It’s still early hours in the morning. Ashok Nagar – a crowded settlement made up largely of migrant families – in the western part of New Delhi is going about its daily routine. Men and women scurry to work in shared auto rickshaws, the shops are in business, and hawkers shout out for customers to buy from their carts stocked with everything from vegetables and fruits to clothes and daily-use trinkets.
Twenty-eight-year-old Shalu has already gotten to work at SEWA Ruaab’s third-floor workshop. A coarse cloth fitted with an embroidery ring drapes her lap and she’s busy adding patterns of sequins and threads inside the ring. “I am here early because since there is a lot of work. We have started getting a lot of orders after corona,” she says quietly
For SEWA Ruaab the pandemic provided a unique scenario – a chance to reinvent, breathe life into a struggling enterprise. Founded in 2010, Ruaab is rooted in the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). It started off in these very lanes of Ashok Nagar and other settlements in New Delhi. Initially looking to collectivise women so that they could access markets and source work from domestic and international brands. However, a few years later, the orders began to dry up and the enterprise despite its best efforts started to slow down.
Then, COVID-19 hit. Ruaab was in the midst of a rebrand when the pandemic brought the world to a standstill. For many, this would have a final death kneel. But the women of Ruaab chose otherwise. Along with a young, dynamic team of organisers and professionals, who bridge the gap between the workers and the market, the women home-based workers have been able to script a remarkable turnaround.
“There was no way I could have run the house without my earnings from SEWA Ruaab,” says Alpana. She sits in her one-room home, that’s part of a multi-storeyed building, just a couple of lanes behind the SEWA Ruaab production centre. Her son, Monty, is close-by attending classes online while Alapana, clad in a bright-red saree, a streak of vermillion in hair, works on sewing masks.
Her husband, she says, lost his job at the nearby Government-run childcare centre when the pandemic hit. But SEWA Ruaab kept the work coming. “COVID-19 was a setback because the products that we were selling at that point are non-essential. However, we chose to reimagine the supply chain and were quick to bring in orders for cotton masks,” says Anohita Sharma, CEO Ruaab.
Through the past year, the producer company has upskilled, with added support from HomeNet South Asia under the UNICEF-backed Sewing Strong initiative, its women producers to craft masks. These masks were then sold to local buyers, to medical suppliers, and artistic creations of the masks were also sold on Ruaab’s online platforms. By the end of March 2021, Ruaab has sold over 700,000 masks (and counting!) and were able to bring in a revenue of INR 1 crore – 80% of the revenue went to the women home-based worker producers.
Ruaab not just grew in revenue but in membership too. The producer company is now owned and operated by 200 women home-based workers from six regions of India, including, New Delhi, Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Bihar and West Bengal.
Ruaab is also so much more than a producer company. “It is a sisterhood,” says 23-year old Pinky Sharma. Sharma came to New Delhi from the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh about three years ago, after her marriage. Money was always tight and she had little to offer in terms of skills apart from the basic sewing her mother had taught her. One year in, Alpana, who is her neighbour, introduced her to SEWA Ruaab. She learnt new skills in embroidery and says every morning she is eager to step into the Centre to work since she meets, learns and shares from her fellow sisters in Ruaab.
Sharma’s sisterhood includes Reema Misra. When we meet Misra, she is working at the sewing machine in front of her one-room home. She is a SEWA Ruaab veteran and is part of the SEWA family since 2014. “When I joined SEWA, I couldn’t even open my mouth to speak,” she says with a smile while continuing use her hands and feet to work the sewing machine. “But look at me today, I am a Board Member at Ruaab.” Apart from continuing her work at SEWA, Misra is also an organiser and works continuously in the community of Ashok Nagar to empower women, ensuring they have a voice and a means to earn a livelihood.
Having seen success, Ruaab has now set its sights on newer horizons. “We have used this time well. We have upskilled the workers and have built inventory,” says Anohita Sharma. Through 2021, Ruaab has focussed on bringing out new collections especially during the festivals. The women were engaged in the making of rakhis, of festive traditional apparel and the weaving of sarees. For Diwali, they even did gift hampers, many of them selling out within days. And currently, Ruaab is showcasing Christmas Bazaar on its online shopping portal, selling themed decorations.
But the road isn’t without its challenges. Apart from its own website, Ruaab is selling on other Indian portals but cracking the digital market is not an easy task. Ruaab will also have to continually keep investing in skilling its workers, enabling them to participate in the market. Towards this, the producer company has already started holding workshops for its women home-based workers in Instagram marketing. Along with capturing the digital space, the producer company will have to also continue to capture the traditional markets – bringing in buyers and investors and even civil-society funding from across the globe.
However, Ruaab and its owner-producers remain resilient. In the coming year, the producer company is looking to expand, bringing in more clusters to establish an end-to-end supply chain involving women home-based artisans. “We will keep learning from everything that comes our way,” says Reema Misra, reiterating that Ruaab and its women home-based worker owners are indeed a resilient, unbreakable sisterhood.