Mekalamaradi bags hit the fashion streets in Europe


Jesuit NGO trains women in crafts, which has helped them build a life of confidence

Jesuit NGO trains women in crafts, which has helped them build a life of confidence

Just as the bus stops at the Mekalamaradi cross near Gokak at dawn, a group of women walk quickly towards a boardless building. It’s an old godown with a few working sheds.

As many as 40 women sit on the floor, cleaning pieces of jute, grass and cotton, boiling them to separate the fibres, weaving and knitting pieces and sewing them together. It was a few illiterate women from a remote village in the state who built an internationally renowned brand of women’s accessories.

Mitan brand

Bags and accessories made from natural materials, by some illiterate women in Mekalamaradi, end up on the shoulders of women in Europe. Bags made from jute, bamboo and grass fibres, sold under the Mitan brand, have followers in France, Italy and England. This is apart from the stable market they enjoy in India.

This, however, did not happen overnight. More than two decades ago, a group of women from the village of Mekalamaradi near Gokak came together to listen to a young Jesuit priest who was running skills training sessions for farmers.

It was Jose Chenakala from Jana Jagarana, one of the organizations run by the NGO Shramik Abhivruddhi Sangha, a unit of the Jesuits in Goa.

He had taken up residence in the village and trained farmers in watershed management and improved farming practices. Rev. Jose wanted to find a source of stable employment for poor women in the village. He got in touch with his friend NB Gopikrishna, an NGO mentor and handicraft promoter.

Mr. Gopikrishna, who had worked with tribal communities in the northeastern states, suggested that women make value-added products using locally available materials.

So began Mitan, in a vocational training center that was built with the support of Indian and external funding agencies.

“The first three years were difficult. After that, the women learned to process the fibers and make a variety of bags and accessories. They started making bags, hats, laundry baskets, belts and wallets. We were surprised by the new designs that the women in the village came up with, which the elite users in Europe found useful,” says Mr. Gopikrishna. He says the success of this group has led several groups to venture into the production of natural fiber accessories and fabrics.

Website launch

A few years ago, a friend of Mr. Gopikrishna helped the women launch their website, which has a catalog of their products and takes orders.

After leading the group for a few years, the Jesuits ensured that the women’s group managed its own affairs. Dastagir Jamadar, a young local with an entrepreneurial spirit, started managing the day-to-day affairs of the group. “They export bags and accessories worth around ₹1 lakh per month,” he said.

“No less than 42 women have a paid job in this company. They are members of various self-help groups and they regularly save money,” Mr. Jamadar informed.

The skills have been passed down from generation to generation. “I used to work here. Now my daughter-in-law comes to work,” said group member Akkamma Basavantappa. She pointed out that the new generation of women are using smart phones to publicize their products and expand their markets. Mitan has helped dozens of women send their children to school and dream of a better life.


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