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Silpakarman’s value chain model helps bamboo artisans in Tripura overcome challenges

With access to markets beyond their home state, bamboo artisans in Tripura have seen a surge in demand for bamboo-based products, leading to more business and higher earnings. An organisation, Silpakarman, has established a value chain system in rural Tripura, collaborating with local partners, cluster heads and community members. Despite India’s abundant bamboo resources and over a million people depending on it for their livelihoods, the government’s efforts to revitalise the bamboo-based economy face a persistent challenge in establishing effective market linkages. This in-depth report is by Kundan Pandey

At a young age, Jyotsana Devnath embarked on a journey in Braj Nagar, West Tripura, where she was married and became a part of a family known for their livelihood in crafting bamboo products. Her husband, Rajkumar Devnath, trained her in the skills of the trade – from buying the bamboo to making and selling products in the local market. Bamboo is a prominent non-wood forest resource extensively used by tribal and rural communities in Tripura. Approximately 1.49 lakh artisans are actively involved in making several products of this unique grass.

Jyotsana has been involved in crafting diverse bamboo products for the last 35 years. Over the last seven to eight years, she has witnessed that people beyond her home state also have a significant interest in bamboo products. The growing demand has increased her business. “I have increased the total staff from four to nine people who work daily at my place from 11 am to 4 pm. Earlier, we used hardly 150-200 bamboos in a month as a raw material. Now, we use around 300 bamboos and make products such as mats and jewellery boxes.” She credits the increase in orders to bulk buyers based outside of Tripura, such as the New Delhi-based Silpakarman, owned by Tad Udyog, a business-to-consumer organisation that works directly with artisans.

An artisan making fashion jewellery boxes at the residence of Jyotsana Devnath. Realising the limitations of traditional bamboo products, artisans
are now learning new skills to make innovative bamboo products. Photo: Jyotsana Devnath.

An innovative value chain
Silpakarman, a bamboo craft brand, has created a value chain in Tripura where it works with artisans to design and market bamboo-based products, removing the role of an intermediary that increases uncertainty in the demands and price of the products. The organisation purchases the bamboo-based products from local artisans in the state and supplies them to customers in cities across the country and abroad. The founder of the organisation, Akshaya Shree, asserts that establishing this rural value chain aims to create a stable income and enhanced work opportunities for local artisans.

In this value-chain system, the material sourcing and production are done by the artisans. The artisans work under cluster heads who are also artisans. Jyotsana is the cluster head of the Mohanpur cluster, where artisans create bamboo mats and curtains. Similarly, there are four other clusters with a cluster head and local artisans working under them to produce different products. For example, the Udaypur cluster specialises in bamboo mugs, turnings and home décor.

All the cluster heads, in turn, are connected with Tanmoy Mazumdar, the local partner of Silpakarman, who is based in Agartala, the capital of the state. Mazumdar claims that it took them about one and a half years to plan this structure for smooth functioning and to avoid the involvement of any intermediary that was previously being used to facilitate transactions between the artisans and consumers. The entire structure is designed to ensure product traceability, facilitating easy communication with clusters or artisans responsible for specific products. The model proves beneficial when seeking to add value to any product in terms of quality or design improvement, Akshaya Shree claimed.

Developing a value chain is a challenge for the bamboo-based economy in the state. Drawing from her field experience, Bornali Bhandari, a professor at the National Council of Applied Economic Research, underscores the challenges artisans face, which include limited market connectivity, struggles in achieving timely product delivery due to remote locations and the absence of consistent orders. Akshaya Shree claims that the value chain model of Silpakarman is designed to deal with these challenges and it is still evolving.

Silpakarman is incubated at the National Design Business Incubator (NDBI), situated at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. According to Kritika Chetia, a manager of programmes at NDBI, Silpakarman stands out for its innovation. Notably, they have eliminated the involvement of an intermediary, a common practice that often results in artisans receiving minimal profits due to profit-sharing among the intermediaries. In this model, artisans are spared from exploitation of their profits and the organisation has successfully provided livelihoods for over 250 artisans in Tripura. Effective cluster management is a significant challenge in this industry and it’s commendable to witness Silpakarman adeptly addressing, managing and uplifting these clusters, Chetia told Mongabay India.

Akshaya Shree was one among 75 women honoured by NITI Aayog in 2022, as “Tad Udyog (Silpakarman) is creating a sustainable rural economy value chain system that empowers the communities in bamboo growing regions and provides customers sustainable product alternatives.”

An artisan showcasing bamboo products in Saras Mela organised in Noida in February 2024. The government is focusing on market linkages through
initiatives like SARAS Aajeevika Mela etc. where artisans showcase their products. Photo: Kundan Pandey/Mongabay India.

Design is the key
Tanmoy Mazumdar, who resigned from his marketing position with Tripura Bamboo Mission (TBM) in 2016, underscores the pivotal role of product design in this value chain. Silpakarman is actively involved in refining product designs and trains artists to enhance their craft. Akshaya Shree reflects on the evolution of bamboo products, noting that until 2017, they primarily featured traditional items, not like those found in upscale malls or exported to international markets. Recognising the limitations of these products, the organisation initiated a design-focused approach in 2018, aiming to enhance their creations’ robustness and aesthetic appeal. The organisation has in-house experts working on innovative designs, she claims.

