Monday, February 9, 2009

An online handcrafts store to showcase Rural India

Since the last month or so, I've been engrossed in a few home decor ideas and mini handmade projects. Special thanks to Niks for the innovative ideas and designs :)

While pondering over the idea of selling handmade stuff over the net, we came across ETSY (, a site dedicated for people to sell their handmade products. I am impressed by the site and more so by the concept itself - leveraging a common man to be a seller himself. Etsy provides you all the tools and guides to set up and market your own shop, right from creating a banner for your shop to tracking analytics as to which items in your shop are the most viewed.

All this got me thinking on setting up an Etsy-like model in India.

The Fundamental Idea
Besides providing a common platform for people to buy and sell handmade items, Etsy provides a global outreach for any individual/small-business seller. The target customers are no longer just friends or the local community. Now you can showcase your products across to the whole country or maybe even to the international community of people looking for handmade items.
India is a country with diverse cultures and a rich arts and crafts tradition. However most of these are home-run and small scale businesses which cater to a local market only. Setting up an Etsy-like site for people to sell their handmade products will give these businesses a new perspective and widen their reach. Many of unique Indian handmade products right like silk sarees, jewellery and clay and wood products will now get the global shine.

Why is now the best time?
Handcrafters and artists have thrived in India for generations. They have typically relied on tapping the local market which is mainly rural in nature. However the last decade or so, they have come under extreme pressure and competition, thanks to globalization. Retailers and wholesellers have started making inroads into even the smallest of villages and are making their products and services available at very competitive rates. However the effects of globalization has not seen a reverse trend - that of small and local businesses reaching out to the urban and the global markets. The lack of education, technology and patronage has caused these local businesses to succumb to the industrial giants.
It is high time that we created an environment that helps these homegrown businesses before their unique arts, crafts and talents all become history.

An online homemade items market
Most of these local artists and crafters cannot set up brick-and-mortar stores like that of big businesses to gain a bigger outreach. Their best bet would be to set up online stores which can accessed by anybody anywhere anytime. One of the effects of globalization has been the widespread growth of technology and Internet. More and more people in cities, towns and villages have access to the Internet and are resorting to using the same as an effective medium for their daily shopping. In addition, the falling rates and the ease of shipping to domestic and international destinations makes the whole world your consumer base. Hence the idea of setting up an online handcrafts site will not only boost the rural arts and crafts merchants in India by giving them a global outreach but will also help to showcase the great Indian culture and artifacts to the outside world.

The Challenges
While the underlying concept of an online handcrafts store for the Indian rural market seems sounds by itself, it is important to realise that the presence of such a site alone will not be successful with the rural home-run businesses. Some of the challenges are as below
  1. Technology: Rural India is still way behind in technological advancements in comparison to the big cities. Home based Internet access is but a luxury and not an essential in many villages. In fact, many villages and towns have only one or two Internet cafes for net access. Also to host your own store using the proposed handcrafts web store, one needs atleast to have a webcam or a camera - another factor which is rarity in small towns and villages. Hence these local merchants and traders do not have the necessary technological infrastructure to leverage the concept of setting up an online store.
  2. Education: A wide range of the targeted home-run arts & crafts businesses include people with no or very little education background. Many would not know to read/write English and have followed their profession as a generational occupation. Also the idea of reaching global markets and advertising on the Internet will be very alien to these people who for years together have targeted the local market only.
  3. Shipping methodologies: Besides technology, numerous other infrastructure deficiencies pose serious challenges to the viability of the plan. One of them is the shipping options and ease of shipping globally. On one hand, one must agree that great improvements have been observed over the past decade or so in terms of reachability, cost and time for shipping items in India. However, there's no flexibility like flat-rate envelopes and web-based shipping calculators. This could pose a challenge in terms of estimating the shipping costs to various destinations without taking the item to the local post office.
  4. Payment systems: Payments and money transfers over the Internet is still a growing concept in India. The lack of a standardized payment sending and receival protocol like Paypal poses a serious challenge in terms of logistics for transfer of money to these local sellers.

Setting up an overall Infrastructure
The challenges pointed above clearly outline that Rural India lacks is more than just a website for these local merchants to become online sellers. It is important to invest and ensure the setup of a suitable technological and related infrastructure to take the idea to a successful implementation.

  1. Agent-based approach to reach the masses: To educate the rural merchants and also to facilitate a conducive infrastructure, an agent-based approach can be used. In the system, potential villages and towns will have local agents who will educate the people on how the system works and convince people to take their businesses to a global level through the online marketplace. They will also be equipped with necessary technological infrastructure (Internet/camera) and related computer knowledge to help out potential businesses getting on board. In addition they will be able to advice on all fronts right from tips on setting up a successful store to deciding a suitable price for their products. In return, the agents will get a small cut of the profits of the items sold. While the agent-based approach helps to bridge the technological and the educational divide, home-run businesses which have the essential tools and facilities can avoid the middleman and set up store on their own.
  2. Leveraging Government help to educate and reach the target audience: The scheme proposed has the underlying aim of creating more jobs and uplifting rural Indian businesses. Hence the government help can be sought to help reach the masses of rural India through campaigns and support. Additionally the government can help to streamline processes like shipping and present them in easy-to-use methods to these businesses.
  3. Social organizations and private sectors: This scheme presents a tremendous opportunity to tie up with social organizations working in rural areas. They can help in taking the idea to potential businesses and also facilitate in setting up agents for the businesses. Similarly one can set up links with private organizations to provide better infrastructure systems in areas like payment and shipping.

In all, while the challenges are many, the opportunities in setting up an online website for selling handcrafts, backed by suitable infrastructure, are tremendous and will go a long way in giving India the true boost of globalization. Well, finally it is time to show the world the Real India!