S2E10 - Konark Ogra of Rural Handmade - Connecting Global Artisans

Konark Ogra is the founder of Rural Handmade, an exciting company whose aim is to connect global artisanal market with the makers.

 Through supporting and empowering some of the world’s most skillful product makers, Rural Handmade ensure they receive the money they deserve for the products they design. 

Highlights:

  • Benefits of reducing the number of hands a product passes through before reaching the customer 
  • Using today’s technology and communication to make sustainability affordable 
  • Importance of educating product designers on consumer demand in a market they may not have experienced themselves 
  • Taking focus right back to the design stages, to design products people will keep for a lifetime, and thus, reduce waste 
  • How growing up in India inspired Rural Handmade 
  • Positive impact today’s technology has when working and communicating on a global scale 
  • Following a three-step process when sourcing new designers 
  • How dedication, attitude and application can influence change 
  • Konark’s advice to listeners when buying products to work towards a more sustainable world
Transcript

[0:08] Will: Welcome back to the Green Element Podcast, where we feature business leaders and innovators transforming their operations to be more environmentally, and socially sustainable. I’m your host, Will Richardson and I can’t wait to meet our guest today and help you on your journey of sustainability. Konark, welcome to the Green Element podcast, thank you so much for joining us today. We met a few weeks ago at a meeting and I think both of us realized that we’re in pretty similar spaces, while we were there, your company Rural Handmade, and you’re trying to bring the world together, the world’s artists and people together selling on a global level. So, it sounds really interesting and I can’t wait to hear more. So, please tell us a bit about the business and what it is that you do as a business.

[1:04] Konark: Yeah, of course, thank you very much Will, for having us on the podcast, you know, just basically helps us, you know, promote our business and also kind of make people aware of exactly what, you know, how could we make a very sustainable kind of a world. So, what Rural Handmade is basically a concept or it’s an idea, or it’s a business or you know, you can call it, whatever. But essentially, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to connect global consumer market with the makers. Now, these makers are basically people who actually are engaged full time or part time in the handmade space. So, these people make these random things. They’re very artistic, they’re very bright, brilliant products, except these people and their arts have two problems. Number one, they lack design excellence, which means they’ve been making these very nomadic style designs that did not have a global demand and number two is they lack the reach to the global consumer market. So, what we’re trying to do as a company is we’re trying to see how could we connect the huge demand for sustainable goods, which already exist to the makers who have been preaching and practicing sustainability for the last 4000 years.

 [2:14] Will: And how are you doing that? You’ve got a platform, haven’t you? 

[2:19] Konark: That is correct. So, the big problem we’re solving more from a consumer’s point of view is if you look at consumers right now, in the UK, in the Western European region, they all love sustainability. And I think, in fact, it was John Lewis report, which 74% of consumers are willing to know the supply chain, the ethical side of the business, and what are the practices like, the only problem being that sustainability right now, as we speak, is about 10 times more expensive, right? They’d obviously do not want to buy mass produce, but not many affordable options. And on the other hand, these makers, if you look at the supply chain has about seven, eight different layers. So, by the time you actually buy a product from a big retailer, it has exchanged hands seven times. 

[3:03] Konark: Now what this basically means is that if the maker was making this for like 10 pounds, the customer eventually is paying probably 200 to 250 pounds, which in 2019 is crazy, because, you know, there’s so many ways you can actually disintermediate the entire supply chain, and then effectively, you can actually democratize the revenue distribution of the whole process. So, this is what we are trying to solve and how can we, with the help of technology, with the help of communications, with the help of understanding what consumers are buying, help make sustainability affordable.

[3:37] Will: Forgive me but you went into quite a lot of business jargon, man. So, I’m going to try and disseminate what you’ve just said. And you’ve got someone say, in India, that is making a necklace, and you are in London, and you have a platform that be able to sell that person’s necklace, but aggregated across lots and lots and lots of people, and then you ship it to the UK, and then you send it out? 

[4:16] Konark: Absolutely. So, we do exactly the same thing, except we go a step further deep down and it says that we do not drop ship existing designs. So, we actually talked to businesses on the, who actually live in the market, like in the US and the UK and we help them realize their designs into products. One of the problems you’ve seen is that if you actually do not teach these makers, new designs, they will keep producing the designs that they already know, and they’ve already been making.

[4:45] Will: So, that person in India, the necklace, then you would help them redesign something that you know that would sell more?

[4:51] Konark: So, it’s basically going back to the design phase and to understand how can, we, actually convert ideas into products, with the help of these army of people who are already skilled and are in this handmade economy.

[5:03] Will: That’s so cool. Basically, you are helping them also sell more, and you’re building an economy and an area that may not necessarily have had a stronger economy because they don’t know the market that they want to sell to so well.

