The slick website of Sabala handicrafts, offering chic ethnic cloths, jewellery and footwear at premium prices provides no clue about the humble beginnings and hard grind behind its current status.
Mallamma Yalawar, who founded Sabala, hails from a small village in Bijapur district. A girl child in a family of eleven children, born at a time when parents did not think it was important, or necessary, to educate their daughters, she worked on farms as a daily wage labourer and earned her school fees. She went on to do her BCom and also obtained a diploma in industrial relations and personnel management, while giving tuitions to fund her education.
She was only 24 years of age when she founded Sabala. She was helped by the NGO Oxfam to create awareness about women’s rights. She realised that empowering women is not possible if they are not financially stable. She got the women artisans at Sabala to choose an activity that could be done from home and was not dependent on the erratic availability of electricity. Traditional crafts and embroidery, which is taught and passed on from mother to daughters in tribal communities, was the answer.
After several rounds of training and effort, Sabala has started to make high-quality products suitable for the urban market. Today, its handicraft and products are sold in various parts of the country and it supplies to Fabindia and also exports to USA, Spain, Italy and France. In the initial days, Ms Yalawar tells us that Sabala hired designers from NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) and NID (National institute of Design) to design clothes and jewellery. Over time, Ms Yalawar herself learnt designing and, today, her daughter Tejashwini, who had done a course from NIFT, helps out. People also bring their own designs if they want customised items.
But sourcing raw materials and finding markets for Sabala’s products was a challenge, since Bijapur is not well-connected. That was a long time ago. Sabala, today, is a member of the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts and participates in national and international exhibitions and shows. The organisation is also a member of the World Fair Trade Organisation and Ms Yalawar is vice-president of the Asia Board.
There was the issue of finance. Initially, when women formed SHGs (self-help groups), banks denied loans to these women. Ms Yalawar was involved in setting up Chaitanya Mahali Sahakari Bank Ltd at Bijapur. It is a cooperative bank which started with 1,520 women members and a capital of Rs23.6 lakh. Ms Yalawar says, “Personally, I have not invested my personal money in this Bank, but I have invested my time, energy and commitment to set it up.” The Bank now has 8,000 women members, Rs48 crore in deposits and Rs1.98 crore as share capital; but, as she correctly says, those funds are not available for Sabala’s initiatives.
So what is next on Ms Yalawar’s agenda? Apparently plenty; both on the personal front as well as for Sabala. She plans to expand Sabala’s area of operations to the neighbouring district of Bagalkot. The goal is also to educate and organise women in the unorganised sector to develop a focus on sustainable development. She takes pride in Sabala’s ability to transform the lives of women like Boramma, who was married off at 14 but lost her husband and a little child within two years of marriage. She learnt embroidery and tailoring at Sabala and is an independent woman today. There are many others whose lives have been transformed because of Sabala’s contribution.
Ms Yalawar is now working at promoting craft tourism around Bijapur which has many famous historical monuments including the Gol Gumbuz and a strong Lambani tribal base with their rich embroidery and dances.
Interestingly, Sabala is self-sustaining enough not to have a donation request on its website. Ms Yalawar says that the organisation already has a tax exemption on foreign donations under the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) and is in the process seeking a tax exemption under 80-G of Income Tax Act mainly for support received under corporate social responsibility (CSR) schemes.
Samatha Building, Keertinagar,
B Bagewadi Road, Bijapur - 586 101
Telephone: 91 - 08352 - 278204
Fax: 91 - 08352 - 278890
Mobile: 91 9448118204