Khadi which played a vital role in providing the ultimate source of energy for the upliftment of the weakest and marginalized sections of India is the thread of emotions even today. During 1918 Mahatma Gandhi put the spotlight on Khadi and although handspun textiles are still available in some parts of India, with technological advancement we now have ‘solar-vastra’, by Greenwear who has positioned itself for.
The company is closely working with its community partner — ‘Bhartiya Harit Khadi Gramodaya Sansthan’ — an organization that implemented the pilot project for the Mission Solar Charkha, launched in June 2018, and the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC).
Abhishek Pathak, Founder and CEO, Greenwear Fashion Pvt. Ltd, who aspires to penetrate into new market segments talks to us about solar khadi and its contribution to the Khadi movement.
Q: Khadi Day pays homage to Mahatma Gandhi’s vision for the Khadi movement. How have Bapu’s ideals inspired you as an entrepreneur?
A: From a broader perspective, Khadi was a social venture designed to utilise India’s rural workforce and local resources — which soon became a symbol of liberation, not just from the exploitative colonialism, but also from the market-driven techno-capitalism. In Bapu’s own words, Khadi wasn’t a piece of cloth but an ideology. Bapu was against the de-humanizing aspect of machinery but he always encouraged technical interventions and was constantly looking for ways to make ‘charkha’ even better and more useful. Gandhiji offered his ashram as a place to implement various improvements in the charkhas and allied activities. The symbolic ‘Kisan Charkha’ or ‘Sudarshan Charkha’ was improved to ‘Peti Charkha’ (or Box Charkha) to achieve portability. Unfortunately, for so many years after independence, Khadi got trapped in its material format and could never live to fulfil its own ideological destination.
I got more inspired by the ‘concept of Khadi’ rather than the ‘brand Khadi’. Charkha, in Bapu’s vision, was a symbol of self-respect, self-reliance and economic self-sufficiency. While working to establish a Khadi institution back in 2016, I realized that in the current scenario, the vision of the Khadi movement cannot be achieved through the manual charkhas. However, with little technical intervention, Solar-Charkha (compact new model charkha/ring frame powered by solar) can definitely become a tool to improve the socio-economic structure of rural India. It was back then I started working to understand the Solar Charkha value chain and planning to establish a backward linkage through community engagement and capacity building.
Over time, Khadi got limited to be associated with a specific set of people and for the specific occasions rather than fabric for all times. I did not want that to be the case of ‘solar-vastra’. Hence, in 2019, Greenwear Fashion Pvt Ltd was established to provide forward linkages to the yarns homespun on solar charkhas by rural women. By that time, Mission Solar Charkha was launched by the Ministry of MSME based upon the successful pilot project implemented in the Nawada district of Bihar. I worked as Chief Executive Officer of implementing organization of the Mission Solar Charkha — Bhartiya Harit Khadi Gramodaya Sasthan.
Our focus since its inception revolved around creating livelihood opportunities for rural women and reducing carbon footprints from the fashion industry. Bapu’s Khadi believed in the localized and circular economy (LACE), and that’s what I also aspire to contribute to with my venture. We at Greenwear are always open to technical interventions and innovative processes as far as it is adding value to generating employment for marginalized communities and reducing pollution caused by the textile industry.
Q: With a wide range of fabrics available today, what is the appeal of Khadi which inclined you towards starting a venture around it?
A: More than fashion, it was the functional appeal of Khadi I got inclined towards. The breathability and absorbency due to anticlockwise-softly-twisted yarns, the comfort due to natural fibres, the uniqueness due to the handcrafted process and the feeling of authenticity fascinated me to the core. Being a textile designer, I think it comes by default to focus more on the fabric than fashion. Since my college days, I was super fascinated by traditional textiles and crafts but it was more towards its attention to details, intricacy and uniqueness. Later, when I started understanding Khadi as a product and process, I was amazed by its potential impact on both producers and the market.
Q: In what ways does your enterprise support and boost existing Khadi and village industries? What are the key challenges in terms of doing this that you have noticed and how did you overcome these challenges?
A: We are India’s first brand for ‘solar-vastra’. Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) recently formed a solar-vastra cell after the launch of Mission Solar Charkha by the Ministry of MSME. We procure cotton yarns homespun on solar charkhas through its close association with Bhartiya Harit Khadi Gramodaya Sansthan — a Khadi institution involved in solar charkha training and production. These yarns are then converted into fabrics on solar looms installed at traditional textile clusters e.g. Varanasi, Bijnor, Gaya and Bhagalpur. Since the production of yarn and fabric is decentralized, the biggest challenge is quality control. To this end, we need to put one supervisor on each set of 10 machines. The second challenge is maintaining the balance in the production value chain. Since the production of solar charkhas is much more than manual new model charkhas, we need to have improvements in solar looms as well which is still under process. The existing solar looms have limitations in production as well as quality. We also tried putting solar sets with power looms in order to utilize their strength, but still maintaining the speed remained a challenge. Over time, we realized that there must be a correlated value chain of spinning and weaving that doesn’t leave any yarn inventory behind. Greenwear is building a upmarket for solar-vastra in order to match the productivity of solar charkha yarns.
Q: What is the potential of Khadi in uplifting the rural economy and in enabling Atmanirbhar Bharat?