[5:21] Konark: Absolutely, it’s exactly this what it said, we should we try to empower the educate them to what the global consumer demands are like, and then hopefully, once they understand that, they already have skills to make the product, then they make the product. And then so everybody wins, it’s affordable now, the businesses who actually bought with us get really good price, the makers get a good employment opportunity. And about everything else, it’s the innovation transfer, which I think makes us a very unique company and not many companies actually do that. We generally want the makers to be a part of the market and to believe that they can actually ship directly to the consumers. 

[5:58] Will: Absolutely, it’s actually way more sustainable business more ways than one, I’m thinking more as environmental, but because you do see quite a lot of stuff that is being sold from different areas of the world that you buy, because you kind of oh, that’s nice, and then you just go actually, am I going to use it, am I not? And then you know, you don’t end up using it, you’re making more of a purpose, which makes it more environmental, because you’re actually getting things made for what people actually want, as well.

[6:33] Konark: 100%. In fact, actually on top of it, you know, it’s really funny, I say that to you, but handmade and sustainability, they go hand in hand. The reason is, I give a simple example, so, if you work, let’s say you pick up, so most of these communities or clusters, as we call them, they actually are based next tannery and please put together they need to do restores to source the raw material directly from the temporary. So, basically, as I was telling you that, you know, the handmade industry, just the nature of it is a very sustainable industry. If you go back to pre-Industrial Revolution, you think the most economies actually had a lot of, you know, indie genius, you know, kind of a production center, which is really unorganized, really handmade, you know, kind of. Now, imagine a case if you are actually a leather maker, you work with leather, you make bags and shoes, you are invariably based next to a tannery. So, you actually have you sitting in the in the heart of the resource of the raw material.

[7:33] Konark: On top of it, all of these makers actually work with really natural, organic and sustainable products, because there’s no plastic and once would process. And on top of it, what we’re trying to do as a business is, we’re trying to connect these different, different set of communities and kind of add numerate all the production that they do at individual basis to make shipping, kind of environmental friendly. So, we’re not doing a one to one, but we’re trying to do many to many. And I think just the promotable, this basically means that we’re trying to be as efficient and as environmentally friendly as some of these really big giants for probably, you know, 0.1% of the budget that these big companies have.

[8:16] Will: That’s a really interesting business model isn’t is it? It’s a wonder that no one has done it before, really. What drove you towards making this? I mean, did you have experience in this area or what drove you towards starting a business like this?

[8:32] Konark: Well it’s a good point, actually, so a half of the life I’ve actually lived in the developing world, so, I was born and raised in India, and then the nature of my job, I’ve traveled across the world. The core reason why we started this business is because when I was growing up in India, I could see a lot of these people who actually make handmade stuff are brilliant. I mean, they would probably, they would come from their small villages come to big cities, thinking that, you know, they will be able to make some money. But you know, these people are not businessmen. One of the problems they have is what I’ve seen is that they’re brilliant makers, absolutely mind-blowing production, except they haven’t maintained a lot of SOPs as a large company would maintain. 

[9:13] Will: What you mean by SOPs sorry?

[9:15] Konark: Well, SOPs means like standard operating procedures, like you know, how do we maintain the quality? How do we consistently keep innovating and matching the consumer needs? They have been very nomadic in their making styles and their designs and top of it, the wages probably were very, the rise was insignificant. And that was like, why is wage a problem? Because if you look at the global market, consumers want affordable, sustainable products, and they produce affordable, sustainable products, right? So, we realized that there was no reason why they can’t make more money. On top of it, we also realized that they can actually be a part of the market, the global consumer market. And so, the whole process of, if you look at the numbers, for example, the handmade industry is half a trillion. And people who actually make it probably get 1%, 2%, which is laughable, because you wouldn’t probably hear that in the West. And the whole business started off by how can we create a very symbiotic kind of relationship between the makers and the market? And so, when we did that, we kind of looked at that, you know, we can probably disrupt the second largest employer in the world, which is the handmade industry, it employs about close to 300 million people across the world, both directly and indirectly. And how can we then, you know, create this whole ecosystem of have a very sustainable trade a very sustainable business, in every possible sense that we are doing it right now?

[10:38] Will: Who did you set the business up with, is it just yourself or do you have a co-founder?

[10:44] Konark: Now we have actually a big team now, so we could have bought, it was me and is Renny, and who actually is London as well. So, the two of us in the UK, the nature of the dawn organized business, or the sector we work in, we have another sister company nice out of it, India, which manages Indian, in Bangladesh, as of now. And we have three people across the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, who are also working full time with us. And then we’ve got a bunch of interns, you know, we’ve got about seven interns in London, and got another seven to eight interns in India, the focus is obviously a lot on business development, how can we reach out to B2B businesses, you know, make them understand about what you’re trying to do and help them source better sustainably?

