E.Paalaguttapalle, a hamlet with about 60 families of landless farm workers, can’t be found on Google Maps even after zooming into its nearest village, Pakala, in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district. But the women of the Dalitwada, who faced extreme poverty after the drought in parts of Rayalseema from 2010-15, are now flooded with orders for their cloth bags.
Self-managing an informal enterprise, aided by the attractive social media posts of their supporters, the women have won over faraway buyers with their innovation, quality and efficiency.
A stitch in time
It all began with a lucky conversation. Aparna Krishnan, a former software engineer from Chennai, who moved to Paalaguttapalle to become an organic farmer, was asked by one of her dealers if she knew someone who could supply cotton bags to Hyderabad. Ms. Krishnan contacted N. Annapurna, who did tailoring jobs to support her family, and gave her ₹ 1,000 to buy cloth.
Once the bags were done, she had them delivered to Hyderabad. Ms. Annapurna earned ₹ 1,000 for the order. Soon, more orders arrived, and the team grew to ten. With no skills other than farm work and cattle-rearing, the women quickly learnt screen-printing and embroidery, and adapted kolam patterns to expand their range of designs.
Ms. Krishnan helped the group with the initial finance, sourcing material, and marketing via the Paalaguttapalle Bags website and Facebook page. Everything else — maintaining inventory, purchasing and unloading material, packing and posting the bags in old rice sacks, apportioning work and sharing earnings — is done by the women themselves.
A bagful of luck
Their first big order arrived in 2017 — the women made 1,700 bags for the Organic World Congress in Noida and generated revenue of Rs 5 lakh. In February 2018, they turned a profit of Rs 25,000 at a handloom expo in Goa, which they attended unprepared with little stock. More recently, they dispatched a large consignment to an organic firm in the U.S. They have also taken orders from several engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu.
“We are able to earn a decent living now,” Ms. Annapurna says. Their hectic order schedule is met by roping in women from surrounding villages.
A room in Ms. Krishan’s home is the collective’s workshop and store; the women sew the bags in their homes on machines they have each saved money to buy. The Paalaguttapalle Bags’ customisable range now includes grocery bags, totes, conference bags featuring logos, tiffin carry bags for schoolchildren, jewellery pouches and fancy gift bags.
Ms. Annapurna says. “We want to make Paalaguttapalle Bags famous, for which we must make high-quality, good-looking bags. We are approaching banks for finance to buy more equipment.”
Their latest innovation is a strong, canvas vegetable bag with compartments to keep tomatoes, say, from being squished by heavier potatoes. Ms. Krishnan’s Facebook post on the bag has fetched an overwhelming response — it will take the women a couple of months to turn out orders for about 2,000 bags priced at ₹ 350 each.