Part 1: Connecting Lantana crafts to the furniture market

Where our Invasive Species Initiative began

Lantana artisan at work.

This is the first post of the Lantana series that documents the journey of CSEI’s Invasive Species Initiative so far. If you would like to collaborate with us, please reach out to the initiative lead, Sandeep Hanchanale: sandeep.hanchanale@atree.org

If we connect Lantana artisans from rural communities to the ever-growing furniture market, their revenue will increase and their livelihoods will stabilise. That was our working hypothesis when we first started the Invasive Species Initiative at CSEI. This blogpost is about how that hypothesis panned out.

But first, some background on our work with Lantana.

Lantana is taking over Indian forests and ATREE is co-opting rural communities to restore them.

Lantana camara is an invasive species that’s taken over 40% of Indian forests. Among other things, the spread of Lantana restricts the movement of the indigenous tribal communities within the forest. They are hunter-gatherers whose major income comes from non-timber forest products (NTFPs). In 2004, ATREE introduced Lantana craft as a way of restoring forests while providing livelihoods to these communities.

When we started working with ATREE’s Lantana Craft Centre to connect Lantana artisans to the market, a number of challenges we had not considered came up:

As gig workers, Lantana craft is only one of their gigs.

Due to lack of livelihood opportunities in the forest belt, these tribal communities usually venture out to coffee plantations, quarries or nearby towns for employment and return to their settlements every couple of months. Therefore, their yearly calendar is dotted with many short stints of seasonal work. Lantana craft is only one of such gigs.

Through the year, the community collects Lantana stems from the forest. They work on turning these into furniture only over 6–8 months in the year. Even during this time, if a lucrative job offer in a coffee plantation comes up, they prefer to take those on because they will get paid in bulk.

Financing: Who invests the working capital?

Since all the Lantana artisans are from rural communities, they cannot afford to invest working capital into the craft. We noticed that they were relying heavily on the customer to bear all of the production and delivery costs.

Production: Since the customer was providing the working capital as 50% advance payment, we had to wait for enough orders to come in before the artisans began work. That extended the delivery time by a minimum of 1–1.5 months.

Delivery: Once the products were ready, they were sent to Bengaluru before being shipped to the customer. These transportation and shipping costs were also being divided among the customers.

In effect we were saying, pay upfront to place your order, wait for delivery and bear its costs. Predictably, we had over 60–70% drop off rate.

Markets: There is a demand supply mismatch.

We could sidestep the advance payment and staggered delivery issues with corporate orders. But when we got a corporate order for 500 Lantana baskets, it opened up a host of other challenges.

Since Lantana craft is only one of their gigs, these artisans could not wait around for these orders to come in. So once the orders were placed, we found that we did not have enough manpower to complete the order. Finally, we met the order by reaching out to our network of NGOs where we had trained artisans in Lantana craft.

There are three reasons why this does not work. Generally, the caveats of a large order are:

  • On time delivery: The corporate order usually comes in around festivals or anniversaries which are time bound. And the order needs to be delivered in time for these occasions.
  • Standardisation: All 500 baskets need to look alike. But these products are made by hand and not mass produced. They are bound to be unique and difficult to standardise.
  • Well-finished products: These communities love working with their hands and creating beautiful handicrafts. But they do not care much for the business aspect or think about the customer.

Skills: Quality check for handicrafts and the costs incurred.

Tackling the demand-supply mismatch, brought up a number of questions.

Who will bear the cost of rejects in handicrafts? Surely, the artisans cannot be expected to bear the cost. We overcame this challenge by following industry practice of adding overheads to the final pricing.

We learned quickly that while market connect was a big issue in scaling Lantana craft, it was definitely not the only one. We reached out to the furniture and home decor company, Purple Turtle. We had to work with furniture designers to improve the design of our products and train our artisans to be market ready.

In our next blog post, Part 2: Training Lantana Artisans to be Market Ready, we will discuss how Purple Turtle worked with our artisans.

If you are interested in lantana crafts please contact Dr. Siddappa: siddappa@atree.org or Harisha: hari@atree.org. If you are interested in creating other lantana related products, please contact Sandeep Hanchanale: Sandeep.hanchanale@atree.org.

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We work on issues related to the environment and focus on citizen action and/or market-based approaches to solving these problems. Based in Bangalore, India. Find out more: https://www.csei.org/

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