, they sell the products of about 3,000–4,000 craftsmen, so they have ample supplies. But we have another 23,000 who don’t supply to Laksala. And if there are shops who have given an order to one, there are 100 others who are out there, but the linking gap is the issue. This is where the NCC is trying to intervene and connect more craftsmen with the market.

Q. Have the craftsmen you helped then gone out and built their own links? What is the success rate?

A. Yes. In Shilpa Saviya 2017, we had many craftsmen come from rural backgrounds and even around Colombo. When we checked, they had got buyers, some started their own showrooms while others had gone online selling their products on Facebook, Instagram, and so on, which they were completely unaware of before. If you go to Good Market, many of the craftsmen are the ones we introduced. In 2016, we tied up with Good Market and introduced the craftsmen to it, so that they could at least come to Colombo once a week and sell their crafts. We took a stall and allocated it to one or two, and later we saw them selling on their own.

When I went to an exhibition last year in Thailand, one of the World Craft Councils Vice Presidents told me about how he was buying lace from a lady in Galle, whom he had met at one of our exhibitions. So these exhibitions do open up huge avenues for them.

Q. What are the future plans of the NCC?

A. With climate change, we are going to have many issues with sourcing raw materials and we need to take into account the environment when developing the industry. At present, we have a huge problem with the sourcing of clay, timber (especially kaluwara). So we hope to resolve these issues by working together with other government institutions. Agencies like the Forest Department are there to protect the environment so we understand that, and we hope to work within the existing legal framework and assist our craftsmen get their raw materials.

This year we also had the Shilpa Navoda programme for school students and it was held as an all island school competition. Over 400 schools participated. So with the youth entering the industry, many of the current issues will be automatically resolved. The current generation is more aware of marketing and technology and they have the capacity to resolve these issues.

Last year we had an awareness programme for 30,000 students in 200 schools. We trained around 12,000 students. So when it came to the Shilpa Navoda all island school competition, we hoped at least 1,500 would participate, but we had around 5,000 take part with close to 7,000 crafts. They showed great design skills and innovation. These students are now coming to our training centres and asking for more skills and knowledge to remain in the industry.

We hope to tie up with the Education Ministry, to introduce handicrafts to the school curriculum. That would increase interest in the industry.

Also the traditional craft industry was something which was passed down from the parents to the children. If the children don’t like to continue, the knowledge and industry vanishes from that point. So at the NCC, we opened 112 training institutions under 22 sectors (crafts). But here also we see that handicraft which is an art is more often than not an inborn skill. It is difficult for someone to learn it at 25. But those who come to training centres were older women and the elderly men. So to get the interest of the next generation, we need to start teaching it at school. Learning this at school also gives the children a skill they can monetise later on even, if they are not interested in academics.

Also, this handicraft industry has a caste system. So many of the younger generation did not want to learn the trade from their parents and take it forward. But if we learn it from school, the caste linkage will be broken and it will be learnt as a traditional national art.

We are also hoping to turn the training centres to NVQ level certificates to make it more professional.

Q. Why not set up a permanent marketplace for handicrafts?

A. That idea was there long ago, with the establishment of Ape Gama. It was supposed to be a permanent place for craftsmen to sell their products. Unfortunately, it was taken away from the NCC and Laksala and came under the Cultural Ministry, but then it changed hands many times since then too. So the NCC believes that a permanent place is needed. We are hoping to establish one in Hambantota. We’ve got Indian funding for it.

Q. Is that not out of the way?

A. Yes, but this is for the tourism route. It is close to Kataragama, Yala, and it is right on the map when you come down from Ella and going down to the Southern belt. Also, we are currently working with a few places we have ownership of, not to buy and sell, but to give our space to the craftsmen to sell their products. At the next phase of the Shilpa Saviya programme, we will be able to showcase their products through these permanent spaces. So we are hoping to have places in Hambantota, Galle, and at the Dutch Hospital in Colombo Fort.

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