By Wendy van Leeuwen
The Palmyrah tree is a common sight in the district of Mannar and further to the North of the island. For years, groups of entrepreneurial women have been creating colourful bags and baskets using Palmyrah tree leaves – approximately 1,5 leaves per average size bag, to be exact. Today their bags and baskets are being sold at the Good Market in Colombo – and every product sold empowers these inspiring women.
Two years ago, the Sri Lankan Nucleus Foundation was provided funding by USAID to run a 3-year programme focused on optimising micro-enterprise development, growing agricultural productivity and empowering entrepreneurs. Programme coordinator Noel now works with many entrepreneurial groups across the district, including the women creating the beautiful bags and baskets. It was Noel who took us, my colleague Sunil and I, around the district to meet them in person.
In May 2014, the Nucleus Foundation and the Good Market organised a trade fair in Colombo, the Northern Festival. The Foundation invited more than 200 entrepreneurs and producer groups from the Northern Province to promote their products, among these entrepreneurs were the bag-weaving women of Mannar. Following a successful day at the festival, and an inspiring conversation with the Good Market team, the women applied to become a Good Market vendor under the name of Natura.
Based on consumer feedback, Natura developed a great collection of bags and baskets, ranging from the popular Timing Bag – called so, because of the different times it takes to dye the different shades of colour – and smaller shopping bags, to woven bins and baskets, both small and large.
Each bag or basket sold at the Saturday Good Market contributes to generating a sustainable income for the women. To them, their business is about creating a better life for themselves and their families. The income generated by selling their products allows them to pay for school books for their children, medical bills, food, phone cards and sometimes, a little gift for themselves! One woman told us how happy she was that she could now watch her son study at home. Another woman excitedly shared she had been able to buy a ring for herself. It’s inspiring to see these women coming together each afternoon, after completing their house chores, and spend hours weaving bags that they know genuinely improve their lives.
Running this enterprise comes with various challenges, one of them being inconsistent demand at the market. To develop more consistent demand, Natura is looking to develop a marketing approach and explore new sales channels. This is exactly what we, Sunil and I, have been helping out with over the last few weeks. We started by getting to know the business through conversations (with a translator), seeing it in action at the Saturday Good Market and visiting the hand-weaving women up in Mannar together with Noel of the Nucleus Foundation. We created an overview of which opportunities to pursue next and how. We helped to set up owned marketing channels and developed marketing materials such as promotional boards for the stall, flyers and tags for the bags – telling the story of how each bag sold helps to generate sustainable income for the women of Mannar.
To learn more about Natura, the entrepreneurial women behind this business and their latest designs, come by the Saturday Good Market when in Colombo, Sri Lanka, or keep an eye on the Good Market website and follow Natura on Facebook for any updates.
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