A: Khadi is one of the most powerful tools for uplifting the rural economy — if production and consumption both can be managed locally. To begin with, If only 5 per cent of Indian villages become solar charkha clusters (around 30,000), it can produce 180 crore kilogram of cotton yarn — which is nearly 50 per cent of India’s current cotton yarn capacity — and also generate livelihood for 1.2 crore rural Indians without migrating from their villages. But the sustainable impact will come with certain government-level interventions to provide a regular market for this much production. Many state governments provide free uniforms to their primary and senior secondary school-going students. Such procurements can be done locally by involving the solar-vastra value chain. This will further promote the use of Khadi among the masses and generate livelihood opportunities at the local level, thereby adding value to the vision of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.
Q: Tell us in detail about the unique Solar Charkha value chain model that Greenwear has introduced to promote Khadi? How many lives/livelihoods are you impacting to date and in which parts of the country?
A: Our head office is based in Lucknow and it is currently operating in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. At present, it is working with close association with Bhartiya Harit Khadi Gramodaya Sansthan (BHKGS) which has trained around 3500 rural women across the country in the skill of spinning yarns on ‘Solar Charkhas’. It provides training for 3 months and then facilitates these women with linking them with financial institutions so that they become owners of 10-spindle solar-run Charkha which is installed in their households. Hence, these women are able to work from their households while taking care of family and daily chores. A Solar Charkha with a 10-spindles capacity can produce 1 kg of cotton yarn in 8 hours. BHKGS provides raw material (Sliver) to these women and collects finished goods (yarn) while paying 200 Rs/kg into their bank accounts. Hence, each woman is empowered to earn Rs 6,000 per month. Since there is no drudgery in operating solar charkhas, one woman can easily run two machines simultaneously and earn up to Rs 12,000 while working from her household. The yarn collected by BHKGS is purchased by us after thorough quality checks and further work orders get assigned based on market forecasts and requirements.
Hereafter, we distribute these yarns to various traditional textile clusters e.g. Gaya, Bhagalpur, Varanasi and Bijnaur which gets converted into fabrics. We further encourages and facilitates existing power loom weavers to run their looms on solar power and in turn ensures regular workflow for solar looms. These fabrics are then marketed by us to various mainstream fashion brands and to its own retail outlets. If we take the example of shirting fabrics, 1 kg yarn is used to make around 8 metres of fabric and a solar loom can weave 24 meters of fabric in 8 hours. Hence, 3 solar charkhas can feed one solar loom in the textile value chain. Further, weaving consists of 5 processes that engage manpower at each level. Usually, an entire family of the weaver gets involved in various processes of converting solar yarns into solar vastra. For plain-woven fabric, the weaver earns Rs 25/metre and can earn up to Rs 18,000 per month.
At present 400 weavers are engaged in our eco-system — spread across 6 different clusters. At least 80 per cent of fabric gets sold as unprocessed fabric to well-established brands and the rest of the fabrics are used for value addition techniques such as dyeing, printing and embroidery. Greenwear is also exploring organic dyeing techniques and traditional crafts on its fabrics. It has two stitching units in Nawada (Bihar) and Lucknow (UP) — where 380 women artisans are engaged in garment construction processes. The entire value addition process is running on solar and hybrid renewable energy resources and are directly impacting rural and marginalized women artisans.
Q: Why and how is Greenwear supporting the Solar Charkha Mission of the Indian government?
Abhishek Pathak: The Solar Charkha Mission was launched by President of India in June 2018 and The Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) is implementing this program. The government of India accorded approval to set up 50 solar charkha clusters with a budget of Rs 550 crore for 2018-19 and 2019-20. The scheme is envisaged to generate direct employment of nearly one lakh persons in these 50 clusters. Currently, we are the only brand dedicated to developing the market for products made through the solar charkha value chain.
As mentioned earlier, we procure yarns from Bhartiya Harit Khadi Gramodaya Sansthan (BHKGS) and creates a further value chain of fabrics and garments. BHKGS has successfully run the pilot project for Solar Charkha Mission and now gearing up to provide knowledge support to 50 other solar charkha training-cum-production centres (TPC). These TPCs will strengthen backward linkage for us. Although the price of yarns procured from BHKGS is marginally higher than a mill-made yarns, but the quality of Khadi (S-twisted yarn which mills don’t produce) makes it exclusive and worth its cost. Also, the direct impact on rural women beneficiaries who are running solar charkhas at their households ensures authentic sourcing. The fabrics made of these yarns are then sold to the brand ‘W for Women’ without further processing — which generates 80 per cent of revenue for us as of now.
Q: What are your short-term and long-term growth plans in the times to come?
A: We have a mission to create 5,000 jobs for women in rural India by 2025. The jobholders we have engaged currently have valued the income and informed that the flexibility in working hours allows them to manage household obligations. Our observation indicates a reasonable likelihood that they were just above the extreme poverty line before getting engaged with solar charkha spinning and allied activities.
With the support of the Powering Livelihood programme — jointly run by Villgro Innovations Foundation and CEEW — We have been streamlining its business activities while sailing through the most stressful times of Covid-19. Further, Greenwear was also able to engage 240 women SHG members in mask manufacturing at household levels during the Covid lockdown period. The Powering Livelihoods programme helped Greenwear to onboard new institutional partners as well, thereby accelerating our future growth prospects.