How Giskaa is bringing you closer to the culture and crafts from the North-East

The online store brings India’s North East closer to the rest of the country by highlighting the distinct traditions and lifestyles of its people.



This section on Social Innovation is made possible with the support of Deshpande Foundation India.


Exotic, alluring, mystical – words that are appear in almost all descriptions of the North Eastern region of India. For Meghanath Singh and Surchand Wahengbam, both natives of Manipur, the journey of 6 months through the eight sister states was meant to lay the foundation of a business they were planning – one that, by putting it within easy reach of the rest of the country, hoped to illuminate some of what makes it an ‘enigma’.

Arriving in the monsoon season however, the duo found themselves put to the test. Says Singh, “On the Sikkim leg of our journey, the roads had given way due to a monsoon-triggered landslide. As we walked, for two hours through mud and fallen rock in pouring rain, with our suitcases on our heads, we experienced a small part of the challenges that residents there face almost daily and understood what has kept the North-East relatively inaccessible to most.”

The duo returned, and joined by Ratheesh Elayat, co-founded in 2014, Giskaa, India’s largest e-commerce platform for fashion and lifestyle products from the North Eastern states. Featuring unique handmade apparel, accessories, home decor, and ethnic food, the online store is also a great discovery platform for people looking for products from the region.

“Our tour of the North-East allowed us to meet with artisans in remote villages, government bodies, and businesses, and understand the challenges involved in logistics. It also raised our appreciation of the uniqueness of the culture and crafts of each region”, informs Singh. The name Giskaa (an acronym for the first letter of the capitals of the 8 states) was chosen to showcase the distinct character of each state while being one that all states could identify with.

Giskaa’s leadership team

The site offers products from across the 8 states, highlighting the particular artistic techniques and culinary traditions of each. So, while familiar pieces like the black pottery of Ukhrul, Angami embroidered shawls, and fine Assamese tea appear prominently, the site also features a range of wild rice varieties, a host of indigenous herbs and greens, and handmade personal care products.

Eco-friendly by nature

Given the abundance of natural resources in the region, most products from the North East are inherently eco-friendly. While the materials used vary from state to state and are closely linked to a state’s culture and history, they are almost always derived from the natural raw materials available in the region. For example, a popular item on Giskaa are the bags made of water reeds. “Water reeds thrive in the marshes of Manipur and weaving of the reeds into bags, stools, and prayer mats is a traditional cottage industry of the state, going back centuries”, says Singh.

Similarly, the region produces 60-70% of India’s bamboo, the fastest growing plant on earth. Bamboo, fashioned into furniture, accessories, clothing, and utensils is a sustainable, recyclable alternative to wood since it grows back in six months. Water hyacinth that clogs water bodies and chokes marine life was considered a menace until its utility was discovered.

Today, one of Giskaa’s fastest selling products are the water hyacinth handbags, picnic baskets, and accessories. In an effort to retain the eco-friendly nature of its products, Giskaa’s design team works with artisans to avoid even small additions like plastic buttons and zips. All products carry detailed descriptions of the materials and techniques used in their making, enabling consumers to make informed purchases and connect better with the product.

Bags

Bags made of water hyacinth and water reed.

Closing the loop on green products

“We started Giskaa with the intent of bringing the beauty of the North East closer to the rest of the country so that people could not just appreciate, but also own and use these products”, Singh explains. Giskaa’s products were largely positioned as ‘unique’ and ‘something new to be discovered’ but the team was pleasantly surprised when a large part of the traffic to their online store came from searches specifically for ‘eco-friendly’ products!

Says Singh, “Customers often did not know about the materials that the products they bought were made of, like water reeds or water hyacinth. But, they did their research and read our product stories to find out how biodegradable or safe they were. It was interesting that people were not just buying our products because they found them unique or exotic. They were sensible, well-thought-through purchases.”

Weavers weave water reeds into bags in Manipur.

Weavers weave water reeds into bags in Manipur.

Ensuring a fair value chain

Giskaa uses a network of local design experts and product specialists in each state who provide artisans professional design inputs to enhance the aesthetic value and utility of the products for a contemporary customer base. Most of the artisan communities Giskaa works with live in remote villages, often far removed from road, rail, and internet connectivity. Add to this the often precarious political scenario and frequent natural calamities that disrupt life in the region. So, having a trusted on-ground logistics network is key to understanding the artisans, delivering crucial design inputs to them on time, and gaining their confidence.

Having experienced the on-ground challenges first hand, they have also put in place an eco-system around the manufacture of these products to enable artisans to overcome difficulties of labour, capital, and logistics. “The artisans we work with form the backbone of Giskaa and ensure our success in the long term and it is essential that we deliver value and impact to them”, Singh emphasizes. The products, painstakingly created over months, do not have a local market and are often sold via middlemen at annual exhibitions and fairs in large cities. “Exploitation of artisans is common and there is no continuity of business, forcing many artisan communities to seek employment as cheap agricultural labour”, Singh tells me. Giskaa’s online platform guarantees artisans sustained business and timely upfront payment.

https://www.facebook.com/ExperienceNorthEast/photos/pb.589967377814010.-2207520000.1444993720./603328359811245/?type=3&theater

A Lungpi potter moulds a piece of black pottery in the Ukhrul district of Manipur.

In a market flooded with mass-produced, factory-made products, Giskaa stands out by being able to bring traditional, hand-crafted products to an audience that has never seen or experienced them before. It is an invaluable step in shedding light on the culture of the North Eastern region and giving consumers insight into the distinctiveness of each state and the lifestyle of its people. Moreover, with Sikkim leading the way in India’s organic and eco-tourism movement, and other states following suit, it is not long before the North East becomes a model of environment-friendly practices for the rest of India.

All images courtesy Giskaa.

The Social Innovation Sandbox is a series chronicling novel solutions across the country that are seeking to transform life quality for the millions at the base of the pyramid in India.

DF LOGO HIGH RESOLUTIONThe series is supported by the Deshpande Foundation India that is based out of Hubli and is building a nurturing ecosystem for entrepreneurship, innovation, and local, grassroots efforts so that young people can transform this growing country.

 


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