India: Artisans turn entrepreneurs - a business model seeks to reduce vulnerabilities for human trafficking


The lack of infrastructure and poor development has made the Northeastern part of India vulnerable to human trafficking. Although known for its cultural diversity and rich heritage, the region is struggling with widespread unemployment. Consequently, a large number of youth are forced to leave their homes in search of work opportunities. Another considerable number of young women and children are lured with promises of lucrative jobs into the big cities, often finding themselves deceived and being sold by traffickers for sexual exploitation and forced labor.

With its diverse natural resources and distinct culture, the Northeast of India offers many possibilities for economic development, which can be utilized to reduce the vulnerabilities to human trafficking. With the aim to provide sustainable livelihood options in rural settings vulnerable to human trafficking, in 2009, UNODC supported livelihood programmes for rural artisans in the two Northeastern states of Mizoram and Tripura.

The livelihood programme was implemented by Impulse, a NGO based in Meghalaya and working in the eight Northeastern states of India. Impulse, with support from UNODC, reached out to rural artisans engaged in traditional weaving. The artisans were trained by designers, who through live demonstration showed them how to combine indigenous weaving with modern designs and to produce marketable products. They also introduced new tools, techniques and processes to help in creating economically viable products.

After the completion of this seven month support, Impulse continued its work, developing it further and establishing what is now known as Impulse Social Enterprises.

Ms. Hasina Kharbhih, Founder and Managing Director, Impulse Social Enterprises spoke to UNODC about the organization and its priorities:

" Impulse Social Enterprises is working in collaboration with communities and social organizations. The organization aims at encouraging local communities to take control of their economic fate, thereby eliminating exploitation and preventing human trafficking. For artisan communities, it means something as simple as developing their traditional handicrafts into products that appeal to urban buyers. Impulse Social Enterprises facilitates this development, linking the direct cooperation between businesses and local communities and in turn making each artisan an entrepreneur in their own right."

Impulse Social Enterprises has reached out to around 20,000 artisans and has created a brand for them called Empower. Today, Empower produces placemats, table runners, scarves and stoles manufactured by local artisans, marketed all over the globe.

Speaking about what makes Empower unique, Ms. Kharbhih says:

"When buying products from our brand, customers will be proudly informed of where and how their products are made and marketed. They will also be assured that communities that make these products receive a fair share of the profits. Each product sells with it a story and is exclusively woven. The tag line is 'Every two hands are not the same'."

The for-profit model focuses on empowering the local communities and generating income which is recycled to boost the marketability and visibility of the brand. Ms. Kharbhih says:

"While profits are generated, the aim is not to maximize financial returns for shareholders, but to expand the social venture and reach out to more people in need. Impulse Social Enterprises connects artisans of Northeast India and their products to distributors and buyers across the globe - it facilitates these connections by using the internet marketplace and placing the products in stores at airports and malls."

Branding and identity play another critical role in empowering the communities and Ms. Kharbhih explains that the reason they wanted to market under their own brand was to instil a sense of pride in the artisans. She says, "We could have easily just supplied to big fashion houses in the cities, but that would not have given our artisans an identity. Now when their products are sold under their brand - Empower - they feel very proud and there is a sense of ownership."

Ms. Kharbhih says that Impulse Social Enterprises owes its beginnings to the UNODC pilot programme. She says:

"Many NGOs receive support from large organizations and donors, but what made the UNODC programme stand out was that it looked at long term goals. The programme sought to address human trafficking in vulnerable communities by providing a sustainable business model. The programme paved the way for an enterprise like Impulse Social Enterprises, which even five years hence is growing from strength to strength."

Click here to know more about Impulse Social Enterprises

The pilot programme was carried out under the UNODC project titled: Reducing children's vulnerabilities to abuse and rehabilitation of survivors, financially supported by USAID.