Branding is rare in the non-profit sector in India as opposed to developed countries where it has managed to leverage brand power for greater social impact. Although some Indian NGOs are now waking up to the importance of building a strong brand identity, the social sector is still in the process of hitting the nail on the head.
One such NGO which has managed to usher in positive changes in the lives of thousands of rural women by building a strong brand is Okhai. Founded by the Tata Chemical Society of Rural Development in 1996, Okhai has been providing employment to hundreds of women in the drought-ridden Okhamandal region of Gujarat.
The TCSRD’s self-help groups in the villages of Okhamandal have been trained in modern handicraft production. Okhai sells apparel and lifestyle products online which are handmade by these women. The products incorporate mirror work, patchwork, needlework, kathi designs, heer bharat, and beadwork. Around 2,300 rural artisans have been able to improve their lives thanks to the programme.
Today, Okhai has emerged as a renowned artisanal brand with a steady social media following –more than 1 lakh followers on its Facebook and Instagram pages each. Kirti Poonia, has been heading Okhai since 2015 and she has been one of the primary architects of the organisation’s success story.
In a chat with MAKERS India, Kirti recounted how her own journey – that started from Dagshai in Himachal Pradesh – took her to Mithapur in Gujarat, to the wonder that is Okhai.
Love for handmade since childhood
As a child, Kirti grew up watching her mother design clothes. That inculcated a love for handmade products and helped her develop a unique sense of fashion. She says, “When I was a child, my mother enrolled for a fashion designing course at Punjab University and she topped it. She started a boutique and she continues to run it even now. She would design high-end wedding clothes and export them to the US, where her sister lived. This is how I came to understand the value of handmade clothes.”
The love for making clothes stayed with Kirti even when she grew up. After finishing her engineering degree, she even tried her hand at starting her own online brand of clothes. She recalls, “In the mid-2000s, I had ample free time after passing out of college as I hadn’t found a job. I started my online brand where I was selling cocktail dresses made of traditional Indian materials like raw silk. Even though the business died before it could transform into something bigger, I did everything on my own – from designing the clothes to clicking pictures to managing the website.”
Eventually, Kirti bagged a job at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and she climbed her way to the topmost rungs of the corporate ladder by getting selected into Tata Administrative Services(TAS). She says, “At TAS I worked in finance, marketing, strategy. So cross industry, cross function and cross geography. At the end of it I'd worked with six different companies and many industries and become a different person.”
Stepping into the world of Okhai
Kirti’s decision to participate in the Jagriti Yatra – 15-day long national train journey covering 8,000 kilometers across the length and breadth of the country – set up the stage for her encounter with the women of Okhai. She decided to take the social enterprise to bigger heights, and gave a presentation to the board for the same.
She explains, “If I have Rs 1 lakh to donate, I can either give Rs 10,000 rupees to everyone and get done with it, or I can create a business and make them capable of earning Rs 10,000 every month for the next 10 years. And so my project was to see whether Okhai could become a large self-sustaining social business. I told the board that this is what Okhai should do.”
The board did not need much convincing thanks to Kirti’s clarity of vision and confidence. She narrates, “I was barely 29 at that time (2015). But they said, ‘You seem very clear on what you want to do with it. Why don’t you do it?’ And I jumped to it without thinking twice.”
Although Kirti had aced various challenges in her illustrious career, the shift from a typical corporate set up to a social business came with its fair share of hurdles. She says, “When you move to a smaller setup, you have to do everything on your own. Also, you don’t have funds like a large corporate for hiring multiple agencies for different functions. So I had to do everything on my own from scratch – be it running Google ads or managing expenses, I was very prudent with money because I knew that anything that could be saved can be used for the benefit of these women.”
Kirti knew that to make Okhai into a successful e-commerce portal, quality production processes and maintaining creativity in designs was non-negotiable. She says, “The products that went to the market could no longer be average. They had to unique and beautiful. Changing everyone’s mindset about the existing set-up was a huge challenge.”
Recollecting how she had to convince the senior heads of departments and designers who were much older than her, Kirti adds, “I have never experienced sexism but I have experienced ageism - being too young is a problem; being too old is a problem. Everyone in corporate setting has to be 35.”
Despite her success in the corporate world, Kirti’s stint at Okhai has made her redefine what constituted an achievement. She says, “The women artisans at Okhai earn significantly higher wages now than what they used to earn when I joined – some are even earning double.”
Kirti’s efforts at Okhai have also led to a change in the social standing of the women in the district. She says, “They have become rock stars of their villages. They are invited for ribbon cutting and inauguration ceremonies in the village. By bringing money home, they have earned a seat on the table where family decisions are made. When the pandemic broke out, I had called them and asked if they needed funds and they said, ‘We have our Okhai money to spend.’ And that felt like music to my ears.”
(Text Edited by Athira Nair, Video Edited by Anjali V)