The success of OKHAI: When colors and imagination take flight

Okhai, is the basis for Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development (TCSRD), the community intervention that is helping change the lives of hundreds of people that live around TCL factories across the globe.

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AHMEDABAD: The concept and practice of sustainability is at the core of all Tata Chemicals’ activities, including its corporate social responsibility initiatives. Okhai, is the basis for Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development (TCSRD), the community intervention that is helping change the lives of hundreds of people that live around Tata Chemicals factories across the globe.

As a brand, Okhai handicrafts constitutes contemporary ethnic clothing, home décor products and accessories, and uses mirror work, patchwork and embroidery created as a vibrant expression of the rural way of life, their rituals, and their legends. Okhai has made a significant contribution to the lives of the women artisans working with it, which has helped improve their economic as well as social status. Okha is a coastal town in Devbhoomi Dwarka district of Gujarat state in India. It has a sea port.

Living in an arid region that is drought-prone and where livelihood opportunities are hard to come by, Rami Ben’s life has not been very easy. But she knew her craft – something that came down generations from mothers to daughters – would come to her rescue. Rami Ben’s day begins at the crack of dawn. Quickly completing her household tasks, she marches towards Mithapur where she joins a team of 10 members at the Okhai centre who contribute their skills towards product designing and development of artistic handicrafts.

Rami Ben is trained in making appliqué patterns, marketed under the brand name of ‘Okhai’. Earning an income of approx. Rs 5000 per month, Rami Ben has started making her own house. The illimitable energy levels of Rami Ben is reflected in the way she motivates the participants with her great wit, which is always accompanied by a message. Her positive attitude towards work has made her a brand ambassador of Okhai in the villages of Okhamandal. Today, she supports her husband financially, and is able to fund the education of her children and household expenses.

Empowered by Okhai, Laxmiben too, exudes the same confidence. She speaks fluent Hindi and even travels to other parts of India for Okhai-related work. She has been associated with the project for seven years now. As a master trainer, she trains all the women who join the Okhai program. She does most of the design cutting and that too without a stencil. Whether it is a flower, tree or an animal, she just picks up the scissors and cuts them effortlessly. Known for her nimble fingers and flawless cuts, she can cut out ten different designs in a day.

Started in 2002, Okhai today is a hub for over 400 women from over 29 villages, and houses exquisitely designed apparels and handicrafts that are unique to their culture and heritage, like mirror work, patchwork, embroidery and appliqué work. Okhai understands the rich culture and traditions that these rural communities are steeped in and translates this heritage into products by pairing traditional art with contemporary designs.

Okhai provides its members with an alternative source of income and helps the women by providing work at their doorsteps. This has made a significant contribution to the lives of the women artisans working with it, helping them improve their economic and social status. Another marked difference that Okahi has brought about is a stark perception change, both in how the women view themselves as well as how the society views them. Empowered by Okhai, the women now perceive themselves as financially-independent responsible adults who contribute significantly to their family’s happiness.

  • Okhai is an artisan led fashion and lifestyle brand that designs, manufactures and retails handcrafted work wear for women. A social business, Okhai’s focus is on women empowerment through capacity building and livelihood generation in rural India. Okhai’s artisans create contemporary products while protecting the traditional crafts of mirror work, embroidery and appliqué. These crafts are unique to the Okhamandal region of Gujarat and hence the name Okhai which translates into “from Okha”

The handicrafts workforce is guided by a full-time designer to apply the traditional products into those that are in tandem with the current fashion trends. To further enhance their knowledge and make them aware about the changing consumer demands and trends, regular visits to exhibitions and bazaars are also organized for the senior people in Okhai.

The Okhai products are sold through the handicrafts centre at Mithapur, the OKHAI shop in Ahmedabad and several other consignees in Kolkata, Chennai, Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore, Jamnagar etc. Okhai also holds sale-cum exhibitions in corporate offices from time to time to promote the brand.

  • The brand functions through 40 self help groups which comprise of 500 women artisans who work from home. The women collaborate with a panel of esteemed designers and visit cities to keep themselves abreast with the latest trends, colors and fashion.

The products are also now available online on the Okhai website, okhai.org thereby exposing them to the global audience. The exclusive apparel, accessories and furnishings from Okhai, in lively and unique designs, catch the fancy of the urban consumers immediately and, in 2013, the brand crossed the coveted Rs 1-crore mark in sales.
Today, the Okhai brand is a powerful statement by the women of the Okhamandal Villages, a statement that empowers them, a statement that gives them and this region an identity, a statement that not only makes people notice this beautiful form of art but also appreciate and patronize it.

Products for working woman by working women

Okhai offers hand-crafted apparel for work and play and home décor products. If you are a working woman who buys an Okhai kurta, just by wearing it to work you are creating a working woman in rural India, and the relationship is two way because she is creating beautiful clothes for you to wear to work.

Rami Ben: The anchor of the Okhai initiative

Rami Ben, who joined Okhai in 2001, is today a veteran and a spokesperson for the brand.

At 34, Rami Ben from the Okhamandal taluka in Gujarat, is a self-made entrepreneur. Her perseverance has not only changed her life but has also transformed the lives of hundreds of tribal women. She is instrumental in making the arid landscape of the region don the vibrant hues of prosperity and self-reliance and is the key force behind handicrafts’ initiative Okhai. The traditional skill of making exquisite handicrafts in mirror work, patchwork, applique, and embroidery that each woman of the Okhamandal region inherits from her mother has been an important part of the lifestyle, rituals, and ceremonial ensembles for centuries. The master craftsperson of the initiative, Rami Ben has been organizing and motivating women from different tribes like Ahirs, Rabaris, Charan and other communities inhabiting the area, to use their craft to earn a livelihood and be financially independent.

Understanding the market trends and customer preferences, Rami Ben has been actively contributing towards product development in Okhai by introducing new designs. Now she has a team who conceptualizes and develops new designs and products, adding a modern angle to the traditional handicrafts that are marketed under the Okhai brand name in Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Chennai, Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore, and other cities.

She joined the Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development (TCSRD) Self-Help Group (SHG) at Okhai in 2001 and was trained to make appliqué patterns. This was a turning point and marked the beginning of a journey towards self-reliance and financial emancipation not only for her but for several other women in a male-dominant social system.

Impact

Women artisans of Okhamandal feel a sense of identity and pride because they run Okhai. They have become self-reliant, confident and the income helps them educate their kids and run homes for their family.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of India CSR.

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