A day with Asha Handicrafts in Mumbai

Asha means hope, which is a fitting name for this company. Asha Handicrafts has brought hope and a living wage to over 800 artisans throughout India. I had the privilege of meeting their staff, touring their headquarters, and talking with women from one of their producer groups in Mumbai.

Asha logo

Getting there from Pune

After taking a really early bus (6:15 and we still got stuck in the notorious Mumbai traffic jam!), my first stop was Navi Mumbai, a city designed to expand the urban center of Mumbai in response to rapid population growth. The Mumbai population has grown from about 3 million in 1950 to almost 20 million today. Navi Mumbai is where I met Rajesh Kumar, Asha’s CEO, to drive the rest of the way to the Asha Handicrafts office in Vasai.

About Asha Handicrafts and Fair Trade 

Since 1975, Asha has provided Fair Trading services for marginalized producers. Without the advance payments from Asha, many artisans would fall victim to accumulating high-interest loans that could keep them in poverty indefinitely. Working with Asha allows the artisans to not only continue their business but increase their income and improve their living standards.

artisans home in mumbai
Visiting an artisan’s home

For those of you not familiar with Fair Trade, here is a description straight from the Asha website:

“Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks great equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South. Fair Trade organisations have a clear commitment to Fair Trade as the principal core of their mission. They, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade. They can be recognised by the WFTO logo.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. You can learn more about the principles of fair trade and how you can support the fair trade industry at World Fair Trade Organization and Ten Thousand Villages.

10 Principles of Fair Trade for Mumbai article
Ten Principles of Fair Trade, courtesy of WFTO

Over the last 40+ years, Asha has expanded through India. This expansion has seen the addition of regional resource centers that provide welfare programs, training, and education for Asha artisans and their families. Some of the services available through the resource center include:

  • Computer education and training program
  • Medical camps with free check-ups and medications
  • Education supports including help with uniforms, books, school supplies, tuition, and solar lanterns for study

The staff were generous with their time and I could tell they were happy with their work. There were people who had worked there since they opened in 1975! I saw every step of the process, from where the products are stored in the warehouse through the quality control, packing, and shipping processes. Asha designed their operations to run like a well-oiled machine and that has allowed them to achieve a level of efficiency that has clearly had a positive impact for their mission.

Asha 1
Asha staff at work

In addition to the organized processes, I was really impressed with Asha’s commitment to having little or no waste. Everything is recycled or reused! They take the cardboard from unusable cardboard boxes to use as packing material and even have a dedicated workshop for designing new products out of old materials.

Asha 2
More Asha staff at work

I had a great time talking with the staff. We had meaningful conversations about the future of Fair Trade, handicrafts, and the value of providing Fair Trade customers an experience rather than only products. With demand decreasing for fair trade products and the desire for corporate careers among many artisans’ children, we know there has to be a shift in how we achieve our Fair Trade mission. That will be no easy task. We tossed around a lot of ideas, most of which centered on cultural exchange programs and social justice education. Offering tours of Fair Trade producer spaces, a more intimate home stay and cultural exchange, or a visiting artisan fellowship program may be some of the next phases of Fair Trade.

After my tour, I went to lunch with Rajesh and had my first meal at an Indian restaurant. I had been eating delicious home cooked meals at the Deep Griha Cultural Centre until this point. At the restaurant, I had Paneer Tikka Masala with Naan, Biryani with Raita, and a bottle of Thums Up, the Indian version of Coke. Like everything I ate and drank in India, the Indian Coke is stronger, and in my opinion better, than what we are used to in the states. And the food was incredible! I asked for no spice, as I had been advised by many Indians that no spice in India still means some spice. This is good advice for newcomers to India! I was also surprised to find that food at the Indian restaurants, while different from what I would get in the states, was not quite as different as I expected. I was expecting a difference on the scale of real Chinese versus American Chinese buffet, but the dishes were familiar and recognizable to me by sight, taste, and texture. We seem to come closer to the real thing on Indian food than we do many other ethnic cuisines (not counting spice level, of course!).

From here, we were off to Mumbai to meet with artisans from Kamal Hari Apparels.

Mumbai slum
Arriving at the slum, Mumbai

The artisans

I was blown away by the hospitality. When I arrived, they gave me a tikka, which is the red mark on my forehead, along with a necklace of fresh flowers to honor me as their guest. The women I met produce beautiful scarves, wraps, and other fabrics, which they produce in a workshop just outside the slum they call home. After they take care of their morning responsibilities in the household, they typically come to the workshop for a few hours of work before heading home for their evening household work. Some of the women have been able to buy their own sewing machines so they can take their work home with them, which is helpful for those with young children not yet in school.

My plan was to interview the artisans to find out how this opportunity has impacted their lives. The women were a bit shy at first, which I expected. There was also a language barrier. Asha staff translated between Hindi and English and I couldn’t have done it without them, but it is always a challenge to make an emotional connection with someone when there is a third party translating.

The women agree that the opportunity with Asha Handicrafts and Ten Thousand Villages has improved their lives quite a bit. They noted being able to make home improvements, educate their children, and provide food and medicine for everyone in the household. Perhaps best of all, they described a greater sense of self-worth that leads them to look for more opportunities to create value for society and their families through their handicraft skills.

kamal hari 1
Kamal Hari artisan workshop

Evidence of this impact abounds in the quotes on the Asha website and in the show room.

  • “Fairtrade helped me to gain economic independence and self respect”
  • “While working with Asha, I was able to rebuild my house in village, also purchased apartment in Mumbai for myself”
  • “Fairtrade is paying me fair wages”
  • “Our business would not have survived without Asha, now we realise that our children’s future is bright”

And these are only a sample of the quotes I saw or heard on my tour.

After the interview as I thanked the women for their time, I gave everyone a big hug. Almost instantly the barrier was lifted, and I felt a deep rapport with the women, as if we were long lost friends or sisters. We posed for pictures and the women were eager to show me their homes.

We walked to the slum together, and aside from the lack of personal space, their homes were quite lovely. The women were very proud of the improvements they have made and some even had televisions and refrigerators. Of course, not all of the homes are as nice as this and you can really see the difference Fair Trade has made in these artisans’ lives.

ttvhv annual appeal photo
Me and Rajesh posing with Kamal Hari staff and artisans

Back in Navi Mumbai

After a long day of meet-and-greets and traffic jams, Rajesh drove me back to Navi Mumbai where I stayed in a nice room at Hotel Three Star. It was clean and quiet, with a comfortable bed and remote control temperature control. There are plenty of restaurants and ATMs just downstairs and it is right across the street from the bus stop. Since I was pretty exhausted, I was happy to order room service rather than go exploring, and I got a huge portion of Palak Paneer with Naan delivered to my room for about $5 USD. Yep, that’s right – $5!

These are the kind of days that I know will be draining and exhausting from so much interaction, but I look forward to anyway because they create memories that will remain among my favorite. My visit to Asha Handicrafts was a really special and unforgettable experience. I hope to return to India and tour more of the country and meet with more Asha artisans along the way.

kamal hari 2
Me with Kamal Hari staff and artisans

Check out my story about getting to India, and check back over the next few weeks for more on my trip to Maharashtra!

Are you planning on traveling to India? Don’t forget to leave your questions and comments below. I would love to hear from you!

 

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