Jyotsana Devnath agrees with this perspective, highlighting that her family primarily engaged in crafting mats. Recognising the need for diversification, she acquired the skills to fashion jewellery boxes with guidance from the TBM. She attributes the knowledge of incorporating new colours to make appealing products, to the training provided by Silpakarman.

Though, still in its initial stages, such initiatives around bamboo, are beneficial to farmers too. A farmer Kishore Debbarma, from Badramoni Para in the West Tripura District, claims that he has sold some 70,000 bamboos to Tanmoy Mazumdar in 2023. He has planted bamboo on six acres of land and claims that 80 per cent of villagers in his village are in bamboo farming. When asked how Silpakarman is helping them as a farmer, he said that the overall market is improving and the order from the organisation is adding to this.

Underscoring the value of innovative design, C. Surendranath, associated with the Kerala-based organisation Uravu, dedicated to bamboo-based livelihoods with artisans, observes a decline in the traditional market of the bamboo products as these are replaced by new items made by other cheap alternatives like plastics, etc. He shares insights from Uravu’s experience, stating that they ventured into designing novel products like decorative materials realising the dwindling market of traditional bamboo products like mats etc. Uravu operates in the Wayanad District, emphasising rural empowerment through sustainable solutions.

Long journey ahead
India has the highest area (13.96 million ha) under bamboo and is the second richest country, after China, in terms of bamboo diversity, with 136 species (125 indigenous and 11 exotic). There are studies that highlight that the majority of the bamboo resource in India is underutilised. A paper published in Forest Policy and Economics in 2020 says, “The traditional bulk markets of bamboo such as paper, housing, etc have been largely substituted, and new bulk, assured markets have not opened up resulting in a diminishing demand.” The study underlined that over 80 per cent of the forest bamboo resources are unutilised. Simultaneously, approximately two million traditional artisans whose livelihoods hinge on activities ranging from harvesting and processing to value additions and the sale of bamboo products like baskets, mats, handicrafts, and more.

For at least three decades, the government of India has been trying to establish a bamboo-based economy hoping that it will enhance agricultural income, help in building resilience against climate change and fulfill the quality raw material needs of industries. Given its rapid re-growth and gaining faster maturity compared to many tree types, if it is used as a substitute for hardwoods, bamboo can reduce pressure on other forest resources, thereby minimising deforestation. In addition to this, bamboo forests, with rapid growth and substantial annual regrowth after harvesting, possess significant carbon stock potential. A research from the Kerala Forest Research Institute notes that, on average, one hectare of bamboo absorbs approximately 17 tonnes of carbon annually.

K.K. Seethalakshmi, former chief scientist at the Kerala Forest Research Institute and coordinator of the Bamboo Technical Support Group for the South Zone under the National Bamboo Mission, elaborates on the ongoing journey of bamboo research and development. She emphasises that the history of bamboo research has been continuous, with a significant milestone in 1999 when the Prime Minister of India launched the Integrated Bamboo Development Project. “Subsequent to the recognition of bamboo as a raw material for paper pulp and establishment of paper mills, depletion of bamboo resources became a serious concern. The absence of proper management and the lack of efforts to augment by additional bamboo plantations aggravated the issue. Another complication arose from the fact that bamboo tends to flower gregariously, leading to the death of flowered bamboo in most of the species,” she told Mongabay India.

Two bamboo missions, the National Mission on Bamboo Applications (NMBA 2002) and the Bamboo Mission (NBM 2006), were launched for the development of the bamboo sector.  Seethalakshmi emphasises bamboo’s environmentally friendly nature and credits bamboo missions for identifying commercially viable species for plantations. While technology and capacity development are in place, she underscores the need to address marketing services and raise awareness. The next crucial step is revamping the entire value chain to further the cause of bamboo cultivation and utilisation.

An artisan from Manipur with bamboo based products in SARAS Mela, Noida. Photo: Kundan Pandey/Mongabay India

The government is focusing on market linkages by initiatives like SARAS Aajeevika Mela, etc where artisans showcase their product. The National Bamboo Development Programme was restructured to promote farm bamboo and develop its market linkage. Earlier with the Environment Ministry, this programme is now under the Agriculture Ministry. The Indian Forest Act 1927 has also been amended to free bamboo farming and trade.

Surendranath highlights the potential of market linkages in enhancing artisans’ income. He points out that only a small fraction, around one per cent, of the market for bamboo products has been tapped so far. Despite government initiatives like the State Bamboo Mission and various fairs such as Saras Mela for artisans to showcase their work, they fall short of meeting the artisans’ needs. Having worked closely with artisans since 1996, Surendranath emphasises that challenges persist, even with ongoing efforts to connect them with markets. In the past, like two decades ago, artisans earned a meagre Rs 30 per day. Now, the income of an artisan has increased to Rs 300. It is insufficient. This rings true when Jyotsana Devnath mentions that her artisans earn Rs 2000 for 30 days of work. While there has been an improvement in their income, there is still a long way to go.

 (Courtesy: Mongabay India/