Connecting Remote Artisans to the Global Market

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          Local, handmade goods have risen in popularity in recent years amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and growing concerns about climate change. Thanks to the internet, handmade goods are becoming more widely available on platforms like Etsy, and now, Rural Handmade.

          Konark Ogra is the founder of Rural Handmade, a business-to-business (B2B) company based in London that connects rural artisans to small companies around the world. With Rural Handmade acting as the middleman, artisans from some of the most remote parts of the world can now connect to the global market to share their unique, handcrafted, and low carbon footprint items.

The Alibaba for Handmade Goods

            Ogra describes Rural Handmade’s mission as “becoming the Alibaba for handmade goods.” Larger than Amazon, Alibaba is a B2B company that connects manufacturers, suppliers, and exporters around the world. Similarly, Ogra hopes for Rural Handmade to become just as widely known.

            Rural Handmade mostly works with artisans in Asia that were formerly subcontractors to big manufacturers. What Ogra is seeing now, though, is that these artisans want to connect to the global market themselves. While handmade practices have been preserved for centuries in the older economies of India, Indonesia, and North Africa, these regions also have less refined financial ecosystems compared to more developed countries, making it difficult to compete with big companies on the global market.

Rural Handmade acts to overcome this barrier by connecting these rural artisans to small companies, creating a win-win. Rural Handmade typically targets small companies that have less than $5 million in revenue, only 5-10 employees, and most importantly, a unique selling proposition (USP). This may include small interior designers, e-commerce businesses, charity owners, and wholesalers that like to stock unique products. These small companies can go online to and access a repository of handmade products from all over the world.

Ogra’s Opportunity

            Ogra was taking a sabbatical from technology consulting when he saw an increasing need for a livable planet and wanted to create a meaningful impact. His solution: a business that promotes handmade products. It would provide employment to the remotest parts of the world, help with mental and physical well-being, and be good for the planet. The rise of Etsy has shown how important handmade products are to people, so Ogra knew this would be a business opportunity with a good chance of success.

            Ogra loves to kickstart things– from motorcycles to new businesses.In 2018, Ogra co-founded Rural Handmade with another director who is now on the team, and right away, began running the company full-time. Ogra admits that he has made very few sacrifices compared to most entrepreneurs, as he had luckily raised money beforehand that he used to help launch the business. Fundamentally though, Ogra said he has a simple life and simple needs.

While his team was initially very focused on crafting a business model and meeting various key performance indicators (KPI) such as monthly recurring revenue and repeatability of orders, they eventually focused their core mission on sustainability. Other than sustainability, Ogra’s main motivation is his love for small, handmade businesses and his adamant belief that Rural Handmade can help these businesses by providing education about their supply chain.

Design to Delivery

            As a B2B business, Rural Handmade works on both sides: with rural artisans and their handmade businesses, as well as with small companies that buy the handmade products.

            Rural Handmade’s main focus with rural artisans is improving their entire value chain, from refining upstream supply chains to strengthening markets for their products. By expanding their markets using the internet, these rural artisans can better sustain themselves and improve their profitability. Rural Handmade also focuses on helping these artisans build a more sustainable supply chain. However, this has not been without its challenges, said Ogra. He explained that it can be difficult to convince these artisans to have an online presence and move away from their traditional way of selling products (i.e. accessing local markets only) that they’ve relied on for generations.

            For small companies, Rural Handmade also works to redefine their supply chain so they can commission better, more affordable products directly from these remote manufacturing communities. On both sides, though, Ogra said working on supply chains can be challenging, especially when you’re working across borders. There are lots of moving parts that must sync up, and rarely it is straightforward.

            Despite such challenges, Ogra said Rural Handmade hopes to debunk the myth that being sustainable as a business is more expensive. Instead, his intention is to prove to both sides that if you approach the value chain wholistically, sustainability can become the most affordable option.

Crafting Sustainability

            There is a fundamental difference between a handmade and a mass-produced product. Since a handmade product is usually bought more intentionally, consumers develop a deeper emotional attachment to the product, and thus, the product lives longer. In terms of the creation of the product itself, handmade crafts still take the prize for being the most sustainable. Looking at traditional, handmade artisans in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, these businesses create what they do because of their surrounding environment. The human capital, raw material, and customers are already in their immediate environment, which reduces the carbon emissions of sourcing materials from far-flung places around the globe.