[11:27] Will: Okay and do you find that, I guess, coming from where you’ve got another team probably does help, because I was going to ask you, do you find it easy having such a global team, you know, working with people from different parts of the world? Is there a miscommunication or do you find it actually seamless? 

[11:48] Konark: No, I think on the contrary, I think we find it very seamless. I think one of the major advantages we have as we kind of live in 2019, communication has become extremely inexpensive now, as we speak. I mean, you know, we’ve got these micro examples or, you know, slack group or WhatsApp groups that we have to engage, and there’s literally no room for misinformation. If there’s any doubt, we talked to each other, you know, the design part takes, you know, what a couple of days to make, there’s a lot of interaction with designers and the team in India, get the right design for the customers. So, I think technology has really helped a seamless communication to take place in our kind of business. And it’s very essential, because, you know, we talked to a lot of people, it’s a very human intensive business. And because it’s a very human intensive business, communication is the premise of the success, basically.

[12:38] Will: And do you go out to source all of the goods yourselves or you do at the moment, and then over time, you’ll see a more people coming to you, how does that work? Because that’d be a cool job, having to travel around the world looking for stuff. 

[12:56] Konark: Every year, actually go to the Indian subcontinent we travel. But what we do is something really smart. So, a lot of these governments, some of the Government of India, Government of Bangladesh, they have a very, very strong database of their makers. And a big part of why they actually have this strong database is because it’s massively populated industry. So, we’ve got about millions and millions of people who are actually directly engaged in this industry. So, governments are actually very keen to do the welfare of these makers. So, we actually do it in a three-step process. So, we talked to the government’s and we try to reach out to the database that they have, with the help of the database, we know exactly, where are these communities located, and what are their capabilities? What do they specialize? And do they do? Do they do pottery? Do they do general Kota? Do they do leather, do they do an avoidant style, do they do metal style? Now, based on this interaction we have with the government, this is step two, we then extract the information that is actually is needed for us to be a successful business. And then we interact with a lot of these different, different communities. So, as we speak, we have about 65 communities, and about 3000 makers, under the ambit of order in the ecosystem of Rural Handmade.

[14:16] Will: Brilliant, okay. And from a sustainability point of view, it was a common theme in the conversation that we had when we first met, what drove you more towards sustainability and caring about the environment? What would you say your tipping point was, if there was one?

[14:32] Konark: Well, I think the tipping point to be honest with you is, it’s really funny, because as I said, I’ve actually lived in a developing world, and then also the developing, for an example of in the developing world, right now. I come from New Delhi, and in New Delhi, you actually have these huge dump yards right in the city, that actually the heights are probably like 40, 45 meters, and it’s a reservoir of garbage, which to be honest with you, it’s a dumb that you don’t want to get involved with because there’s, the contamination rates are probably like in the above 50%. And if you live in the West, obviously, all the dump that actually is, as a consumer we have goes back to the developing countries. But essentially, if you look at the material balance, there is a lot of this, you know, race that actually is staying on the earth, it’s not leaving the earth, it’s probably leaving your country, it’s not leaving the earth. So, if you understand this bigger picture of this, that this plastic is actually going somewhere, and that somewhere is actually a part of our community in our world, then he will start thinking and how do you fix it? And one of the ways you can fix it is actually then look at how do you do sustainable production. And then when you to start thinking about sustainable production, you start thinking about that handmade essentially, has been for centuries, and many thousands of years being the most simplistic way to make sustainable production. 

[15:57] Konark: So, it wasn’t really complicated actually, to come up with this business idea, and then say, how can we offer affordable, sustainable products for the end consumer? And if you see what the bigger picture is like, you would start thinking, you know that sustainability is a way forward. In addition to that, we as an organization firmly believe that after the fourth revolution is going to be IoT and driverless cars, and everybody will have a very comfortable life. The fifth revolution for us is going to be the creative revolution, in which human beings actually go back to what they were doing in the 15th century, the 16th century, the pre-Industrial Revolution, in which they would probably, you know, creating, and one of the things that they would do is probably create handmade stuff from their homes. And so, that is basically again, going back to the sustainability angle where they will be sick and tired of the wastage of the plastic, and then go back to sustainability. It is very similar to, you know, I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Wall-E, which kind of depicts, you know, of how the world would look like, if we do not change our consumers and our buying habits. 

[17:00] Will: No, I haven’t, sounds like I should though, honestly. So, that’s such a massive thing that you’re doing and it almost, it hit so many different parts of society and the way of doing business. And we talked about B Corp, and because that kind of way of doing business, and you very much work. Yeah, it’s actually on our radar, funnily enough, but the fact that you said that means that the whole way of doing you know where you’re working, is completely ethical, not taking advantage of anyone, and it’s such a refreshing way, and so refreshing to hear you talking about your business and how you’re impacting, you know, it makes me feel, oh, we’re greening up companies, great in the UK, but you’re changing the world and getting people empowered around the world.

