Craft for Change

Singapore social enterprise Nomad works with artisans to handcraft leather bags, which helps to empower and better the lives of underprivileged communities.

BY KAREN TEE

PHOTOS NOMAD

Cousins Mohd Nasrul Rohmat and Muhammad Haziq Mohd Rashid started Nomad in 2015 to help disadvantaged artisans.

I

n 2014, Muhammad Haziq Mohd Rashid went on a backpacking trip to India where he lived among rural communities, and was inspired to do something to help them improve their standard of living.

Haziq, a student at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, says: “Their living conditions are very different from what I am used to in Singapore, and this definitely opened my eyes to a whole new world. Most of the children barely had any clothes or shoes, and they often lived on only one meal a day.”

Despite their poverty, he realised that many of them were skilled artisans. “They have traditional craft skills, which have been passed down in their families for generations,” he says.

“Before we started doing leather work, we worked as labourers for shopkeepers in the market who paid us 4,000 rupees [S$86] per month. They would cut our pay if there was any holiday. Now, we earn more by making bags.”


Raj, an artisan from Roopsi village

School children wearing sweaters gifted by Nomads. FACING PAGE, FROM LEFT: Handcrafted leather messenger bags from Nomad; Nasrul teaching English to children at the village school.

However, they lacked access to markets in which to sell their goods, and at prices which would allow them to support their families. Their products were also not commercially attuned to global trends and demand, he adds.

Determined to improve this situation, he returned to India in 2015 with his cousin, Mohd Nasrul Rohmat, to launch their social enterprise business. Called Nomad, it sells products crafted by artisans from disadvantaged communities on an online platform, thereby connecting them to the global market.

Nomad is currently collaborating with artisans from the farming village of Roopsi, located in the desert region of Rajasthan in northern India, to create handcrafted leather messenger bags. They chose to work with artisans from Roopsi because most of the villagers belong to the Dalit caste, one of the poorest groups of marginalised people in the country, Haziq says. Besides cutting, hammering and stitching the leather, the artisans treat the leather with traditional vegetable tanning, which makes use of tannic acids naturally found in plants, rather than using harmful chemicals.

For their efforts, Nomad was one of six teams that received funding of up to S$20,000 each under Singapore International Foundation’s Young Social Entrepreneurs (YSE) Programme in 2016. The YSE programme supports international youth to start or scale up social enterprises in Singapore and beyond, as well as the building of a network of young global changemakers.

The SIF grant, says Nasrul, has gone towards improving bag production processes, including procuring better sewing machines and hardware for the artisans. They have also used a portion of the grant to invest in marketing efforts to reach out to a wider audience.

GIVING BACK

One of the biggest challenges Haziq and Nasrul face when working with the artisans is the language barrier. Haziq says: “We use Google Translate or even resort to drawing on paper.”

But the rewards considerably surpass the language challenges they face. So far, five artisans in Roopsi have seen their income increase by 300 per cent through Nomad, says Haziq. Nomad buys the bags from the artisans for an agreed amount. It then sells the bags on its website for between US$50 and US$120. The price takes into account the production, material and shipping costs of each bag, says Haziq, with about 30 per cent of revenue going to the artisan.

He hopes to expand this partnership to 25 artisans in time. The Singaporeans also share the modern bag designs with the artisans to help them become more self-sufficient. Says Raj, an artisan from Roopsi: “Before we started doing leather work, we worked as labourers for shopkeepers in the market who paid us 4,000 rupees [S$86] per month. They would cut our pay if there was any holiday. Now, we earn more by making bags.”

Besides helping to raise the artisans’ wages, Nomad also supports the village school by paying its electricity bills and rent. Up to 140 children from various nearby villages attend the school.

Nasrul says he was particularly moved by the children’s hunger to learn when he first met them two years ago. This strengthened Nomad’s resolve to give back to the community. It also pays for educational materials and school fees for about 40 students who cannot afford them.

Earlier this year, Nomad provided some 120 children with sweaters for winter, and gave them writing materials and notebooks as gifts. Nasrul says: “You can imagine how happy they were when we gave each of them a complete set of stationery to kick-start the new year. The smiles of the children and their enthusiasm are priceless.”

Nomad has also assumed responsibility for the upkeep of the school, and has installed fans in the classrooms for a more conducive learning environment. Last year, it built the first toilet in the school, which has contributed significantly to raising sanitation and hygiene standards for the children. Haziq says: “The toilet became a learning tool for the teachers, who taught the students how to show consideration for others by taking care of and cleaning the toilet after use.”

For Nomad’s upcoming collection, which is expected to launch in July, the duo has enlisted Singapore label Caseiro Bags to come up with designs that will appeal to a contemporary audience. “The design process is a collaborative one, based on suggestions and input from both designers and artisans,” says Haziq.

Haziq and Nasrul first work with Caseiro Bags to create prototypes before taking the samples to India. The artisans then add their own signature to the design. “For example, some designs may not be functional – a shoulder strap attached in a particular way could create a weak contact point. The artisans would then suggest modifications based on their experience to improve the design,” says Haziq.

The duo are also harnessing the power of the YSE network to reach out to more marginalised communities. They are collaborating with Philippines-based social enterprise Kandama, also a YSE 2016 finalist, to create crafted goods that will help to improve the livelihood of communities in the Philippines. Kandama offers vocational training to women in the mountain regions of the Philippines. Haziq says: “The women produce indigenous woven garments that are incorporated into fashion wear for modern women. We are working with Kandama to incorporate their fabrics into Nomad’s leather bags and accessories.”

 


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