            Ogra explained that carbon emissions are unlikely to be the most salient topic of conversation with these artisans due to the very different definitions of sustainability in the global East and West. In the West, for example, sustainability generally takes on a more environmental focus and emphasizes the importance of climate change. In the East, however, a lot of people don’t have the financial means to debate whether or not they can be sustainable, especially when they are trying to get food on the table. On top of the disparities in sustainability definitions, climate change is impacting the East far more significantly than the West.

            One of Ogra’s main missions is to bridge the definitions of sustainability in different parts of the world. At Rural Handmade, they are working to combat these inequities by giving artisans opportunities and empowering them to build skills. Once they are connected to the global market and have more consistent revenue, Rural Handmade then starts to work with rural artisans on more environmentally focused sustainability goals. That way, Rural Handmade is uplifting and addressing both perspectives on sustainability.

            As a B2B company, Rural Handmade also supports its clients in strengthening the sustainability of their products. First, small companies give Rural Handmade an idea of the sort of impact they want to create, such as empowering female entrepreneurs, purchasing carbon-neutral products, etc. Then, Rural Handmade will match that demand to its supply using a recommendation model on its website. In fact, Rural Handmade is focusing on addressing 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Using the SDG section of the Rural Handmade website, these small companies can choose any of the 11 SDGs and source products from rural artisans that are supporting that specific goal.

            If a client is interested in buying a carbon-neutral product, Rural Handmade makes sure it’s done. They have partnerships with third-party companies for tree planting, solar investments, and more to ensure the transaction is carbon neutral. They even have lots of resources on their website including a carbon footprint calculation worksheet for producers to know how much carbon is created throughout their supply chain.

Creating a Global Network

Even with all of the strides Rural Handmade has made in sustainability, Ogra has found that it can be challenging to measure impact and convince people on both sides that these partnerships have value. For example, purchasing companies can be skeptical about quality control, authenticity, and traceability. Similarly, it can be challenging to convince rural artisans to sell their products to other countries. However, Ogra said that technology has been the biggest help in overcoming these hurdles.

          Something Ogra quickly realized was that a majority of their suppliers love WhatsApp. So, he created a simple process that allows artisans to upload their products to the Rural Handmade website using WhatsApp Business API (application program interface).

          But that’s not the only way Rural Handmade has worked to create a global network. Although they are headquartered in London, they have teams in mainland Europe, India, and the Philippines and partners in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, and the US. While vetting is done through third-party companies, Rural Handmade has local quality inspectors in these areas that visit handmaking communities to match the expectations of clients, ensure fair wages are being paid, and more.

            By creating a global network, Rural Handmade demonstrates the value in its partnerships, as it connects people from across the globe through a shared passion for handmade goods.

Handmaking Solutions of Tomorrow

            Like all start-ups, Rural Handmade is constantly a work in progress, said Ogra. The Rural Handmade team is learning new things every day and always pushing forward. They plan to continue focusing on their KPIs and supply chain, as well as eventually raising venture capital money so they can reach their ultimate goal of “becoming the Alibaba for handmade goods.”

            Climate change is a global issue, yet it can be difficult for small business owners and even artisans to know how they can play a part in reducing its effects. Ogra is deeply invested in the value and impacts Rural Handmade is creating, as it presents a unique way for these stakeholders to make a difference. Further, Ogra acts as a reminder to us all of the importance of sustainable entrepreneurship in creating a better, more united world.

Check out handmade goods and B2B resources on Rural Handmade’s website:

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Liz Barteldt
Author: Liz Barteldt

Liz Barteldt is a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in Environmental Studies and pursuing a business minor. She is interested in private sector sustainability and as such, is Vice President at UNC Sustainable Business Club and works at Kenan-Flagler’s Ackerman Center for Excellence in Sustainability. Her favorite part of working at Heart of Waraba has been connecting with and learning from successful entrepreneurs about the logistics of making a business sustainable.

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