[17:58] Konark: Well, one step at a time, I think it’s obviously, it’s a massive challenge, you know, working in an unorganized sector is obviously has its long issues. Plus, it’s also you, working in the developing world, the mindset is very different. You know, it’s funny enough, I mean, if you actually go to a small town and talk about environmental issues, I don’t think a lot of people will understand your language, because right now, they’re trying to actually beat poverty, they’re trying to be, you know, a part of the median income category, they’re trying to be a part of middle class category. So, it’s a big challenge and obviously, it’s a very intensive project. We’ll see how it goes but it’s definitely very challenging. 

[18:37] Will: Yeah, that’s, I can imagine you’re making it sound very easy. But yeah, I can imagine there are quite a lot of challenges. How do you think you can influence change?

[18:46] Konark: Influence change? Well, I think one of the few things that I’ve realized working on a startup is basically the continuous force of perseverance, the continuous force of application, the continuous force of, you know, the dedication and the attitude. And I think that probably is what drives us. You know, we believe, as we kind of get into, you know, this massive illness of plastic, you know, our kids are on street, talking about environment, and you know, how to save the planet. I think, the push is there, the timing is great, as well. And I think we, as an organization are trying to do the best we can to, you know, empower the people and then educate them on exactly what you know, the world is wanting, I think is basically this is what we’re trying to do. And then hopefully, you know, we will be able to gain some grounds on the success that we had want.

[19:41] Will: Brilliant, how do you think any of our listeners could get started and understand how to be more sustainable? What would you like them to do after this podcast?

[19:51] Konark: Well, you know, it’s funny, you say that to me, I think the best, a lot of consumers, when they go to the market, they go to the grocery store, they generally, you know, cater about just a few things, probably fair trade, is it ethically sourced, and I’ve heard this like a zillion times. You know, they need to actually do a lot more than that, because they need to understand, I mean, a certificate or a validation isn’t enough, you need to really dig deep into understanding what this company does, who are their board of directors, what do they actually are trying to do. And as a consumer, if you can make a more informed decision, by just going, maybe a couple of levels deep into a business, you would be able to get a complete picture of what they’re trying to do, and then probably make a purchase. And I know a lot of people are doing that but there’s still a lot of people who can actually, you know, make this such an informed decision. The second thing I can think of is, how can we buy less, and it’s really funny, I say that to you. But effectively, we can buy for a lifetime and if you can buy less, you as a consumer have already changed the world, in many ways.

[20:58] Konark: Because we know we live in this industrial, post Industrial Revolution where everything is just really easy. You buy and throw, you buy something from a local shop, for a couple of days and throw it, why do we need to do it? So, can we just ponder upon, is this buying decision impacting lives, is it changing the ocean, is it changing the landfills? If the answer is yes, then probably you shouldn’t be buying as much. And I think this is basically not just one consumer mindset, it’s actually it’s going to be a trade, it’s going to be something that it’s going to reflect on your family, from the family to the communities. And so, if you can actually buy in control, which is basically what sustainability means, and on top of that, keep validating and keep challenging, is this company, the right company? Is this organization, the right organization? I think the mix of these two, we can actually drastically reduce the consumption and make this world a much better world to live in. 

[21:55] Will: Brilliant, what an ending note and thank you so much for being on the podcast today. How can we learn more about your organization, Rural Handmade, and you as an individual? And where can we learn more about what is it that you do?

[22:10] Konark: Well, absolutely so if you actually drop us a line on www.ruralhandmade.com, there’s obviously a ton of information there. You can personally contact me at [email protected] that is [email protected] And I am now, live in London, I’m more than happy to speak to you in person, you know, just talk about different set of businesses trying to achieve the same goal which is you know how to make the world a sustainable world for living.

[22:42] Will: Brilliant, thank you very much. Thank you for being on podcast today. And yeah, I can’t wait to hear more about how this all develops 

[22:51] Konark: Well, thank you very much for having us, real pleasure to actually speak to you guys and to your audience. 

[22:58] Will: Thank you so much for listening to the end of this episode of the Green Element Podcast. Do take a moment and share this with your friends and colleagues and rate and review the podcast, wherever you get your podcasts. I’d love to know what your biggest takeaway from this conversation has been. What are you going to do differently? Please share your thoughts across social media and tag us so we can see them too @GE_podcast. For links and show notes for this episode, visit our website greenelement.co.uk/podcast. Thank you again. I hope you will join me on the next episode and together we can help create a better world 

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